Chim Việt Cành Nam [ Trở Về ] [ Trang Chủ ]
LETTER TO MOTHER
Compiled by Son Vi Nguyen, M.D.
I remember Wittgenstein saying that it is impossible to have propositions about ethics; thus, we must be silent about what really matters in human life and the only way we can speak about these topics is through the imprecise and emotive connotations of poetic metaphors. I really think that there is nothing more poetical than the moral development in me in its very first development inside you, amidst the fluid that was part of myself and indirectly of yourself. It was this warmth inside you, and all the emotions that you have about my growth that gave me the feeling of well being and the sense of good. It was then me, but also part of you, and really there was no difference between you and me. This wonderful symbiotic relation which made no distinction between me and the whole universe also gave me a sense of good. And if I can define development as changes of the structural laws of the organism, there must be an internal process that tends to bring me to a state of new equilibrium and stability. This equilibrium and constantly newly acquired stability made me feel secure and good.
And then came the day when you gave me the right to breathe my own air, to see with my own eyes and to feel the outer world with my own senses. My relation with you was still a symbiotic one in which you and me made two but at the same time was only one, and then I heard people starting to assess and comment about my development. I was there, this little creature experiencing changes every moment of my life, but in spite of these changes, of this development, I knew that I was a reality as any other reality in this life, but this reality has been" seen in so many ways, and assessed so differently by what is known as schools of thoughts - and their approaches of considering the moral development in me are so antagonistic that they appear to be irreconcilable.
First, there was this mechanistic concept about my moral development that made the ego in myself so uncomfortable that I would like to mention first in order to forget it as fast as I can.
There are these assumptions at the foundation of the mechanistic approach. First, that the human mind is like a tabula rasa, a blank page, infinitely malleable and open, whose only contribution to its own change lies in its state of readiness and receptivity. Second, that the human mind is affected by elementary sensations in such a way that its overall state could be described perfectly by the sum of the units of stimulations.
There is summation instead of structuralization. And finally, the mechanistic view postulates that the human mind changes in a more or less stable way by accumulating associations and systems of associations between elements. These associations take place under the influence of external conditions, the recurrent patterns, of events, reinforcements etc... The mechanistic mind, empty and receptive, is essentially passive. Like a camera, it imprints what is offered to its eye, and all that is offered is imprinted. And while the organism defines the environment, the environment defines the mind machine. Thus, understanding only means establishing casual connections: we know the mind when we know what produces it. The mechanistic view looks at development as a neat and continuous succession of changes, and as Berlyne (1965), and Mischel (1969) see it, although there could be associations and relations in the human mind, these relations just happen to be the way they are, like those existing between the stones of a heap. The mechanistic approach refuses to recognize anything special in development that would differentiate it from other changes. These changes in developmental process do differ from each other in duration, consistency, orderliness etc... but the differences depend simply on what is offered by the environment.
Completely opposite to the mechanistic view is the organismic approach of moral development which recognizes in the mind a more active role able to select the environment and interpret what is selected. The mind doesn't imprint things passively as a movie camera where the order of the structures is just a matter of continuous succession of changes received as they are. But as Piaget sees it, there is selectivity and flexilibility, namely articulation and accommodation, in a very structured way where development occurs as a series of upheavals and discontinuities. Here development takes place in synchronization with and closely related to the cognitive development. This development consists of structural changes, any new structure constitutes a break from the old one. This is not the result of addition or subtraction, but at any time there is establishment of new principles governing the relations among the parts. In the same time, the selectivity by which the organism functions and the tendency always to integrate the available material, guarantee a fundamental activity between the successive organizations of a developmental sequence.
You can imagine that I feel much more comfortable with this organismic approach to psychological development in general and to moral development in particular, because this approach recognizes the specificity and uniqueness of the individual and in the same time distinguishes the common ground that the human mind shares with one another.
Without excluding one another, many different organismic concepts of moral development have been proposed going from structuralism found in the French school represented by the anthropologist Levi Strauss, the philosopher-psychologist Foucault, the psychoanalyst Lacan and the philosopher Althusser, to cognitive developmental ism whose main proponents are Piaget, Wallon, Ball and Kohlbert or also to interpersonal psychology portrayed by Harry Stack Sullivan.
Having known with you the wonderful experience of the object relation that, as Erick Fromm in Escape from Freedom sees it, has come to free me from my environment and give me the feeling of security through the concept of object permanence. I feel myself cherishing Sullivan's interpersonal view about ego and moral development. Sullivan assessed that moral development in its first beginning can be seen in the infant's earliest self-concept which is split into three elements: The good-me is whatever leads to or is associated with mild or moderate anxiety and the not-me is associated with sudden access of overwhelming anxiety which cannot be integrated by the infant as a learning experience, the not-me is the equivalent of Freud's "traumatic events" which are subsequently repressed into the unconscious. The infant's first. experiences of good and bad are related to his own experience in the relations with his mother, as the infant distinguishes only good-mother from bad-mother, this . notion of good and bad can be considered as the first basis for moral development, because for the young infant all good ones are the same person, and all bad ones are the same person. As the child experiences feelings through his senses, he integrated the good-me and the bad-me into my body as opposed to the environment. Language helps from the personification of the good mother and bad mother into my mother who is no longer interchangeable with surrogates, the child begins to distinguish him from others and from the environment. He recognizes what is good or bad for himself, and what is good and bad in others. Getting out of his symbiotic growth with the earth, the child's interpersonal learning of this period is based on human models that Sullivan called dramatizations. His moral understanding and behavior is constructed by acting like, sounding like his parents. In this play, a lot of fantasy is involved; but as the child enters the juvenile era, there is an increasingly clear distinction between reality and fantasy by means of "consensual validations" by which Sullivan means the importance of others in consolidating one's perception of reality. As the child matures, the role of mother in moral development declines in favor of peers. Popularity and approval are motives with ostracism the corresponding sanctions. This juvenile era sees the favorable formation of an orientation in living that represents long term goals and values. Sullivan also discusses the consequences brought by the difficulties that the child experiences in his developmental process which is reflected in what Sullivan called "malevolent transformations". These malevolent transformations constitute or bring about a practical arrest of development, a concept very close to Freud's fixation theories.
Piaget had an important contribution to the study of moral development although most of his ideas about the subject were found directly in one volume called "The Moral Judgment of the Child". Many critics had been voiced against Piaget because of his lack of age related study and his little interest in individual differences as such.
In fact, Piaget explored the moral judgment of children by asking them what a lie is, and why it is bad; which of several misdemeanors is worst and why; which of several punishments is fairest and why, and where the rules of the game of marbles acquire the sanction.
Piaget sees moral judgment in terms of polarity with heteronomous morality at one extreme and autonomous morality at the other. However, there is also a prior stage called anomy.
From the beginning, the infant has no conception of rules, he simply follows his own wishes. As his motor development progresses, allowing him to have more control over his movements, he plays with toys such as marbles according to repetitive motor schemes, largely dictated by the nature of the materials. These motor schemes are the forerunners of rituals, thus of rules.
Imitation of the parents or older children takes place as the child grows a little older. In games, the child does not understand that the aim is to win, his point of view is egocentric, where everything is interpreted in terms of his own interest. Physical and moral laws are not differentiated. Things are as they should be and as powerful persons like father decree that they shall be. What is bad is what is punished. At first, punishment for misdeeds seems not so much exacted by individuals as immanent in things; later, it appears as arbitrary revenge, which gives way to the notion of expiation. Since the child does not see anything wrong about speaking his fantasies aloud, he cannot comprehend what a lie is, except that it is spoken and punished; hence a lie is at first just a "naughty word".
This heteronomous morality rises from unilateral respect of the child for his parents and is enforced by constraints. The child regards the rules of the game as sacred and given for all time or decreed by adults. A change of rules would be a transgression. The very exteriority of the rules, however, means that he does not obey them dependably. Responsibility for accidents and transgressions is "objective" that is, the greater the palpable damage, the greater the fault, regardless of interest. A big exaggeration is a worse lie than a little exaggeration, even though it deceives no one. Thus, what matters is not consequences but what is real to the child.
Piaget also used the term of "moral realism" to describe the thinking of this stage, meaning that morality is thought of as subsisting outside of and independently of the child's own mind. Its three features are that the good is defined entirely by obedience, that the letter rather than the spirit of the law must be observed, and that actions are evaluated not in terms of motives, but "objectively" in terms of exact conformity to rules. Here, the egocentrism implies a confusion of the subjective with the objective and the moral development proceeds by intellectual constraint by adults.
As the child grows older, he has more interaction with other children. The game of marbles is particularly valuable for judging the child's development, since boys of about twelve or thirteen years are the oldest players. By this game, one can recognize the development of the premises for social contract, the children understand that they can change rules by mutual consent, that the rules vary with time and place. There is from the mutual agreement an interiorization of the rules. Between children of the same age, there arises mutual respect, as opposed to unilateral respect, and thus, reciprocity and cooperation which are the essence of autonomous morality. The paradoxical result is that the child becomes dependably faithful to the rules when he no longer believes they are sacred and uninsurable.
At the stage of autonomous morality, the child believes in subjective responsibility, that is, the intent behind the transgression is what makes it reprehensible. A lie is wrong because it deceives, a mistake committed inadvertently is hardly reprehensible since it deceives no one. Retributive justice gives way to distributive justice. Punishment is not motivated by the need of expiation, rather, it restores reciprocity. Older children choose less harsh punishments than younger ones and opt for no punishment beyond disapproval or mere explanations of why something is wrong. It is interesting to observe the final stage of the game of marbles. Some of the oldest children, in their conception of distributive justice, go beyond equality to equity; that is, rather than treating everyone strictly the same, one should make allowances for special circumstances. Piaget believes that reciprocity, which is the basis for autonomous morality, is more compatible with equilibrium than is unilateral respect for authority, and it is the need to communicate which lends to formulation of reasons, thus, it is the moral and social mode which account for the child's intellectual advance. Piaget points out that the function of rules is about a year ahead of the consciousness of rules. From these concepts, it seems that Piaget wants to prove the moral superiority of children to adults. There is a lower kind of morality, heteronomy, based on the authority and constraint and higher kind of morality, autonomy, based on cooperation and reciprocity. Piaget considered that the inequality of a yes must give rise initially to heteronomous morality, but parents and teachers, by demanding obedience and conformity and sometimes even punishing cooperation between children, discourage normal progress toward autonomy which is the appropriate form of morality in adults in a democracy. Piaget wrote: "If one thinks of the systematic resistance offered by pupils to the authoritarian method, and the admirably ingenuity employed by children the world over to evade disciplinarian constraint, one cannot help regarding as defective a system, which allows so much effort to be wasted instead of using it in cooperation". Piaget also believes that even under the most benign regime, children will go through the heteronomous stage before achieving the autonomous one. Moral realism reflects the small child's intellectual realism, that is, his tendency to see things in concrete and simplified form.
It will be hard to deny the value of Piaget's contribution to the understanding of moral development in the child, but his views had been also subjected to discussions and critics because of some contradictions that these views contain in themselves, particularly with regard to the concept of Piaget assessing that these cognitive capacities of the child limit him at first to moral realism.
In fact, N.J. Bull objects to Piaget's view of heteronomy as a hindrance to development of autonomy. Bull believes that heteronomy is a necessary predecessor of autonomy. Bull insists that autonomy is grounded on heteronomy rather than on reciprocity.
Bull's methods of investigation do not differ very much from Piaget's. He divides moral development into four stages: Anomy, Heteronomy, Socionomy and Autonomy and there are types of people who remain at each stage into adult life, and each stage persists as a pattern of moral judgement .after it is outgrown, thus, Bull's conception is a true developmental characterology.
Secondary to Bull, Anomy is a premoral stage in which behavior is instinctive with pleasure and pains as sanctions. Bull refers to Kant to define heteronomy as morality imposed from outside and autonomy as morality freely accepted, thus arising within. Heteronomy develops to Socionomy. Socionomy is external, internal morality, it covers the era when moral judgments are shaped by relations with others especially peers. There is a beginning of a sense of obligations and responsibility. Self-respect and guilt begins to replace fear as a motive for moral conduct. Public opinion becomes an authority, dread of social isolation, sympathy and altruism become the main concern. This stage corresponds to Piaget's reciprocity.
During the last two decades, Kohlberg had a very precious contribution to the study of moral development. He was influenced by the ideas of Baldwin, McDougall and Mead and even Piaget whom he seems to be often critical. Kohlberg considers the child's moral judgments evolving as a function of cognitive and emotional restructuring in a foreordained sequence. Kohlberg's chief instrument has been incomplete stories presenting classical moral dilemmas. Kohlberg's emphasis about wrongness is slighted from the content of moral judgment to its form. What evolves and becomes increasingly moral with age is not the specific actions condemned or approved, but the child reasons, his structuring of the situations.
In designing his concepts about the stages of moral development, Kohlberg received a strong influence from McDougall who sketched the moral behavior as proceeding through the four following stages:
1. The stage of instructive behavior modified only by the influence of the pains and pleasures that are incidentally experienced in the course of instinctive activities.
2. The stage in which the operations of the instinctive impulses are modified by the influence of rewards and punishments administered more or less systematically by the social environment.
3. The stage in which conduct is controlled by the anticipation of social praise and blame.
4. The highest stage, in which conduct is regulated by an ideal of conduct that enables a man to act in the way that seems to him right regardless of the praise or blame of his immediate social environment.
Starting from McDougall's stages of moral development namely: 1/ the premoral level, 2/ the level of conventional role conformity, 3/ the level of self-accepted moral principles, Kohlberg discerns within each of these levels two types. These six types of moral orientation represent Kohlberg's stages of moral development.
*Type 1: Punishment and obedience orientation, there is no concept of duty or morality except in terms of concrete rules enforced by external constraints. Punishment is conceived as personal retaliations. People of high status or authority are not bound by rules. Authority is seen in terms of age, size and power. Respect for authority simply means obedience. There is no concern for the welfare of these beyond avoiding taboos acts. The value of human life may be confused with the value of physical possessions, or it may be based on status or physical attributes of the person.
*Type 2: Naive instrumental behavior, rules are followed in order to obtain rewards and favors. There is a beginning of reciprocity. Rights are based on ownership; there is no concern for how exercise of one's rights may interfere with rights of others. Punishment is not needed if physical restitution or other undoing has occurred.
*Type 3: Good-boy morality of maintaining good relations with and approval of others. There is a genuine sympathy and liking for others and concern for maintaining loyalty, deviations from rules are permitted for the sake of loyalty. Moral reciprocity is based on gratitude rather than a one-to-one exchange. Authorities are idealized.
*Type 4: Authority-maintaining morality - one conforms to avoid censure by authority and resultant guilt. The law demands invariant obedience because it is the basis of the social order which maintains distributive justice. Exceptions to moral and legal rules are not justified on the basis of status but may be justified by the situations. Punishment is seen as expiations, paying one's debt to society, it makes the culprit feels remorse. Persons at this level deny the possibility of moral conflict and do not feel responsible for the effects of their behavior beyond their defined role responsibilities. Life is seen as sacred in terms of its place in a categorical moral or religious order of rights and duties.
*Type 5: Morality of contract and democratically accepted laws, one conforms to maintain the respect of an impartial spectator judging in terms of the community welfare. Laws command obedience because. they are. the product of democratic process. Distributive justice is conceived in terms of equality of opportunity rather than of outcome. Respect for authority is based on the qualities necessary to be chosen rather than on status as such. Punishment serves rehabilitation, there are universal human rights.
*Type 6: Morality of individual principles of conscience, one conforms to avoid self condemnation. Duty is an inner compulsion of conscience. Moral principles are universal axioms from which concrete rules can be derived. Reciprocity is based not on contract, but on the need to maintain personal trust as a condition for an ideal society. The sacredness of human life represents a universal value of respect for the individual.
I am sitting here, in the dawn with its beauty and the hope that any beginning is bringing to man, writing to you about all the concepts of moral development that so many prominent authors have tried to shed light on in order to give man the hope that he is having a strong grip of the stone of wisdom. I want to be optimistic; the more man understands the principles of morality, the more secure the world we are living in is. But didn't you tell me also that the happiness of man lies not in the process of moral development, but on the end-product of this development, on how man understands and believes in the principles of Right and Wrong and is willing to live up to them.
But mother, don't you think that man has not thought enough about morality and the value of his conscience. And how about Immanuel Kant, Alexander Bain, Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, Dewey, Tuffs and many others more?! Are these names not enough to insure that man has in his possession the real "code of ethics" that lights his way up and bringing him to glory.
Glory! - Oh! forgive me mother; now I remember the way you looked at me when I was talking the other day about man's glory. I still hear your voice: "My son, man's glory is still an illusion, the advance in technology makes man too proud, and this is the sickness! Where man sees as his glory is only his morbid pride, his narcissistic pretension; that pretension which lessens man and denies him of his own value. Man will only find the way to glory the day he recognizes not only the value in him, but also the value in others, because let me tell you one thing my son, there is a rule of morality that makes morality truly ethical, that is consistency. Consistency which makes things in this world congruent, truthful and reliable. Consistency which denies the right of the deceitful and the hypocrite. Consistency which makes this world a better place to live because there will be more place for faith and love. And, yes my son, you still hear and see many contradictions in life. You hear the world over praising love; and yet, we are still living in a world of violence and hatred; you hear echoing everywhere the words of God that everyone is born equal, and yet in many parts of the world the belief is still kept alive that the value of a man is predetermined by the color of his skin and not by his intrinsic human nature. And in some other parts of the world, freedom is mentioned as a prime value and yet to preserve freedom they say that you have to surrender your own freedom. And you hear about fairness as being one of the value in a civilized society, and yet the law of the stronger is still the rule. Don't you tell me that I am teaching you the loser’s view and how to be a pessimist. No my son, I am just telling you about the reality of life, about not making a myth a reality. Morality is still a myth not because it has not been conceived, but just because man has not learnt how to help it through its difficult labor, so it has never been delivered. Morality is not a reality, but it does exist. It exists from the time the creature called Man began to be a fact of Nature, bringing with him the ultimate value of life. Its existence never came to reality just because man has failed to live up to his own value, that is why, as paradoxical as it may appears, morality is a myth in a reality and a reality in a myth! And one thing I want you to remember my son, is to never surrender your faith. Those who believe in happiness will have happiness, those who still believe in moral value, will never lose their own value."
Thank you mother for giving me hope in this life. Thank you for making me understand that all the contradictions and inconsistencies are facts of life, Sisyphean works which have their own value because they demonstrate that man still has energy to work for a change. Thank you! the many people who have so much toiled, suffered and even given their life to make our world a better place to be, to make this flame of hope still burning. Thank you for keeping this prophecy of William Faulkner alive that ultimately "not only man will survive, but he will prevail".
Fall, 1982, redacted Winter 2008
Dr. Son Vi Nguyen is
former Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at:
- The University of Texas School of Medicine at Houston
- Texas Tech University
- The Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine
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