Monday, July 09, 2007

Moral Maturity?

Nearly two decades ago, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Panel on Moral Education published a description of the "morally mature" person. According to the panel, the morally mature person habitually:
1. Respects human dignity
2. Cares about the welfare of others
3. Integrates individual interests and social responsibilities
4. Demonstrates integrity
5. Reflects on moral choices
6. Seeks peaceful resolution of conflict.
The panel's statement closed with this: "In general, then, the morally mature person understands moral principles and accepts responsibility for applying them."

As I review this descriptive list twenty years later, I find it difficult to argue with. Who could possibly be opposed to human dignity, caring, integrity, etc.? And yet…

Note that the description is usefully composed in behavioral terms. I know that it's difficult to define some of these terms, but it's actually not as difficult to recognize a trait when it presents itself as it is to define it. I am pretty confident I can name "integrity" when I see it but I am less confident that any verbal definition will stand up unerringly to lived experience. So I find this notion of "moral maturity" helpful as a target. But still…

I do think the items on the list constitute both necessary and sufficient conditions (as philosophers like to say) for moral maturity. That is, I don't believe one can be morally mature without attending to each of the six mandates (necessary). And I don't think there is any significant mandate omitted in this listing (sufficient). And yet…

I'm sure you can tell that I have some reservations about this description of moral maturity, and maybe you also recognize that I'm having trouble expressing my reservations. My concern is not that this doesn't tell me when I (or others) have hit the target. I think it's quite useful for that purpose. But I worry that the list (even in its unabridged version with "indicators") obscures rather than illuminates the path to moral maturity. How is it that I come to understand what integrity is, to form a concept of integrity, and to appropriate it as a life goal? How do I acquire the habit of integrity? I am not convinced that integrity can be taken on in the same way that, say, table manners can be modeled, coached and practiced.

I also worry that the behavioral formulation of moral maturity obscures rather than illuminates both the cognitive and emotional dimensions of moral maturity. In a social and academic milieu where the cognitive is assumed to be critical, the emotional is suspect and to be controlled, and the two are assumed to be distinct domains – all arguable assumptions, I fret especially that we neglect the education of the emotions in any effort toward developing moral maturity.

And take a look at the summary statement with its attention to the application of principles. I don't doubt the value of moral principles but I am no Kantian. I do not view moral principles as rules to be discovered and obeyed but, like John Dewey, as generalizations about past experience to be tested in present living. Thus principles are not "applied" but "proven," that is put to the test in the here and now. So yes, responsibility must be accepted, but responsibility is more than accountability. It represents an ability to respond in a fitting way to moral challenges. More on that in another post.

And then of course there's the question of whether we should frame the goal in terms of "maturity," a term that suggests, if not implies, the possibility of completion and/or superiority. When one is morally mature, is one also somehow better than other human beings? Better how? More human? More sophisticated? Closer to God?

9 comments:

dougH said...

I believe that the term morally mature might be the wrong term to be using for a list such as this. I think this may be a more appropriate definition of a morally maturing person. The process of becoming mature morally is a constant process, and individuals are constantly changing.

Another problem I have with this definition being the end all for morally mature is that there is no room for improvement or for making mistakes. I feel that there is always room for improvement. For example, maybe there is a 20 year old who displays all of the characteristics of a morally mature person. How can we say that this person is totally morally mature and cannot become more morally mature as the individual ages?

lzarfos said...

I find it extremely interesting that over two decades ago a panel of educators developed this list of moral attributes that would be important in education....yet the current focus of educators has now shifted to a purely academic one where the goal for academic achievement is paramount. Perhaps, as we observe an increasing level of violence in the schools, educators will once again embrace the challenge of defining moral education and to what extent educators should shift the focus of their efforts back to the goal of creating students who are morally responsible....whatever that means

Mark said...

I can’t help think that these types of questions could be imposed on any type of maturity whether spiritual, social, moral, etc. In order for one to be more mature, we must first define what maturity is. Webster’s dictionary defines it as “based on slow careful consideration”, or “obtaining a desired state”. Couldn’t both of these definitions be ambiguous if we question what constitutes “careful consideration” or “a desired state”? It is this vagueness that causes me to consider maturity as an individual endeavor, one that can only be related through the lenses of ones own perception. Yet as I try to think of examples when ones maturity would be seen different when related to the broader landscape of our society, I struggle greatly. Thus, I see maturity as the ability to understand oneself and others without the judgment that so often is cast about in our society. The politically correct side of me wants to say that this in no way makes a person better, but again I can’t justify this. A person with a better understanding of who they are should be more apt to make decisions and guide others than one without such a grasp. These are skills that are valued in various arenas of our everyday life. Unlike many other things in our society that are valued such as celebrities, money, power, etc., which many agree are overvalued, an understanding of oneself and an appreciation for situations of others I would suspect are widely considered assets.

Bonnie Hoover said...

A clarification of the moral mandate "Integrate individual interests and social responsiblity" would be helpful. I take this to mean that an individual must weigh personal preferences against what is good for others. In other words, if you want to speed on the highway because you are late, you must decide if your "need" is worth the risk you might pose to others by engaging in this reckless action.
Like the author suggests, terms like "integrity" are certainly hard to define and measure in concrete terms. Integrity is perhaps best defined in case by case examples.
The author also indicates that this definition of moral maturity neglects the emotional side of morality. What terms could then be used to better describe the affective domain of morality? How do we educate emotions?

Tamara said...

Wow...it certainly packs like a loaded question! I struggle with the concept that one person is better than another, so to contmeplate that a person who has reached moral maturity might be a better person is hard for me. Although I can understand the description laid out by the panel and can even see how it represents a morally mature person, I can't stand behind it as definitive description. On the other hand though, I believe this person may be more aware of people, their feelings and beliefs, and be more conscientious in their actions towards self and others, but no less human than those around them.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carpe said...

Moral maturity by definition? Hmm... I can't personally say that I am that concrete.

It seems that, at least in this case, a definition, a fine and distinct line that separates this concept into such clear sides in such limited terms, concerns me. Maturity, in general, seems to be more of an evolution, not a "finish line" or measurable type of concept.

Although I certainly do not object to the terms of this particular definition of moral maturity and I do see some value in definitions, I think that a strict adherence to it in a such a limiting fashion could be dangerous.

At the beginning of the school year, my students and I participate in an activity that involves examining perspective. We discuss respect, understanding, and diversity, while also accepting that odds are quite good that we will be in different places in many ways throughout the school year. I find this valuable in that when we hit road blocks as far as levels of maturity, understanding, or comprehension; the goal being that we are all still comfortable doing the best we can with what we have.

Although it is nice to tidy up the limits of moral maturity in such definitive terms, I do think that it leaves a little something out. It leaves out the middle, the process of maturity, and, in some ways, the individual.

Giovanna said...

The list is hard to argue with. All of the qualities are those of which I tend to adhear to. The list covers overall codes but does not touch on specific issues. But using this list you would find that the 6 would help you ask yourself the questions to make a positive moral decision. As words without understanding the list is useless, that is where education comes into play. That is for adults or children. The words dignity, welfare, and responsibility are broad. We still come back to the need for understanding and clarification. In our county across culture and gender the idea of responsibility varries. That one status may have a differnt idea of what the welfare of others consists of. I do agree that the list does not explain how one becomes the habitually mature person.

Debby Lynch said...

The question presented was, "When one is morally mature, is one also somehow better than other human beings?" I believe that as in academic pursuits, one who has attained maturity in moral matters is a more well rounded person, not a "better" person...not a "superior" person, but a person who would be easier to be around on this earth.

Maturity indicates a level of achievement of understanding and an ability to utilize that information in a "good" way. But no one is perfect and even mature individuals make mistakes and have bad days. So, I don't believe that a morally mature person is more human, but perhaps more humane, and hopefully more sophisticated.

But as far as being closer to God, who was closer to Jesus than the disciples or Mary Magdeline? Mary was a prostitute and many of his followers were unsavory characters who did horrible things. So no I don't think you have to be morally mature to be closer to God. He loves everyone, even though he may not like all of our actions.