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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
In Moral Development and
Reality, John C. Gibbs surveys the theory of moral development, re-evaluating
old ideas on the topic as well as offering new empirical data that, in turn,
allows him to reconsider traditional theories within the field. Piaget, one of
the first to contribute to this field, focuses on the moral development of the
child. His theory and observations, explored and embedded in his conceptual
scheme, became the departure point for studies of moral development by social
scientists and psychologists alike. These studies, in turn, have an impact on both
the theory and praxis of ethics, including areas such as business ethics and
bioethics, and have greatly improved our understanding of the respective roles
played by nature and nurture in the formation of an individual's morality
within his or her social context. Gibbs takes a step beyond these ideas and
applies them to practice in suggesting that skill training programs can correct
individual's antisocial conduct (Chapter 7). Gibbs also notes the seemingly
universal patterns in human moral development and conduct, indicating that
these patterns cross cultures; this fact also can support his criticism of
The book is a mixed bag, and the
quality of its chapters varies greatly. In terms of methodology, it goes from
the embarrassing and non-rigorous introduction (Chapter 1) to a pedantic and
doctrinaire treatment of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Hoffman in chapters 2-4. In
chapters 5-7, however, it progresses to the author's intriguing contributions
in integrating Kohlberg and Hoffman and culminates with his proposed treatment
of antisocial behavior. Finally, in Chapter 8, Gibbs explores two cases of
near-death experience and their implications on moral development, and in
Chapter 9, he discusses the relationship between moral development and
motivation. While the first chapter of the book is largely unhelpful, Chapters
2-7 are recommended as supplementary material to advanced students in the field
of empirical (scientific) ethics, and the last two chapters remain a starting
point to a new exploratory study.
At the opening of his first chapter,
Gibbs describes an incident in which children at a camp abuse a "mildly
retarded adult" who works there. He omits, however, to specify the time
and place at which the observation was made and the research methodology used,
and makes a sweeping evaluation based on this single observation (p.1). The
observation is repeatedly discussed and expanded upon over the course of the
book, but it is only later that the reader learns that Gibbs himself was one of
the children at the camp. Gibbs goes on, on to page 3, to discuss his
observation of the children in the camp in terms of Piaget's theory, and he
concludes that: "The moral point of view for Immanuel Kant meant respect
for persons, that is, presuming to treat others as ends rather than as a means."
To begin with, Gibbs is misapplying Kant's maxim to children—Kant did not
consider children as persons. To add insult to injury, Gibbs is, to my
knowledge, the first scholar to narrow Kant's moral point of view to this
maxim—and a sloppily-phrased maxim at that (it should have been: "Treat
fellow human beings as ends, not means"). The usage of the word "presuming,"
in this context, is pretentious – and presumptuous. So much for the first
In later chapters, however, the
merits of the book begin to become apparent. In Chapters 2 and 3 (with the
exception of the idiosyncratic introductory paragraph to chapter 2), Gibbs
offers an illuminating survey of Kohlberg's debts to Piaget. He briefly
reviews the terminology used in the theories , then goes on to succinctly
discuss, criticize, and revise the different stages of moral development. In
chapter 4, he goes from the rationalistic approach of Piaget and Kohlberg on
cognitively constructed ideals of reciprocity, to Hoffman et al. and their work
on the role of feeling in moral motivations. Unfortunately, however, Gibbs
fails to mention Mario Bunge, who critically discusses this intersection in his
1989 Treatise on Basic Philosophy Vol. 8. Ethics: The Good and the Right
(Boston: Reidel), and devotes just one sentence, on page 78, to Gilligan
(rejecting her conception of "responsible caring" in explaining moral
development), although a longer footnote in which her research methodology is
criticized awaits the reader on pp. 108-109. Only then is Hoffman, the final
protagonist of this book, introduced, and his theory of empathy explored and
In chapters 5-7, Gibbs integrates Kohlberg's
and Hoffman's theories and discusses pro social behavior (5), and examines the
understanding of anti social behavior (6) and the possible treatment of
antisocial behavior (7). Gibbs supports his arguments with several empirical
findings; these are intriguing but remain exploratory. Similarly, the two
cases of near-death experience discussed in chapter 8 would require further
research before a firm conclusion could be reached about their impact on the
final stages of moral development. In Chapter 9, inaccurately titled "Conclusion,"
Gibbs mingles new observations with issues, such as moral development, reality,
and morality that he has discussed earlier in the book. They all converge upon
the final sentence of the book, to a non- scientific but rather poetic
reflection on the issues surrounding moral development: "Perhaps every
deep moral perception offers at least a glimmer of insight into the deeper
reality of human connection."
© 2004 Avshalom M. Adam
Dr. Avshalom M. Adam, Visiting
Scholar, Stanford University
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