When psychology looks at morality, it enters the tenuous realm of philosophy on the one hand and religion on the other — plus sociology and conceivably other disciplines. The edges of morality are blurred, or rather the attempt to control or define morality to one circumscribed sphere escapes science and psychology.

This condundrum goes back to at least Aristotle, whose Nichomachean Ethics grapples with behavior and motive behind ethics or morality. Although much of the work dwells on happiness (eudemonia) or pleasure as a motive for moral behavior, the ultimate guarantor, he concludes, must be law:

And surely he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can become good. For to get any one whatever — any one who is put before us — into the right condition is not for the chance newcomer; if any one can do it, it is the man who knows, just as in medicine and all other matters which give scope for care and prudence.

The premise here is that institutions must regulate individuals into a consensus of behavior, but to call this morality is to identify morals as a common denominator of social order and control, what are better called “norms,” not morals. Nor can people be motivated by pleasure indefinitely. There being no trace of a supernatural element in Aristotle, the only recourse to motive when the carrot is consumed is the stick. This shell of ethics is the philosophical buttress of power and authority. Only the authorities “know,” says Aristotle. How this is true is not shown, only stated.

Thus, psychology’s interest in the nature of morality indirectly undermines power, which by now is shrouded in tradition and convention, and can use the perceived consensus of what is moral as a wedge between common people and their values on the one hand and getting at what is true on the other. This was Nietzsche’s great quest in pursuing the genealogy of morals. We see now that Aristotle’s deliverance of morals to the control of law and power played directly into the hands of authorities and control, for they monopolized morality and used it against common people’s aspiration for justice and equity. A challenge to authority became a challenge to morals. Dismissing the requirements of justice was easy to do by calling its advocates immoral, decadent, or libertine.

Only with the momentum of science and psychology has a mature concept of morality emerged. But even so it is limited to a chronology of consciousness in the average person. That, however, is sufficient, for psychology has (or ought to have) no pretense to moralizing, only to description. Despite the perennial charges that Freud (and psychology) was prescriptive, Freud himself revised the dominance of a pleasure principle into the recognition of a reality principle of stasis. Aristotle did no less, after all. But who can refrain from commenting on the ways of humanity?

The most popular configuration of morality by a modern psychologist is probably Lawrence Kohlberg’s celebrated stages.

Pre-conventional Morality Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation.
Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange.
Conventional Morality Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships.
Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order.
Post-conventional Morality Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights.
Stage 6. Universal Principles.

Kohlberg denied that the stages were dependent on age or maturation or even on moral thinking as opposed to action. But the configuration descends from Piaget and is neatly correlated with stages of development, at least the pre-conventional (childhood) and conventional (adolescent and beyond).

Thus pre-conventional morality easily corresponds to what children do. A child is moral because of the fear of punishment, and later because he or she gets something out of behaving well. But many adults remain at that stage, too. In conventional morality, the adolescent seeks social relationships, and peers define morality. Consensus as a social mechanism thus defines the social order, and is applying unreflectively to larger issues of order. Again, such is the behavior of most adults. Morality does not actually enter into social behavior for most people, only convention and the consensus. Adults transforms morality into a working notion of society — and stage 5. becomes the terminus of moral thinking for the average person.

But post-conventional stage 5 is also the highest form of state and authority-coordinated morals. The social contract assures that the individual maturation of the previous stages is consciously transferred, even renounced, to those in power. At this point, the instincts that linger in the psyche of the individual can be played out by authorities using the dispensation provided by the social contract. For example, war and aggression become moral if sanctioned at the fifth stage, but not when exercised at earlier stages by individuals — unless socially sanctioned.

This pragmatic notion of justice will be reminiscent of Aristotle’s, wherein justice and order are safeguarded not by a community in a natural cultural setting but by the state and its powers. Justice blurs with war, punishment, and vengeance. A story by Kahlil Gibran illustrates the absurdity of this notion.

One night a feast was held in the palace, and there came a man and prostrated himself before the prince, and all the feasters looked upon him; and they saw that one of his eyes was out and that the empty socket bled. And the prince inquired of him, “What has befallen you?” And the man replied, “O prince, I am by profession a thief, and this night, because there was no moon, I went to rob the money-changer’s shop, and as I climbed in through the window I made a mistake and entered the weaver’s shop, and in the dark I ran into the weaver’s loom and my eye was plucked out. And now, O prince, I ask for justice upon the weaver.”

Then the prince sent for the weaver and he came, and it was decreed that one of his eyes should be plucked out.

“O prince,” said the weaver, “the decree is just. It is right that one of my eyes be taken. And yet, alas! both are necessary to me in order that I may see the two sides of the cloth that I weave. But I have a neighbor, a cobbler, who has also two eyes, and in his trade both eyes are not necessary.”

Then the prince sent for the cobbler. And he came. And they took out one of the cobbler’s two eyes.

And justice was satisfied.

The story is aptly titled “War.” It could just as well have been title “Justice.”

Kohlberg’s moral stages conflict with philosophical and spiritual concepts of morals or ethics, especially indigenous and Eastern thought, where law and power are not seen as guarantors of morality, not seen as the natural outcome of stages proposed by Western thinking and Western historical experience.

Kohlberg’s stage 6 attempts to transcend this bottleneck by providing an outlet for ethical thinking that is not derived from socialization or institutions or sources of power. But that stage is almost a mystical stage, gratuitously offered and improbable to attain by the average person, that stage where the individual will no longer be making reference to society, that stage sages describe as did Rumi:

Out there
beyond good and evil
is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

The last stage is also the hermit’s provenance.

We need an understanding of the course of Western thought on ethics in order to open an avenue behind and above preoccupations with social expression and empowerment.