Human children quickly learn the first rules for moral behavior – to help and not hurt. Humans have evolved beyond other animals in extending the rules of morality to everyone, including strangers and enemies, but the advance of morality is slow and uneven. We citizens must insist that our leaders operate at the highest levels of moral development. At what level of moral development does our current President operate? Here is how morality develops with age.
The lowest level of moral development (ages 2 to 6) is authoritarian and emphasizes obedience and punishment. Children at this stage believe that relationships are controlled only with power. Behavior is impulsive, immediate, and emotional. Children do not recognize the consequences of their own actions or accept responsibility for them.
At age 6 or 7, children learn that others have different points of view from their own, but concern for others is limited to what benefits themselves. They define right as whatever benefits them and do to others whatever is done to them. Justice is limited to an eye for an eye.
At age 11 or 12, children adopt a law-and-order morality. Fairness means those who work hard are rewarded and underachievers deserve their fate. Wrongdoing requires punishment. A strong group identity and even a chauvinistic sense of group superiority and absolute rightness develops and is strongly defended. Groups are defined by gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and even a favorite sports team. Good is defined as what the group rewards and by laws and rules.
At about age 30, some people begin to understand that culture is a social construct and that laws and rules are social contracts and not rigid dictums. They develop a concern for equal justice for all people. They do not see group differences as threatening. They work to repeal or revise unjust laws.
Eventually a few people begin to promote universal principles of justice, love, and compassion. They become aware of the profound unity in the universe. They transcend group ethnocentrism. They reject retribution and revenge as neither just nor pragmatic because those reactions lead to an endless cycle of violence. They work to establish restorative justice – making the victim whole, rehabilitating the wrongdoer, and deterring future harmful acts. The seek to change unjust laws and recognize that principled, nonviolent civil disobedience is sometimes justified to avoid participating in injustice and to call injustice to public attention.
Our President and other political leaders at all levels of government undoubtedly operate at various levels of moral development at various times. Almost no one functions consistently at the highest level of principled leadership. What would happen if they did? Here are some examples:
* They would react to opposition or differences of opinion with empathy and strive for cooperation and harmony rather than react with denigration and bullying. Any action taken in hate or fear would be suspect.
* They would be honest and truthful and admit error when appropriate. They would avoid self-serving and aggrandizing superlatives – best, greatest, biggest, fantastic, terrific, tremendous, etc.
* They would have specific policy proposals rather than use generalities, platitudes and truisms.
* They would know that government is not inherently inferior to private enterprise but is simply a cooperative effort to pool and protect public resources and to achieve collective results not possible individually.
* They would know that government is necessary to protect citizens from the greed and profiteering of powerful corporations and individuals. Corporations would not have human rights, and money would not be considered speech.
* Taxes would be seen as a patriotic contribution to a joint resource to be optimized and used wisely. Income taxes would be levied in proportion to the income and to the benefitt derived from it.
* Capitalism would be understood to be a great economic system that must be tempered and regulated to control greed and the inherent imbalance of power it creates. Wealth would be distributed to all those who contribute to its creation and would recognize the essential contributions of those at all levels of the economic system. Honest, consistent labor would produce sufficient income to support independence of an individual. Labor would be considered just as important as capital.
* The “free market” would be recognized as amoral and would not be considered superior to other economic or political principles or considered a superior measure of success. Cooperation would be a higher ideal than competition.
* The right to vote is a bedrock of American democracy. Voting would be easily available to all legal citizens. Preventing the almost non-existent occurrences of voter fraud would be much less important than enabling eligible individuals to vote.
* Public education is essential to our democracy and would be improved rather than replaced by “alternative” private, religious, or charter schools at taxpayer expense. Children would be taught cooperation, compassion, concern for the natural world, and commitment to solving human problems and living a meaningful life. Education would prepare children to be active citizens and not just human capital in the labor market.
* Private, for-profit prisons would be eliminated, restorative justice would be the norm, the death penalty would be eliminated, and those wrongly convicted would be compensated. Prevention would be preferable to correction, and rehabilitation preferable to punishment. Juvenile offenders would not be treated as adults because that ignores what we know about brain development, disregards the possibility of rehabilitation, and substitutes revenge and punishment for compassion. We would use creative and reasonable sentencing alternatives that accomplish the goals of security, reconciliation, and rehabilitation.
* Science would determine policies and laws whenever relevant, including federal laws on marijuana and other drugs and climate change regulations.
* Every American would have adequate, affordable physical and mental health care as a basic human right that emphasizes prevention. Comprehensive sex education and affordable contraception would be readily available to all sexually mature individuals making unwanted pregnancies rare and abortion rare, safe and legal. Restricting health care options as a moral punishment would be illegal.
* Although science is not always correct, it is always self-correcting and is the best system we have for minimizing human errors in judgment. For the scientific process to be trustworthy, it would be independent of religious, political and business agendas.
* National security would rely more on generosity and compassion than on force and power. Our nation would use its resources to ensure the well-being of ourselves and everyone else on our planet. We have four powerful assets: economic, political, military, and the principles on which our country was founded. We would model and promote our principles, use diplomacy to foster international cooperation, economically support efforts that enhance the well-being of all humanity, and judiciously apply military force to defend the powerless and correct injustice, never to dominate or control. Our greatest influence would be to model our principles, not to enforce our might.
All of us need to hold our political leaders to the highest standards. Pay attention when you vote. Character is as important as policy positions.