The Epistle of Q — Chapter 105 (d)

AME (cont’d)

Friday was a fairly full day. It started with the Kohlberg Memorial Lecture which was delivered by Larry Walker of UBC (note: Lawrence Kohlberg was one of the original founders of AME and for the longest time his research into the stage of moral reasoning formed a focal point to each and every annual conference). And while I have known of Larry Walker for a long time I had never heard him speak. He had chosen the theme of The Character of Character. And while I do have some notes from this address there are a couple of pre-cautionary comments needed at the outset. I wish these learned people would realize that when they are talking about their passion, it is much more effective if they talk to us – don’t lecture and for judas’ sake don’t read. Moreover, if there are pictoral back-ups or other visual displays to support the conversation, make sure that there are no more than four lines at any time on the screen. If there are to be graphics, have them roll in and out of the picture so that the listener can focus on the key point that is clearly shown rather than require the audience to try to peer into a jumble of words, pictures and lines in a futile effort to understand the major aspects of the lecture/talk.

Larry believes society is facing a crisis of character. He raises a fundamental question: why did the rise of liberal democracies succomb to populistic tendencies? He then makes the case for Character. He believes that those who are moral exemplars help us to inform our moral ideals and thus expand the moral domain. These individuals who have higher standards provide ecological and fair validations for better choices and give an opportunity to counteract the amplified effects of extreme groups. He asserts a need for reverse engineering.

But then questions arise: are social activists moral exemplars? And who chooses exemplars? Who are the chosen exemplars? He had done his primary research in Canada by selecting those who had received Canada’s Sovereign Medals for Volunteers. And there was a review & control group (made me think I was peeking in on an episode of the television series Bull and hearing about his parallel jury selection process – but perhaps I digress!). The research asked whether character does exist and if so, what is the impact of context? Furthermore, does character influence moral choice/action? Certainly we know that moral cognition does not translate directly into moral action. Larry’s study did show a difference – moral character is important. Yet, is character causally operative? Is it a consequence or a cause? What about newfound self-perception – will this lead to distinctive character/behaviour? There seemed to be a need for transparency over opaqueness because at a deeper level character showed more.

Then Larry examined the Character of Moral Character. First of all, consider moral reasoning and epistemic development (meaning/taking). The higher stages, at least, do seem to lead to moral commitment (more than intuition). But it is important to be open to the ambiguity and complexity of multi-dimensional reality. Then consider early-life advantage and the relationship to commitment. The quality of attachments/helpers/sensitization to needs of others all must combine into what he calls scaffolding relationships that produces mindfulness of others! From this he went into a concept he labelled dispositional optimism which seems to focus on the affective tone of one’s life story (one needs to move from pessimistic to optimistic). This is somewhat of a redemptive concept which is found more in the exemplars: they frame life in aspects of hope and goodness which then instigates & sustains moral action. He then concluded by suggesting we need agentic & communal motivation – why do good? There is both agency (the self) and communion (the group): do we reconcile these competing values? He found that both scores were higher for the exemplars and the synergistic integration was also higher for exemplars. He also brought in the words instrumental & terminal as something that was looked at in a time study on important people but by this time I was thinking I really needed a good single malt even though it was barely 9:00 a.m. (although I realized that in PEI it was about 1:00 p.m. so it would be okay). I was awakened when I heard the word goal – all of this had led to the conclusion that we ought to promote a more civil & caring society! If only he had started with that premise and then talked to us about how his research demonstrates ways to achieve it. Larry is a bright and affable fellow. But if the questions from the academics in the crowd are any indication, on this day even they didn’t seem to have learned much about Kohlberg, or moral exemplars for that matter. Then again, it was early in the day and the waiters had forgotten to serve some good scotch (even mimosas would have helped…).

The next Symposium I attended was also conducted by UBC scholars (obviously the travel budget is more easily handled when a carload can drive 300 kms). The theme was Partisanship & Political Learning. This group actually is doing a form of applied ethics through the Institute for Future Legislators within the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs (although I am not sure they wouldn’t benefit from more learning in the area and perhaps a bit of training in moral reasoning). They showed some interesting introductory videos than got our attention and then they pointed out that recent research has discovered that political partisanship in Canada is higher in the elected than in the electors. Much of this is due to party discipline which in turn is regularly cited as something in need of significant reform. The only strange thing was that the group constantly referred to the attendees at their Institute as being progressive which then would be translated as being left-of-centre which did raise a question as to how they are recruited to attend. Later in the presentation during the report on the evaluation of the program most did self-identify as being significantly to the left as well as predominately Lower Mainland urbanites which does raise some concern as to the representativeness of the political spectrum present in any serious conversations that were held throughout the time at the Institute.

One interesting result of the course(s) at the Institute is that people did become quite tribal themselves often breaking into two factions – as it really is vs. as it ought to be. This required more reflective practice along with reflective dialogues and the opportunity for actual research. There was a question as to whether it is possible to moderate partisanship and enable people to learn to navigate & represent diversity? How can people learn the skills and knowledge necessary to be reflective practitioners in politics? As the examples of possible solutions were reported it seemed as if the recruits were almost all from political science background and none from business. This imbalance may well have skewed the conversations.

There was a fairly extensive evaluation of the process but many of the results were shown on screens that were too full of lines and graphs so that the information was undecipherable. The good thing however was that the presenters didn’t read their papers but rather talked about their experiences leading the Institute’s program. And they do seem open to suggestions for change. They did conduct reflective small group discussions at the end of each day/major session. Within the recorded comments there were interesting insights including discussing the need for compromise, consensus, leadership and stepping outside party politics. The screens were too complicated for a decent analysis of the educational processes they used although the model seem to be geared towards change: pre-contemplation –> contemplation –> preparation –> action. The suggested implications are that transactional learning occurred in both reflective practices as well as trans-disciplinary analyses and that the overall program evaluation was positive. Nevertheless the Institute needs to think about holding courses in other locales in the hinterland or else develop travel scholarships so people in the Interior and Island can also attend. There also needs to be a more concerted effort to ensure a wider diversity of individual backgrounds, political leanings and occupational groupings are present at the courses. It is something however I am going to discuss with our local media going forward to see if they can help raise awareness of the Institute and gain support to send younger leaders in the community to future sessions.

There was one more Symposium before lunch that attracted my attention: the Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg and it was led by four people I would characterize as colleagues although I am not on any of their Christmas card lists. The general takeaway for me: this was mostly a validation of what I still do – and that was as surprising as it was good to know!! A fifth long-time colleague (Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro) gave a great introduction (which reminds me, I really should ask for copies of the presenters reports/presentations). In a nutshell the summary in the program covers the overview:
The goal of this symposium is to look inward in order to look outward and beyond. The field of morality as a science has been to a large extent grounded in Lawrence Kohlberg’s thinking and research on moral reasoning development, its relation to moral action and the roles of moral personality and contexts and situations in moral decisions – in a surprisingly short career (1958-1987). Some of those who worked with Kohlberg will share how they and others have moved out and beyond Kohlberg, enlivening, sustaining, and growing our understanding and knowledge of morality as deeply pervasive, intimate, and inherently social. Those in the audience unfamiliar with Kohlberg’s thinking will benefit from historical, conceptual, and critical overviews, and everyone will benefit by engaging with the presenters on their leading-edge ideas.

Anne Colby led off with the rather blunt statement: thinking/moral understanding matters. She then went on to posit a corollary that moral understanding and emotion are inseparable. Therefore there is no sense asking whether its emotion or understanding that drive motivation and conduct. I found this interesting and since Anne has been doing research in this field for at least as long as I have, it gives me some comfort to know that I can continue to tell my students that if they get their reasoning correct, their emotional context will shortly be okay too.

John Gibbs was one of the brains behind the Scoring Manual. His presentation was somewhat muddled by screens that were convoluted so his concept of reconceptualization doubtless need more reflection. Basically he reminded us that Stages 1&2 are immature levels, while Stages 3&4 are mature levels. Again this reinforces the earlier research that had indicated to all of us that 80% of the adult population would be at either Stage 3 or 4. He did show a neat video that reminded us of how funny Lawrence could be.

Larry Walker returned for this symposium and was much more informal (and more understandable). He indicated that while Kohlberg was a model provider for his research he wasn’t sure about the Stages Theory. However not long into his research he became convinced of the veracity of Kohlberg’s work. As for gender bias in Kohlberg, once again I found additional validation, because in Walker’s research of over 10,000 individuals there was no significant differences between male and female, nor was there any real variation in the commitment to an ethic of care or ethic of justice. To him it was all fake news, there was never gendered moral-orientation (however the damage was done with the publishing of the book In Another Voice and it will take some time yet to get it fully corrected). [Note: in my work I have found some differences in vocational choice – different vocations seem to attract people of different moral reasoning stages – lawyers tend towards Stage Four, accountants towards Stage Five, Social Workers towards Stage Three.] In any event, Walker believes the real strength lies in the developmental mechanism of Kohlberg’s work (he even showed a parental styles diagram that was intriguing). His final comment was: don’t focus solely on moral reasoning – integrate moral cognition into the broader realm.

Clark Power wrapped up the gathering by recounting his own journey as a graduate student with Kohlberg at Harvard, how he came thinking that the revolution is moral or not at all and he was going to transform the world as we know it. He came to understand that moral education is a vital tool to build the beloved community. Furthermore for the moral educator it is necessary to approach this whole subject as a vocation!! One needs to move out of the academy and invite others to join – voices at the margins need to be heard. He feels it is ironic that the just communities that were launched out of Harvard’s School of Education didn’t catch on in a big way but Clark is convinced that sports can help save lives on the front end if they are properly used as vehicles to facilitate constructive moral development.

And with this it was time for a break…I was energized once again…