Reading Time: 3 minutes

“They shot him…he was running. It was during their exercise period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started to climb. Right in front of them….We had such a good chance. I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.”
–Atticus Finch on the death of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird

onediff320909“Remember in To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom Robinson gets shot?”

It was in the middle of a silent car ride that Connor (13) blurted this out.

“Oh yeah. Worst part of the book.”

“He wasn’t really trying to escape, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well Atticus says he was trying to escape, but there’s no way! They just shot him because they wanted to and made up that story. I know it. But Mrs. Lawson and the whole class said he was shot trying to escape, just like it says.”

“…”

“And I said he wasn’t trying to escape, you’re supposed to read between the lines and figure that out, they shot him seventeen times, but they were all just saying, ‘No, no, no, he was escaping, that’s what it says, that’s what it says.’ I HATE that.”

“Hate what?”

“When you’re right but every other person says you’re wrong! Because then you basically ARE wrong.”

“…”

Now before anybody gets all hifalutin’ about being the Lone Voice of Truth or starts quoting Kipling to my boy, at least tell me you know what he means. If you’ve got your self-confidence polished up so shiny bright that you can confidently stand your ground against unanimous jeers without a flicker of self-doubt, without feeling even for a moment what it means to be rendered “basically wrong” by the judgment of the many—know that I hold you in the highest respect, and think you a freak.

It’s easy to picture ourselves in retrospect matching the courage of Galileo or Giordano Bruno, or Fulton and his steamboat, or Hershey and his chocolate bar. I can manage these fantasies, but only in retrospect. I am Bruno taking the nail through the tongue while KNOWING I’ll one day be vindicated. Being the Lone Voice of Truth is one helluva lot harder without that perspective.

So we talked about Kohlberg.

No, it’s not a tasty hybrid of kohlrabi and iceberg. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg laid out a useful set of “stages” of moral development. Connor’s question isn’t exactly a moral issue, but the willingness to speak up about what you believe is right or true definitely is.

The six stages:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
Stage 1. Avoiding pain
Stage 2. Seeking reward

Level 2 (Conventional)
Stage 3. Social conformity
Stage 4. Rule following

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
Stage 5. Social contract (understand that rules are human creations and can be changed)
Stage 6. Universal ethical principles (standing on principle regardless of consequences)

Early childhood is usually limited to the pre-conventional. If you want your kids to spin their wheels in the lower levels, base your parenting solely on punishment and rewards. Later, most kids become obsessed to some degree with the next two, and would yes very damn well jump off a cliff if their friends did, or slavishly follow rules because they are rules, depending on age and stage. And plenty of adults never get beyond this conventional, conformist morality.

It’s the tug of Stage 3 that Connor was talking about—the fact that it can feel like the loud majority defines right and wrong just by dint of its loud majorityness. So we had a quick chat about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

Don’t laugh—kids can do this.

“Yeah, I know what you mean about feeling wrong when everybody else disagrees,” I said. “It’s a stage three thing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Something I remember from psych class—six different levels of moral development. For little kids, being good is all about rewards and punishments. Then you want to please other people, that’s stage three, or follow rules, that’s stage four.”

“My school is OBSESSED with rules,” he said.

He’s right, they are. “Yep. And that’s okay as far as it goes. But what you want to do is push yourself higher than that.”

“Like what?”

“Like standing up for what you think is right even when everyone around you thinks you’re crazy. That’s the top level. Gandhi. Galileo. Jesus. Darwin. Atticus. Connor McGowan. People like that.”

Wry smile.

It’s not that we leave the lower stages behind as we move up. Everybody still responds to punishment and reward and social pressure, even as we show bursts of high-level morality. But it’s worth talking to our kids about the difference between the easy rule-following moralities so many are so fond of, and the higher, harder levels that all of our moral heroes, if you think about it, seem to occupy.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.