By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Not all individuals are capable of the same level of moral reasoning. Some of the differences in reasoning ability are attributable to age; the more mature individuals are, the more likely they are to practice higher levels of moral development than children.
However, adulthood is no guarantee that an individual will achieve the most sophisticated levels of moral reasoning. Some of us, regrettably, will never get there, and this is a significant obstacle to any hope of real moral progress in institutions and societies.
Ethics scholars have propounded three basic levels of moral reasoning. In order of ascending sophistication, they are preconventional reasoning, conventional reasoning and principled reasoning.
Preconventional Level of Moral Reasoning Is the Most Primitive
The preconventional level of moral reasoning is the most primitive. At this level, choices are based only on personal consequences. In other words, these people generally make choices that earn rewards and refrain from choices that bring punishments.
Incidentally, preconventional reasoning is the level at which most non-human animals operate. Granted, it is not uncommon for some higher order mammals to act self-sacrificially in order to preserve their offspring. There have also been reports of pets putting themselves in harm’s way to protect their owners.
But these are limited examples. In most situations, animals are driven first and foremost by self-preservation and, second, by self-optimization.
Preconventional reasoning is also the first strategy learned in the sequence of human development. Children typically think about their own consequences when deciding upon behavior. If doing chores is rewarded with an allowance, and coloring on the walls will result in a spanking, children are likely to embrace the former and avoid the latter, all other things being equal.
Although the vast majority of humans graduate from this preconventional level, many adults still regularly make choices based predominantly on preconventional reasoning; that is to say, purely self-centered acts are frighteningly common. One need only look at how often drivers disrespect each other in traffic to see the abundant evidence of ubiquitous human selfishness.
Conventional Reasoning Is One Step Removed from Pure Selfishness
The second level of moral reasoning is conventional reasoning. One step removed from pure selfishness, the conventional level of reasoning looks not simply at personal consequences — although they are still a factor — but also at social expectations in a societal context.
Instances of conventional moral reasoning can be found in adults almost anywhere. For example, it is generally considered rude to cut in line before other people. So, although one’s assessment of personal consequences might suggest that cutting in line would help them reach a goal faster, most of us would decline to do so because we’d rather not face the scorn and social indignation that would accompany such an act.
Interestingly, this social pressure is more effective when standing in lines where we would be forced to confront those we offend face to face. We are generally much more willing to use preconventional reasoning and cut into traffic from the relative concealment of our vehicles, where no such intimate confrontation is required.
In a similar example, we know that ignoring speed limits would probably get us to our destination quicker, but then we must weigh that interest against several deterrents. One is the risk that we might cause an accident that could result in injuries and damages, to both to us and others involved. Another risk is that we might be caught by the police and punished with a traffic ticket; both of these are preconventional moral reasons.
But a third conventional level of reasoning is the social expectation from others on the road that we will drive safely and not put other drivers in danger with our behavior, notwithstanding the law. This conventional moral reason may be less persuasive than the other two because in traffic we needn’t look in the eye those we offend with our speeding. But regardless, the combination of potential consequences and social dissonance is what keeps us in conformance with the law, at least most of the time.
To be fair, one can make a valid argument that concern about social implications is just an individual’s assessment of a different kind of personal consequence. But this is tangential to the bigger point that, in a conventional reasoning context, these factors are held in higher priority than some others. Many, if not, most humans never ascend any higher on the ladder of reasoning development than conventional reasoning. Indeed, most people look to others in their lives — family, friends, and society in general — to set standards for their own conduct.
Principled Reasoning Depends on Objective Assessment of Right and Wrong
The final level of moral reasoning development is principled reasoning. Preconventional motives of personal consequences and conventional motives of societal conformance are never completely removed from moral assessments. But principled reasoning subordinates those elements to a more important virtue: an objective assessment of right and wrong.
In other words, individuals capable of principled reasoning are inclined to do the right thing in a given situation, notwithstanding personal consequences or the popularity of such actions in the eyes of others. The ability to reason at the principled level is unfortunately rare; our history would almost certainly be far less bloody and obscene if such abilities were common. A few demonstrative examples stand out.
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most obvious example of principled reasoning. Lincoln of course was responsible for ending slavery in the United States. At the time, however, that political position did not earn Lincoln much popularity or many friends. Lincoln fought cunningly — and, some would argue, a bit underhandedly — to garner the necessary support for the Emancipation Proclamation and later for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Moreover, as a man who had already been elected to the highest office in the land, Lincoln had little to gain personally from such moves.
Additionally, a majority of the nation’s legislature opposed the abolition of slavery, so the move was not in harmony with the zeitgeist of the time. Regardless, Lincoln was of such strong moral character that he found the idea of slavery to be fundamentally abhorrent regardless of its context, and he fought tirelessly for its defeat. Upon passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln ultimately gave in his life as an unexpected, but not altogether unimaginable cost of his furtherance of this freedom and equality for all.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another similar character in human history. Dr. King was a principled moral thinker who also made the ultimate sacrifice in furtherance of his reasoned assessment that racial segregation was wrong; that discrimination against anyone based on immutable characteristics offends the collective moral conscience of society. Just imagine what the world might be like if everyone were as morally sophisticated as Lincoln or Dr. King.
Moral reasoning requires a careful assessment of the circumstances of each unique situation as well as the stakes for all involved. In addition, moral development certainly requires time and experience. But if we embrace an introspective view and assess the motivations behind our own moral compasses, we might stand to make better decisions and lead more ethical lives.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.