Moral development of politicians

gwbush“So, who do you like in the presidential election this year?” A coworker cornered me with that zinger last week. My friends and my family know what I think of the election this year, but a pointed question from someone who has only a common employer and professional courtesy in common with you is an invitation into a minefield.

Since I was asked at the school where I teach, I wanted to answer in terms of education. Everyone is familiar with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” a very detailed plan. Looking over at Senator Kerry’s plan on education, you see a mishmash of sound bites: Make sure schools get the funding they need…how much do they need? Doesn’t say. Make sure good teachers are in classrooms…don’t local schools have a better idea about who is effective in the classroom? No specifics. Keep schools open until 6:00 PM…after all, the more time kids spend away from their parents and in government-run education, the better, right?

I’m not a one-issue voter by any means, though. I wanted to answer the question across the board. I thought about what makes a good leader. What distinguishes good presidents from ineffective ones are the decisions they make. A good president must have a rock solid decision-making process. The more advanced, the better.

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the moral development of humans. Moral development is the framework that we use to make decisions of right and wrong. If we apply Kohlberg’s work to the two presidential candidates, we may find some interesting patterns.  

Briefly, here are the stages of moral development that humans pass through in sequence:

Stage 1 Something is good or bad based on physical punishment.
Stage 2 Right is whatever satisfies your needs. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Stage 3 Good behavior is whatever gains you the approval of others.
Stage 4 Right is doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order.
Stage 5 What’s right is defined by decision of conscience according to self-chosen ethical principles.
Stage 6 What’s right is defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of standards that have been agreed upon by the whole society. In contrast to Stage 4, laws are not frozen, they can be changed for the good of society.

Now, let’s examine some notable events in the public lives of these individuals.

Vietnam Era: Sidestepping the great controversy that’s been raised about the service of the candidates during the war (which has been clouded even more by news media fabrication), let’s take a look at something much better documented, what happened after the return. John Kerry jumped directly into the public spotlight, making a name for himself in the anti-war movement. He confessed to committing atrocities while in Vietnam, and he didn’t stop there. He accused his fellow soldiers of the same actions. He threw away his medals and marched in protest in our country under the enemy Viet Cong flag.

One could argue whether he had transcended to Level 5 after having developed his own (albeit misguided) ethical principles, but the truth of the matter is, in later years he backed off many of his charges against our soldiers who served in Vietnam, and in fact during this campaign, he has come full circle and used his service in Vietnam as a centerpiece for reinventing his image. So we’re left putting him at a weak Stage 3, changing his position to gain the approval of others. Latching on to the sentiment of the anti-war crowd, then switching sides as it became passé to bash our men in uniform.

Cold War: In the ’80’s, John Kerry continued his public life as a senator. Ronald Reagan was president at that time. Reagan recognized the Soviet Union had become an “evil empire” and he accomplished a bloodless victory in the Cold War by strengthening our military and initiating tough talks with the Soviets on bilateral arms reduction. Reagan clearly wasn’t operating to gain the world’s approval: Europeans hated us for our tough stand, much like they do now for our war on terrorism.

John Kerry was so upset about Reagan’s principled course that he spoke keynote at the parallel “Nuclear Freeze Summit” in Geneva, two months before Reagan and Gorbachev had the real thing. But Kerry wasn’t just for unilaterally freezing nuclear weapons. He voted against our buildup of conventional weapons in the ’80’s, including many systems we rely upon today.

History shows us Kerry was absolutely wrong on these issues, but at the time, there were a vocal few who stirred controversy. Once again, Kerry latched onto the side that would make him a leader, the liberal, news media, and “global test” interests, landing him in Stage 3. Actually, backing the side that would benefit yourself the most actually looks a lot like Stage 2 of Kohlberg’s theory.

George W. Bush came to public life soon after this, after a successful business career. I’ll finish by comparing the two men on a couple of issues that I believe are quite telling of their character and decision making process. The war on terror, and taxes.

Taxes are clear cut. George W. Bush’s position on them is simple and self consistent. Everyone should have lower taxes. People know better how to help the economy than government programs. And letting people keep money they have earned is the right thing to do. His beliefs have been backed up with across the board tax cuts that have helped all taxpayers.

Clearly, there exists something higher than the law and order mentality of Stage 4 in George W. Bush’s reasoning. He is defining his own values in terms of an ethical principle. You worked for your money, you have a right to keep more of it. Put him on Stage 5 or 6 here. John Kerry, on the other hand, has a “Robin Hood” approach to taxes, taking from the rich, giving to the poor. People are not treated equally under this approach, and it is not self-consistent. This populist mentality indicates he’s still stuck on Stage 3.

The war on terror is a little more complicated case. It looked as if John Kerry had finally graduated to a higher level of moral development, initially supporting President Bush in fighting the war over there rather than on our own soil. But now, even as evidence comes in that Saddam Hussein retained nuclear weapons scientists, that he and the UN conspired to play the oil for food program to bring in materials to manufacture weapons for terrorist activities, Kerry has had a “change of heart”. Even as we are uncovering plans on the ground over there that our intelligence community could never have found out about from afar (U.S. school floor plans, chilling after the terrorism in Russia), Kerry has “reconsidered”. John Kerry flip-flopped his way back to Stage 3 of moral development, opposing the war with fiery rhetoric. So close….

George W. Bush has been consistent on this issue, despite European and UN resistance. His decision making has been guided by his own ethical vision, which he freely admits are based upon Biblical principles of right and wrong. Once again, score him a 5 or a 6 on Kohlberg’s ethical development scale.

So, back to being cornered at school by a colleague. Did I go through this rather original critique of the candidates based on Kohlberg’s educational research? When one is cornered, and knows that escape is a short sound bite away, one will often opt for the sound bite. I said, “I like George W. Bush.  He’s a real leader.  Kerry seems to just be seeking validation.” And I was on my way again. I did miss out on getting a critique for my analysis, though. Perhaps a reader here will add a comment. And don’t forget to vote next week.

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