Whenever I read discussions of moral development or research results on stages of moral judgment in the counseling literature, I feel like I’m reading the curriculum for a Sunday School or a Sabbath School or even an assignment for an elementary school class in moral development in a parochial school! Certainly, moral consciousness/judgment as well as morality itself are critical topics for counselors. Behaviors as well as thinking and feelings are affected by what an individual judges what they should or should not be doing—this is true both of our clients and ourselves as counselors. It is also an essential element in any religion.
Since I define religion as a way of creating, maintaining and restoring order in a community, by definition, all religions have directives about how members of that religion should behave. Much of the Torah (loosely translated as ‘law’) consists of laws and rules for conduct and what to do if they are broken. Most of the teachings of Jesus preserved by the early Christians are rules for behavior. Much of Paul’s letters contain how early Christians should conduct themselves. Likewise, the Koran; The Tao; et al.
By definition, religions offer ways one should and should not act and they must teach those ways to each new generation. The authority for those ways of living depends on each individual religion. For monotheistic religions, God is the one who gave the laws and requires their obedience. Other religions refer to other authoritative sources for their rules of behavior.
Since certain behaviors are required by any organization if it is to survive through time, all religions have some rules in common such as not killing, stealing, lying, loving each other, etc. Note that this does not necessarily mean there is one god but rather these behaviors are required for a community to exist. Just because all buildings have doors doesn’t mean they all have a common architect.
Back to moral judgment and morality in a counseling context. I discern 3 distinct topics here—actually, 3 different populations: 1. Morality in a religious context—i.e., the role of morality in a faith community; 2. Morality for counselors; 3. Morality for all human beings.
We as counselors should not assume to speak with the religious authority of any specific religious community. And we must be respectful the moral judgment of any client whose religion is an important part of their identity and life even if that religion permits, for example, polygamy or forbids sex. With cognitive-behavioral therapy, a therapist can all too easily inadvertently take on a moralistic authority which the counselor has no right to claim.
Secondly, we as a profession have agreed to follow a code of ethics. Ever since the school of Hippocrates formulated the ‘Hippocratic Oath’, around 400 B.C., health care providers have been aware of the necessity to act ‘ethically’. Since our goal is to help bring about and maintain health, we agree to follow a code of conduct which is coherent with our profession. Its ultimate authority is the healing and health of our clients and the integrity of our community as counselors.
The third population which we as counselors must be aware of is, of course, our clients and their moral thinking and actions, but including especially the affect that the moral judgments have on them. A lot of discussions and research on moral judgment appeal to the authority of some ‘natural’ processes for the development of a moral consciousness or moral judgment.
Such an exercise, I feel, tends to hypnotize all of us.
Just one example: Once I saw on TV, 6-7 well-dressed, highly educated, articulate ‘authorities’ sitting around a table discussing the pros and cons of ‘the death penalty.’ I wanted to shout at them ‘Don’t you realize what you are doing? You are discussing which prisoners you would agree to kill and which ones you would let live!’ I felt like I was back in the Middle Ages listening to the legal and moral scholars discussing what marks on a woman’s body indicated she had been invaded by the devil and therefore must be killed. These are not soldiers coming at you with a gun; they are helpless individuals kept (fed and clothed and kept warm and made friends with) in cages until we decide whether we should kill them or not! Of course, ‘the death penalty’ has always been a penalty looking for a crime whether that be ‘being possessed’, or ‘stealing the king’s apples’, or ‘being raped’, or ‘a black looking at a white woman’, or whatever is the latest ‘crime’ we want to kill people for.
It reminds me of that old story about the rich, old man who asked a pretty young woman if she would sleep with him that night for a million dollars. She said, ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘How about $100.’ She says, ‘What do you think I am.’ He replies, ‘We determined that with my first question. Now we are discussing the price.’
When I read much counseling literature on moral judgment or attempts at identifying stages in moral consciousness with some being ranked ‘higher’ than others, I ‘scream’ inside ‘Don’t you realize what you are doing?’ I don’t want us as counselors to inadvertently be a part of a charade through which our theories and actions inadvertently justify cruel and unhealthy behavior. I feel like Szasz might have felt when he wrote ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’. It is not only wrong; it is insidious.
Next week, I will blog further on Kohlberg’s theory and what I see as the moral taming of America and how we as counselors have a unique responsibility to wake ourselves up and challenge that for the health and well being of our clients.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.