The beliefs that help you decide are not easy to think about, but they matter a lot in our lives. Making some of us shifty and unreliable, while others become upright and admirable citizens. We learn them from the people around us while we’re growing up.
Starting with the family rules we all have to obey as toddlers.
The process occurs in stages, with a child thinking about moral dilemmas in terms of the latest stage they’ve reached, and unable to imagine anything more complex. No matter how much you explain things to them.
Tiny children in stage one live in a sort of pre-moral world, and see everything in terms of reward and punishment. Later on, in stage two, they think of right and wrong in terms of what satisfies their own wishes.
It’s only by stage three that they realise that acceptable behaviour means fitting in with others. Now they see right and wrong in terms of other people’s expectations, begin to understand trust and loyalty, and for the first time start to be concerned about someone else’s feelings.
Most young people have reached stage four by the age of sixteen, and begun to develop the idea that morality is determined by some form of authority. So they believe that being good is the same as obeying the law.
Around one in five 16-year-olds will have reached stage five. They begin to understand that their personal judgement might override the law in certain circumstances. So that something that’s legal may not be moral, or vice versa. Like apartheid, for example.
Now they see morality in terms of individual rights and democratically created laws. They still believe that laws must be obeyed, but start to understand that sometimes they may need to be changed.
Only a few of us ever reach stage six. Those who do, understand that our morality should be based on universal ethical principles. Like racial equality. And that individuals should stick to these principles even when laws violate them.
Thinking like that is what led to the abolition of slavery. And drove visionary leaders like Martin Luther King to protest against the laws of their time.
People only begun to think like this around 1700. Before that, no one questioned evils that had existed for millennia. Like absolute monarchs, constant warfare, slavery, religious violence and the persecution of minorities.
And such thinking is constantly under threat. Chiefly from politicians who talk up nationalism, and claim that society is collapsing under immigration, terrorism, moral decay or whatever.
And that only a strong leader can “make us great again,” or some such slogan. Using “national emergencies” to destroy hard won freedoms and increase their own power.
So we need to be forever on our guard. And to encourage our children’s moral development, rather than simply instructing them. So that they will become good citizens — and inspire leaders.