The Age Of Reason: Childhood Development & Adult Spirituality

Tim is 7 years old.

Mommy – is Santa Claus really real?

Of course he is Tim, why?

Well… I was thinking. How does he get the gifts to all the children in the world on one night, and can reindeer really fly?

I don’t know Tim, Santa is magic.

I don’t believe in Santa anymore Mommy – I think you buy the gifts at the store and hide them in your closet!

Oh OK, you’re right my boy. You’re so smart. It’s just a story we tell to make you happy and excited because we love you.

Tim’s mother tells her husband, Michael about the conversation. This is his response:

Oh that’s such a shame, I wonder how we can help Tim to maintain that innocence, that sense of believing in something. Children are so naturally spiritual, you know? It’s such a pity that we grow up and lose all of that magic

Little Tim just started moving into an important stage of his own cognitive development. He is exploring cause and effect and asking questions that strengthen the uniquely human capacity that has created mathematics, science, technology, medicine, philosophy, indeed so much of what makes up our world —the capacity to reason.

But like his dad Michael, many people feel that in order to have a spiritual life we need to return to a time in our own development before we began to exercise our rational abilities. Spirituality is often associated with a sense of childlike wonder. Reason doesn’t allow us to believe unreasonable things and if we define spirituality as the ability to have faith in the seemingly impossible or un-provable, then it would appear that they have a point. But I think this definition misses something important.


Piaget and The Unfolding Mind

So, what might research from cognitive development, moral development and neuroscience have to tell us about spirituality? Turns out, quite a lot!

Let’s start with a golden oldie, Jean Piaget, and move on from there: Piaget’s research (beginning in the 1930’s) into child development is still the foundation of most introductory psychology courses – largely because it is based in deep and solid research and has been shown to be universally valid across cultures. Piaget discovered something essential about our human unfolding, something true for all people – a deep feature of what it means to be human.

What he found was that there were four broad stages that all human beings go through as our minds develop, or more precisely as our brains learn how to interact with the rest of our bodies and with the world around us. Everyone goes though these stages, and they build sequentially upon one-another from infancy to pre-school to childhood to adolescence.

Sensory-Motor: First our cognitive abilities develop to operate the physical body. We use the eyes, ears, nose, hands, mouth and skin to gather sensory information, use the brain to process that information, and use the nervous system and muscles to move around in and respond to our surrounding world. This stage takes us roughly from birth to 2 years old. Here Piaget says we “think by doing” and gain only physical knowledge.

Pre-Operational: Now we begin using images and words to think symbolically. The word “apple” represents a real apple, even if one is not physically present. Perception is still concrete and cannot yet be abstracted. We cannot yet hold or “conserve” information in a way that allows us to perform certain cognitive “operations.”

For example: the pre-operational child (ages 2 – 7) will not be able to recognize (see figure x) that two rows containing the same number of apples are equal even though one has been more widely spaced and so appears longer. They cannot grasp that a tall thin glass of equal volume holds the same amount of water as a short fat glass (see figure y) – even if you pour the water back and forth before their eyes! We are still learning to perceive multiple aspects of events and will likely fixate on only one, like the apparent size of the glass or the length of the line of apples. We are also more focused on static features of events than on transitions between states – like being able to “conserve” in our minds that the amount of water is the same even after it has transitioned to the short, fat or tall, thin glass.

Another interesting detail has to do with being able to organize classes or sets of things; children at this stage will at times see relationships where in actuality there is none, or fail to grasp existing relationships. For instance, a child might say, “If an apple is red, then a green fruit is not an apple.” Or they might say, “I am not from the USA, I am from Michigan!”

We come next to the stage in which Tim’s Santa Claus conversation arises:

Concrete Operations: In this stage (7 – 11 years) we are learning cause and effect, logic and deducing from internalized operational principles. Our symbolic thinking gets a little more complex. Our “conservation” ability allows us to perceive more accurately, for example that the amount of water is the same in the short fat glass as in the tall thin glass, as well as that the number of apples is still equal in the more and less widely spaced rows. We can also use our concrete operational ability to reverse problems, for example: 3+2=5 and 5-2=3.

This gives us more power and effectiveness, it allows our still quite basic ability to think abstractly to be useful in the world around us. Cognitive development is a process of effectively relating our inner and outer worlds in ways that become gradually more complex and layered.

To translate for the purposes of our boy Tim, once he internalizes certain logical principles about how the world around him works, he will begin to question whether Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny etc are “really” real. His cognitive abilities are gradually bringing him to a place where he has a more developed ability to interpret and engage with the real world, and the fantasy figures of last year no longer seem plausible. However, Tim cannot yet perform more abstract/symbolic cognitive operations of the kind that would enable algebra or interpreting poetic or mythic metaphors. That comes next!

Formal Operations: At around age 11 or 12 we start to learn how to think in more complex abstract ways. We can consider many possibilities, collect information, consider hypothetical problems and test hypotheses.

Example: If John is shorter than Peter, and John is taller than Mike, who is the tallest?

 We can recognize and identify problems, plan ahead and most importantly for the purposes of our discussion – we can think in more complex metaphorical, abstract, symbolic ways. This is the beginning of analysis, critical thinking and deduction, and also of the kind of cognition that generates the common adolescent fascination with art, poetry, or music, which are  all forms of complex abstract (and emotional) self-expression. We are not only learning to think, we are forming a sense of self and a relationship to the world and other people. We start to ask not only is it really real, but what does it mean? Who am I and do I want what “society” wants, and how do I understand the world around me in terms of the abstract principles at play? The arts reflect this interest back to us.

Interestingly, Piaget’s research showed that less than 40% of adults in industrialized societies succeed in stabilizing at formal operational thinking.

This may mean that more than 60% of Americans are not well-versed in thinking through hypothetical issues and cannot consistently interpret symbols and metaphors in a non-literal way. This is an interesting issue for us to consider later with regard to spirituality; where mythic images, archetypes and mystic poetry create such a rich vocabulary.


Microcosm and Macrocosm: Individual and Collective Unfolding

In a way Tim’s dad Michael is right, modern children do think spiritually in ways that are similar to early humans; they interpret reality through the lens of magical thinking and mythic causation. Tim’s mother might tell him she can see through walls, so he’d better not do anything naughty when she leaves the room, and before a certain age he would be somewhat convinced she could. A fairy comes at night to leave Tim coins in exchange for his baby teeth, a bogey-man beneath the bed will grab at his legs if he doesn’t jump onto the mattress from three feet away, a magical bunny leaves chocolate eggs hidden around the garden, and Santa comes in through the chimney to deliver Christmas gifts.

These imaginary figures are not so different from the supernatural beings that populated the early human spiritual landscape: a great bear spirit, a savior who is half bird and half snake, a monster at the bottom of the sea. But nowadays it’s just a stage in our individual development. A stage we move beyond when reason arrives, yet reason is not the de facto death of spirituality, it can rather serve to deepen and expand our sense of wonder, fascination with truth, and appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the natural world, the cosmos beyond and the inner space of consciousness, psyche, dream and meaning.

This is not to say that early humans didn’t reason, but rather that reason has come a long way since the Neanderthals, and even since the Copernicus and Galileo. So has spirituality. But myth and ritual do still have a place in today’s world, and certain aspects of pre-rational spiritual belief may have beneficial contemporary interpretations in an updated rational and trans-rational context.

The type of reasoning developed during concrete operations can allow us to make clear distinctions between the real world and the imaginary world. Failing this we never grow up out of a world populated by unicorns and bogey-men. The type of reasoning further developed during formal operations can allow us to more deeply appreciate and explore the meaning contained in the rich imaginary realm of symbol, metaphor and mythic archetype.

Without this ability we are left with two options: Either we never grow out of the need to believe that the products of our psycho-spiritual imagination are literally real, or we never grow beyond the impoverished perception that only the empirical, literal outer world has meaning and value. In both cases we miss out on the added layers of rich inner meaning that spiritual symbols, metaphors, archetypes and projections truly carry once we become fluent in their language.

We also miss out on reality itself —as in the case of both the severely mentally ill who are caught in a world of imaginary presences, disembodied voices and painful distortions of reality, as well as some religious zealots, who prize their literalized mythic symbols, personified deities and otherworldly realms above little details of reality like the precious lives of human beings and the tenuous existence of our world.

An important function of spirituality is to create a strongly integrated connection between the inner and outer worlds, between imagination and reality, between reason and feeling, logic and intuition, dreams and waking life. But to create the healthy, adult integration of these worlds, we first have to be clear about their delineations. These delineations do not destroy the life of the imagination, they allow it to grow and deepen and serve our real lives even more effectively.

There is something more deeply meaningful, more awakening of love and gratitude and therefore more spiritual about little Tim coming to the age-appropriate realization that his parents are behind the Santa story. While the not-literally-real magic of Santa Claus is relinquished, what is revealed is the real magic of love and generosity and parents creating joy for their children.

Of course we want Tim to still be open to his imagination, but his parents would no doubt be really worried about his ability to understand the difference between the imaginary and the real if he still believed in Santa at say nine or ten years old. Add a few more years and everyone would agree that there was a very serious problem with Tim’s development and perhaps with his mental health.

One of the central ideas in this book is that spirituality is an aspect (or line) of development that continues to evolve along with everything else – and that the common split between spirituality and rationality is an unnecessary and tragic mistake. A mistake that makes well-meaning people think that to be spiritual we need to regress into child-like magical thinking and literalized mythic beliefs and, conversely, that thinking like a reasonable adult gets in the way of being spiritual.

As an aside, I think there is a longing for childhood innocence may express a very important psychological need that we will discuss in chapter three. There is also an important distinction to make here between a) the important spiritual work of loosening the sometimes over-controlling and rigid defensive grip of the rational mind so as to develop and integrate our embodied awareness, intuition and emotional intelligence and b) the popular tendency to misinterpret pre-rational ideas and beliefs as defining spirituality precisely because they are at odds with reason.


A Deepening Inner Life

Now, what if soon after Tim has the Santa Claus conversation with his parents, he has a similar conversation about Jesus? In fact, if we think about it, applying his newly developed reasoning abilities to the problem of Santa Claus, his elves, magic reindeer-drawn sleigh and marathon journey around the world on Christmas Eve is not that different than applying them to the problem of a virgin birth, blood sacrifice for our sins and being risen from the dead.

It is likely that if Tim’s parents are American they would go along with the age-appropriate letting go of Santa, but ask that Tim have “faith” in the story of Jesus and continue to believe it’s literal interpretation. In some cases this would even of course be demanded with a little fire and brimstone warning of what might happen should Tim fail to believe with enough ardor.

I would like to propose something different. What if, secure in the knowledge that there is such a thing as adult spirituality, we supported Tim in his reasonable realization that the Jesus story, along with all other mythology, is not and cannot be literally true? We could then suggest that it is symbolic, metaphorical – a story people tell that has meaning beyond the literal. As Tim gets older and starts to be exposed to poetry, literature, cinema and other arts, he might consider world mythology a similarly worthwhile subject that tells us something about being human. His (formal operational) symbolic, metaphorical cognition will of course not be fully available for a few years to come, but we can lay the groundwork for it as he flexes his concrete operational muscles. Tim is making clear distinctions between his inner and outer worlds by asking what is “really” real. This will not only make him more effective in the outer world, but more healthy and integrated in his inner world – the domain of spirituality.

We could also gradually introduce him to actual self-development practices from any number of spiritual traditions or secular sources that would enable him to develop the essential aspects of his inner life; embodied awareness, concentration, critical thinking, compassion, psychological awareness, and insight in ways that nothing else can. These practices can over time also give any of us entry to the genuinely trans-rational modes of contemplative and meditative experience that lie at the heart of spiritual development. But those trans-rational stages sit squarely on the foundation of the rational development achieved in concrete and formal operational stages. It is that foundation of reason that allows us to keep making distinctions between the inner and outer, symbolic and literal domains – even as our development expands beyond the limitations of reason into profound contemplative mental states, embodied awareness and devotional emotive reveries.

Later on, Tim might still have a relationship with Jesus, but a grown-up one that has more spiritual depth than when he was a child – perhaps now seeing Jesus as a symbolic archetype that represents a valuable ongoing exploration of compassionate love and altruism. Were he to study myths from other traditions, he might even recognize Jesus as the culture-specific expression of an archetypal form that emerges in other cultures as Krishna, Dionysos, Buddha or Quetzalcoatl.

Tim’s spirituality will express itself differently at each stage of his unfolding. If we misguidedly insist that he exclude spirituality from his developing ability to reason, his spirituality will end up being stunted in it’s growth – and he will have to set up an artificial barrier between child-like spiritual beliefs and his developing adult capacities. This means too that spirituality is kept separate from psychology, philosophy, science, and many other areas of life that both enrich and are enriched by being in contact with a developing and robust spirituality.

Unfortunately this is more often the case than not – and this may be part of the spiritual sickness we see in the world right now expressed either as a nihilistic self-centeredness or righteous fundamentalist faith.


Personal and Collective Unfolding

So far we have been focusing on individual development, but cultures go through developmental stages as well – an observation made very astutely by philosopher Jean Gebser as well as social psychologist Clare Graves, whose work has been continued by his protégés Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics.

On a collective level, several cultures made a profound shift in their development around the mid 18th century that these theorists would call the transition from the mythic worldview to the rational worldview. So, not only do individuals go through stages of development, so do cultures – and if we believe the theory and research of Piaget, Kohlberg, Graves, Gebser and Wilber, those stages are deep and universal features of human personal and collective unfolding. This is a powerful realization. At each stage of development how we perceive reality – our worldview, goes through a profound transformation.

Spirituality as it manifests in the early stages of human development is a precursor to what we now understand as science and reason. In a way, myth and ritual were the science of ancient times; magical causation and invisible forces carried the weight of explaining our world. These magical explanations gradually evolved into traditional mythic religion, which held complete and often bloody dominance until what is called the rational enlightenment or “age of reason” of the mid-eighteenth century.

The period prior to the rational enlightenment was largely pre-rational and pre-scientific. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands were tortured and killed for “religious heresy.” Think of the persecution of Copernicus and Galileo for making groundbreaking and correct scientific observations that contradicted official church dogma about the nature of the universe.

In the pre-enlightenment era, government, science, and art were all tied to mythic literalist religion – and the church wielded complete and often corrupt power over these domains. Scientific progress, philosophical discourse, artistic expression and personal freedom were all rigidly controlled by the zealotry and whims of religious leaders. The great legacy of the Western world lies in our liberation from this tyranny – a tyranny that unfortunately still exists today in other parts of the planet, and still lurks threateningly close to the surface of American politics.

In our unconscious privilege and tendency to romanticize the past, many Americans tend to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, but these have not always existed. Since the eighteenth century, the growing ascendancy of science, reason and humanism has given Westerners more and more space to question religious dogma and set themselves free from the aspects of religion that were oppressive intellectually, politically, sexually and psychologically. This is a huge spiritual step forward in both knowledge and human freedom.

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, made possible the steps forward that led to Western democracy. It challenged and ultimately ended monarchy based on the “divine right of kings,” called for a separation of church and state, and demanded that science, philosophy and art be free to express and develop themselves without having to conform to religious dogma. This has made life as we know it today and the freedoms enjoyed by an unprecedented number of people on the planet possible. These freedoms are born of a fairly new spiritual intuition, one that says all people are equal and should not be oppressed by either religious or political power —in short, that human beings are themselves sacred.

I’ll say it again: that human beings are themselves sacred. It’s a very big and quite new idea. It still hasn’t completely caught on, and it is still prone to corruption and other forms of tyranny like greed, religious bigotry, power-hunger, colonial imperialism, sexism, homophobia and racism that exert their own contrary effects, but it does underlie the values we associate with modernity. Evolution is never a straight shot.

This momentous transition came at a price. The downside of the scientific revolution is an overvaluing of the exterior world that can be known empirically, and an undervaluing and sometimes even complete denial of the inner world, a domain that only affords itself to other modes of inquiry. These modes, specifically: philosophy, meditation (along with other spiritual practices) and psychology give us access to the interior world, and while they are not empirical, they still can be pursued with rigor, depth and substance. In short, they can be approached with a scientific attitude.

Another unfortunate aspect of this momentous leap forward has been that the overly zealous differentiation of science, art and reason from religion has also often meant the loss of spirituality, the loss of an ethical or moral sense in these domains and what Ken Wilber calls the “flat-landing” of reality into one-dimensional external reference points —in short we moderns have lost touch with our inner lives.

The loss of our bearings in the interior world is met with two common responses: we either deny its importance altogether (the narrow scientific position,) or – failing other options, we succumb to the strong romantic and regressive pull towards pre-rational spirituality. It is precisely this problem that leads to the common misperception that we have to regain a “lost spirituality” that lies in the pre-rational past of either our personal childhood or collective ancient roots, and that reason, science and all things Western are sound the death-knell of spirituality.

But evolution doesn’t go backwards – and life in the Drachenloch bear-cult caves and ancient Egyptian or Aztec cities was hardly a stroll through the fields of a magical reality of light and love, holding hands with the Gods and Goddesses of idealized ancient times. Human or animal sacrifice, rigid social rules and caste/gender roles enforced by brutal punishment, adolescent male, and sometimes female ritual circumcision, slavery, a life ruled by superstition, no concept of human rights or personal freedom, the list goes on.

Our reasoning ability exists on a continuum with the myth-making capacity we discussed earlier. Myths are ways of explaining what, at a given point in time, we cannot explain using reason. In fact mythmaking and ritual enactment are both imaginative extensions of early reasoning and precursors of science, they have their own intuitive rationale, as perhaps was evident in the timeline examples from Chapter One.

Reason and its offshoot, the scientific method, exist in an inseparable relationship to both our evolution and our spiritual lives. In collective human history and it’s individual expression via child development, two things inevitably happen over time as reason further develops into rational analysis and scientific method.

First, science and reason steadily expand the domain of what is explainable – and so literal magic and myth are less necessary in that particular regard.

Second, science and reason allow us to see the lack of correspondence between literalist magic and mythic beliefs and the real world.

Understandably, if we equate spirituality with literal magic and mythic beliefs, then these appear to erode spirituality itself. But our spiritual development can continue alongside science and reason, enabling us to see magic and mythic ideas as carrying symbolic rather than literal meaning, giving us metaphorical information from our inner world, while empirical science explores the outer world. This creates a deepening, multi-faceted relationship to reality.

What both the narrow scientific rationalists and the ardently spiritual true believers miss is that the spiritual dimension of who we are can and should also keep evolving. The struggle between modern reason and old world religion (myth taken as fact) is one not between relative ways of seeing today’s world, but between different stages of development. Likewise, the struggle between reason and the pop spirituality of magical thinking (like best-selling, Oprah-endorsed DVD and book The Secret) has to do with confusion about stages of development, as well as a confusion between inner and outer reality.

The key cognitive difference between literalist religious faith or magical-thinking and a modern integrated spirituality lies in whether or not one has developed the ability to relate to mythic symbols and metaphors from the formal operational stage.

If we are well-enough grounded in formal operations (as metaphorical thinking that opens us to an inner life), we can more effectively interpret the intuitive, imaginative states evoked by mythic symbols, mystic poetry and spiritual practices. We can therefore better integrate spiritual experiences of profound mental clarity, visionary insight, or rich devotional reverie.

This cognitive grounding enables us to hold the reality of what is and is not possible in the outer world while simultaneously exploring the meaningful domain of interior contemplative experience. We can maintain a reasonable attitude about inner-outer relationships that proceeds from a philosophical scientific method. Our minds can test hypotheses and include healthy critical thinking in how we interpret spiritual experiences.

Without this grounding in the combined abilities of concrete and formal operations, we interpret mystic poetry or mythic symbolism as referring to literal, outer reality. To maintain “faith” in that mistaken perception, we then have to create a regressive spirituality, woven from the same fabric that allowed us to think: Mommy can literally see through walls, fairies live at the bottom of the garden and intoning abracadabra will make us able to perform feats of magic. To keep this precious fabric intact, we then have to fragment our faith from its apparent enemy: reason, critical thinking and the scientific method.

A more integrated spirituality has its feet on the ground of well-integrated concrete and formal operations and it’s heart and mind embedded in actual spiritual practice. And, as we will explore, it is spiritual practice that even further develops not only cognitive and spiritual intelligence, but also the brain, nervous system and consciousness itself.

In the next chapter we will explore some of the psychological and evolutionary forces that compel us to equate literalist supernatural belief systems with spirituality. For now, the statement is this: without viable integrated alternatives, many of us will understandably choose a fragmented spirituality over no spirituality at all.


Cognition, Morality, Spirituality: The Developmental Braid

In a moment we’ll turn our attention to another developmental theorist, Lawrence Kohlberg. While Piaget looked at cognitive development, Kohlberg examined moral development. Let’s think in terms of broad stages of development that everyone goes through and, to borrow yet another idea from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, think about “lines” of development moving though those broad stages. We could postulate many lines: cognitive, moral, kinesthetic, creative, spiritual etc. (see fig 4) but for now I’d like to stick with three: cognitive (which we just looked at), moral (which we will look at next) and spiritual (which is the larger topic we are exploring).

These “lines” of development are in some ways self-contained, but in other ways have a kind of overlapping influence on one-another. For example, we cannot have a moral response to something we have not yet learned to make sense of cognitively. One can’t very well demand compassion from a two-year old – though some well-intentioned righteous parents may try. By the same token, the above cognitive research suggests that we cannot expect a child younger than 11 to think in terms of complex symbols or metaphors. There is a reason we don’t try and teach algebra or complex poetry to 8 year olds – but unfortunately we often do teach them complex religious symbols and associate a belief in their literal reality with some very powerful emotions around death, love and being a good person. So in terms of continuing to develop the spiritual line, cognitive and moral developmental unfolding seems highly pertinent.

Once a child reaches a certain age there are certain developmental norms that we expect to see in terms of their interactions with others (moral development) and ability to think (cognitive development.)

I want to propose that we consider spiritual development as having a significant stake in the development of both symbolic thinking (an aspect of formal operations, the stage at which Piaget said over 60% of the population do not stabilize) and empathy/compassion (an indicator of moral development) – therefore a moral and cognitive line synergy or overlapping development seems obvious in relationship to the spiritual line.

To illustrate this consider the notion of compassion. Compassion is rooted in empathy, or the ability to imagine what another person is feeling. Compassion is widely considered to be an essential aspect of spirituality, and it requires the cognitive ability to take the perspective of the other, to imagine how they feel.

At precisely the stage of development at which we begin to form a rational sense of self that perceives cause and effect and thinks logically, we also start to be able to take the perspective of others.

This is more from Piaget: Picture a 5 year-old child sitting across from you. You have a large plastic ball on the floor between you. The ball is half red and half blue. You turn the blue side toward her and ask:

What color do you see?


Then you turn the red side toward her.

What color do you see?


You turn the blue side back to her, and now of course the red side is facing toward you.

What color do you see?


What color do I see?


Unless she is a quite cognitively advanced child, it will not be until she enters Piaget’s concrete operational stage at around 6 or 7 that she will correctly deduce that when she sees the blue side of the ball, you are seeing the red side. Far from being the end of spirituality, concrete operations – the beginning of reason and logic, is actually also the beginning of being able to take the perspective of the other – a cognitive ability that underlies the moral or spiritual capacity for compassion.

Now let’s look at Kohlberg.

Suppose there is a new rare African disease, similar in it’s devastating effect to AIDS. A chemist doing research on AIDS has accidentally discovered a cure for this new disease. He lives in the same town as a woman who is near death from it. The drug is expensive to make, but the chemist is charging ten times what it cost. The sick woman’s husband, Matthew goes to everyone he knows to borrow money, but can only come up with half of what the chemist is asking. He begs the chemist to give it to him cheaper, or let him pay he rest later, but the chemist says “No, I discovered the cure and I am going to make money from it.” Desperate and frustrated, Matthew breaks into the chemist’s office to steal the drug for his wife. Should he have done that?

If we ask this questions like this of three groups – children, adolescents and adults, Kohlberg found that we predictably get a set of answers that define stages of development with regard to moral reasoning. The important thing though is that we also ask them “why?” – that we inquire into the reasoning behind the answer.

When we do so, children generally answer in two ways that go along these sorts of lines:

Matthew should not have stolen the drug because it’s against the law and he will be punished.

Matthew should steal the drug if he can get away with it, besides he asked first and his wife might return the favor someday.

Adolescents will generally answer in two ways that go along these sorts of lines:

His intentions were good in stealing the drug because he wants to save his wife. The judge would understand that the chemist was being selfish and unfair.

Matthew had good intentions but it is still wrong to steal and we can’t accept it, because then everyone would think it was ok to do whatever they wanted.

Most adults would also give a version of the second of the above two answers, but some would answer in two ways that go along these sorts of lines:

The man’s duty to save his wife is more important than legal concerns. Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it is wrong.

To really evaluate the morality of the situation, everyone in it has to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the other, to see from their perspective. If they all did this it would be agreed that the woman must be saved and that this is more important than money. The law in this case is not the point, it’s about what serves justice.

Lawrence Kohlberg used a famous dilemma like this called Heinz Steals the Drug. I have updated it for effect and summarized some of the findings of his well-known research into the developmental stages of moral reasoning.

Kohlberg identified six stages and organized them into three levels: Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional. Each level contains two stages.

As we can gather from the above examples, as each stage unfolds we look at ethical dilemmas through a different lens. We can describe these perspectives like this:


Stage One: How do I avoid punishment?

Stage Two: What’s in it for me?


Stage Three: How do I win approval?

Stage Four: What’s best for the society?

Post- Conventional

Stage Five: How shall we define our social agreements for the greatest good?

Stage Six: What are the principles that allow me to use my sense of conscience to impartially evaluate justice and fairness?


The Pre-Conventional Level is fundamentally egocentric and concerned with avoiding being punished by an all-powerful authority, or with figuring out how to achieve personal gain in a morally relativist self-interested exchange. Spiritually, we can imagine that these children might easily believe in an all-powerful parental god who either punishes or rewards our behavior based on unquestionable definitions of right and wrong. Of course we might then either conform out of fear or rebel and try to get away with it.

The Conventional Level is the one at which we see ourselves as members of a society and try to act accordingly. We do so either out of pressure to conform, or out of a sense of placing the needs of the society as a whole ahead of our own. Spiritually, this is the stage at which we identify with the social group, the church, and the nation, out of a sense of unquestioning duty to principles that are handed down from god via the social order. Wee might also rebel against a social order that we feel is out of step with what another authority – say our church or family, teaches us.

At the Post-Conventional Level we become concerned with underlying principles of justice and fairness. We ask whether the law is just and see that laws should change democratically over time to reflect the society’s needs. Spiritually, we are taking more ownership over our ability to think critically, to feel into a situation and practice moral reasoning in a nuanced way. Just as with Piaget’s formal operations, we are internalizing moral principles in a more developed, abstract way and are able to think about (or “operate on”) those principles for ourselves. It is not so much that we have rejected authority, but that we are more interested in what that authority is based on and whether or not it is valid.

Let’s add a little more detail now, as each level consist for Kohlberg of two stages:

At the Pre-Conventional Level’s Stage One children see morality as something outside of them – handed down by an authority that will punish them for being bad if they disobey. Matthew should not have stolen the drug because it’s against the law and he will be punished.

At Stage Two the child is beginning to see that there are different viewpoints, but is only interested in the perspectives of others to the extent that they might provide personal benefit. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Punishment is now simply a risk to be avoided in the cost/benefit analysis. Matthew should steal the drug if he can get away with it, besides he asked first and his wife might return the favor someday.

At the Conventional Level’s Stage Three adolescents base their moral reasoning on motivation and interpersonal feelings. Love, trust, concern for others are good motivations for behavior. His intentions were good in stealing the drug because he wants to save his wife. The judge would understand that the chemist was being selfish and unfair.

At Stage Four the adolescent and adult shift from being merely concerned with interpersonal relationships to include abstract notions about society as a whole. It is important to follow rules, obey laws and, respect authority and perform duties so that the order of the society is maintained for the good of all. This differs significantly from the Stage One position that it is simply wrong to steal in that at Stage Four there is a conceptual grasp of how laws function for society as a whole. Matthew had good intentions but it is still wrong to steal and we can’t accept it, because then everyone would think it was ok to do whatever they wanted.

At the Post-Conventional Level’s Stage Five adults and some adolescents may begin to ask, “What makes up a good society?” The emphasis on a smoothly run social order at Stage Four fails to recognize that a totalitarian society can function well organizationally and yet not be “good.” They begin to step back and look at all societies, including their own, evaluating whether or not existing societies measure up to pre-existing ideals. They are said to hold a “prior-to-society” perspective. Thus there should be democratic processes for changing unfair laws and improving society. Society should be a social contract, freely entered to work toward the benefit of all. The man’s duty to save his wife is more important than legal concerns. Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it is wrong.

In Kohlberg’s later work, Stage Six was taken off the evaluation forms, as he found it was exceptionally rare for any subjects to be consistently operating from this position.

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Matthew should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

Stage one (obedience): Matthew should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison, which will mean he is a bad person. Or: Mathew should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Matthew had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.

Stage two (self-interest): Matthew should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Matthew should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would probably languish over a jail cell more than his wife’s death.

Stage three (conformity): Matthew should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. Or: Matthew should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he tried to do everything he could without breaking the law – you cannot blame him.

Stage four (law-and-order): Matthew should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. Or: Matthew should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.

Stage five (human rights): Matthew should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. Or: Matthew should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.

Stage six (universal human ethics): Matthew should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Matthew should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

In America, many believe that without a literalist religious faith, morality is not possible. In other words, in order to be a moral person, one has to believe in the Biblical God of Abraham as both a punishing and benevolent force that has provided unerring moral principles in the form of the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses.

But as we can see above this combines pre-conventional and conventional moral reasoning as well as pre-operational and concrete operational thinking or cognition. So this particular idea of morality doesn’t exercise our human potential as (post-conventional and formal operational) adolescents, let alone adults! My answer to this would be that morality actually improves and deepens as we continue to develop beyond relying on literalist faith as its foundation. This does not mean that we abandon spiritual principles, rather that we trust in their ability to keep evolving.

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