Re: [xmca] Perceptions, Moral Judgements and Dialectics

From: Kellogg (
Date: Thu Dec 07 2006 - 16:47:17 PST

Dear Andy:

I guess I deny that "who am I" or "what constitutes a good life anyway" are deeper questions. They seem highly individualistic to me, and therefore basically irrelevant to morality, ethics, and politics, which have to do with our relationships with other people.

For example, we often find that such decisions are reducible by technical means to decisions about personal health (as when contraception reduced a great deal of pre-modern morality to a matter of taking the right pill).

But even if I DID accept that these were deeper questions, I would not accept that they have logical priority. On the contrary.

It seems to me that as soon as we admit that moral reasoning is a higher psychological function, we need to admit that it evolves as other higher psychological functions do, that is, in accordance with Janet's law, first as a social, inter-mental relationship between real people with actual, articulate, audible voices, and then as a psychological, intra-mental relationship between entities such as "who am I" and the idealized good life.

In our Moral Education department, professors are trying to develop a kind of post-Kohlbergian model for ethics education (a mandatory subject in South Korea, from primary to high school). For those who are too young to remember, Kohlberg's model was a very Piagetian one: intellectual development first, and then moral learning.

Sensorimotor operations:
STAGE ONE: Good is what I want and like.
STAGE TWO: Good is what you like insofar as youcan give me what I like.

Concrete operations:
STAGE THREE: Good is what is approved and accepted by the powerful people in my life.
STAGE FOUR: Good is what is approved and accepted by God, Government, Church and State

Formal operations:
STAGE FIVE: Good is a kind of contract between the individual and society.
STAGE SIX: Good is a universal moral principle, along the lines of Kant's categorical imperative

You can see that this is a very non-Vygotskyan model. It really DOES revolve (because it is highly circular, ending with agreement between the individual and the other) around individual ratiocination, along the lines of "who am I" and "what is the good life".

What would a Vygotskyan model look like? Well, for his I think we need to go to the paper Sasha (?) was talking about, namely the Teaching Concerning the Emotions, because I think that Vygotsky saw moral education as emerging from mediated emotion. Artworks were tools that allowed this to happen, and verbal art was particularly important in the interiorization of moral judgement.

So let's go back to Vygotsky's Ph.D. thesis, the Psychology of Art. When I read it, I notice that he was very influenced by Russian formalism, and even by pre-formalist ideas, like those of T.S. Eliot and the Western modernists, according to which meaning always comes from the outside, and it is never inherent in either words or deeds.

Art works do not derive meaning from the artist's creativity at all; they derive their meaning from their interaction with the social environment, first when they are created, and again when they are re-created by the audience.

I think Vygotsky would argue that higher, mediated moral judgements develop in much the same way, from outside in, and therefore from politics to ethics and from ethics to morality and not the other way around.

The problem I have is that I really feel that although politics does restructure ethical reasoning (just as ethical reasoning restructures perception and gut reactions), I also feel that the logic of politics is in many ways the very reverse of ethics, and I'm not sure this reversal is entirely the kind of dialectical reversal we see when, e.g. children develop rule based games out of role plays, or when they acquire volitional control of their gestures.

For example, like most people, I do not accept violence as a legitimate mode of moral suasion; I do not employ it when I argue with my little brother (who is now rather larger than I am, and in considerably better condition). But, again like most people, I do accept violence as a legitimate and indeed a necessary mode of political action (and I believe that those who pretend that they do not merely privilege military and police violence over popular and proletarian violence).

This seems irrational, even to me. It suggests that my political decisions have somehow developed at a lower level then my moral ones, and that my moral decisions are far more subjection to reason and rational volition than political and social ones. That is what Kohlberg would have predicted, not Vygotsky.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education


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