Me, us and all of us: moral development and politics |

Me, us and all of us: moral development and politics

In our increasingly diverse society, it’s important to appreciate our differences and at the same time search for underlying common ground. Though we each hold specific views and moral values, a wealth of research in developmental psychology and sociology confirms that the moral sense itself unfolds in at least three basic stages.

As infants we are completely focused around our own biological and emotional needs. This is the first, or Me stage of moral development. We do not care that mommy is busy or hasn’t slept for three days. We want food, we want that toy and we want them now. As we mature, we learn that there is more to this world than getting what we want from our parents, that other people have needs, feelings, and points of view. When we enter school and face the ever-widening world, we absorb the rules, roles and values of our society. Gradually, we become more capable of empathizing with those around us, learning how to “walk a mile in their shoes.” In this second stage of moral development, whom we include in our circle of care, concern and trust expands to from Me to Us – to our family, our friends, our immediate community, and perhaps to those who share our ethnic and national identity. From adolescence and into adulthood, we have the opportunity to enter the third stage, beyond the Me (the ego-centered) stage and Us (the society-centered) stage to the All of Us (the world-centered) stage.

With world-centered morality, we recognize the fundamental needs and rights of All of Us and are willing to extend our care, concern and trust to all people, everywhere, regardless of how unlike ourselves they appear to be. We also begin to examine whether our own cultural values and ways of doing things are always better than “theirs.”

Like all developmental stages, higher stages go beyond but include the lower stages. When we are world-centered, we still appreciate our national identity, we still value our ethnicity and we still take care of our personal needs. Few people, though, can maintain world-centered caring at all times. In practice, most of us slip backwards and forwards between the stages, with the bulk of our experience and behavior, our “center of gravity”, defining our particular stage.

America, like every society, is composed of individuals at different stages of moral development. While numbers of us are still at the Me stage, whose personal motto might be “I’m looking out for No. 1,” the bulk of our society is centered around various gradations of the Us stage. What is considered good and right is basically what we have learned from our parents, our peers, our culture, our religion. We feel comfortable with and care about the people we know or the people who share our class, race, ethnicity or nationality.

Since Sept 11, many of us have experienced a heightened sense of ourselves as Americans. Whether this resurgence of nationalism is a positive or negative force depends on what stage each of us was occupying before the event. For those of us who were absorbed in the details of our own lives and weren’t thinking much about our fellow Americans, then the tremendous upsurge of sympathy and support for the wounded and grieving is a positive expansion in the Us direction, as is our pride in the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rescue workers and other courageous citizens.

On the negative side, however, many of us have reacted to Sept. 11 by becoming defensively entrenched in the Us stage. In our outrage, fear and humiliation we have, understandably, oversimplified a complex situation, seeing Us as totally good and Them as totally evil. We revert to viewing foreigners as potential enemies to be treated with suspicion, fear and hatred, both beyond and within our own borders.

For those of us leaning toward the All of Us stage, the awful events of Sept. 11 have permitted us to empathize with the millions of people around the world who have faced similar levels of death, destruction and personal loss. The threat of escalating violence has urged us to search for a more honest answer to the question “why do they hate us so much?” than “because we’re so much better than them.” We are asking whether it is morally justified to pursue a military and foreign policy that is based overwhelmingly on America’s economic interest.

If we are at the Us stage of moral development, we believe that the power, prestige and economic and military strength of our nation is more important than the uncertain fate of millions of strangers elsewhere. This “my country, right or wrong” philosophy is neither new nor unreasonable. It has been practiced by early states and nations for millennia and is a necessary stage in personal and social development.

However, what makes America unique is that this country was founded on a set of ideas that belong to the third stage of moral development: freedom, justice and equal, inalienable rights for all. The endless streams of refugees from political and economic repression in foreign lands are an integral part our national character. In the transformative years since 1787, the “all” for whom Jefferson declared those rights and has gradually expanded in practice (albeit imperfectly) to include former slaves, women and children, and eventually, all members of American society.

The question we can ask ourselves now is whether the limit of our moral duty and of our ability to extend care, concern and trust will rest forever at our national boundary. According to developmental theory, each person and each society has the potential to evolve, to progress to higher and more inclusive stages, as our own history has already shown. If it has been possible to unite the diverse groups of Us in this county into a larger sense of ourselves as Americans, will it not one day be possible to unite All of Us, all the people of the Earth, within one concerned embrace?

Janine Rickard lives in North San Juan.

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