Knowing Your Audience: The Three Levels of Moral Development

Knowing Your Audience: The Three Levels of Moral Development

by David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

Child development theorists describe three levels of moral development. At the lowest level is concern only for oneself. The second level is concern only for those close to you: family, friends, or a suffering person whom you can see. The third level is an abstract moral concern for all others, even if they are unknown and unseen, and perhaps even if they are one’s enemies.

Parents will readily recognize this pattern. Our youngest children are very egocentric. Their view of justice often translates into what “I want.” But as they grow in their ability to love others, they develop greater empathy for loved ones. At this level, if their father is laid off from his job they are incapable of imagining how such an “injustice” could ever possibly be justified. At the third level, as demonstrated by idealistic teens, abstract ideas of justice become more powerful. Concern for the unseen people of other nations and other times — and even concern for non-human species — begins to shape their moral judgments.

In practice, most adults are constantly switching between all three levels of moral decision making. For example, our abstract beliefs about what is a “just” economic policy are often shaped more by the perceived benefits to our families and selves than by a rigorous ethical analysis.

The tensions between these three levels of moral decision making are especially evident with regards to abortion. At the highest level of moral decision making, pro-lifers are committed to the abstract moral principle of respecting the humanity of all persons, even unborn children. While pro-lifers may be accused of imposing their morality on others, this ethical position is clearly free of the taint of self-interest. It is other-centered, including those who are unrelated to us and even those who have not even yet been conceived.

However, the majority of Americans, even though they dislike abortion and doubt its morality, believe it should be available at least in some circumstances. Their position reflects that they are operating the second level of moral development: greater concern for those with whom they most easily empathize. This is why public relations battles over abortion mostly involve attempts to manipulate the empathetic attachments of people operating at this second level of moral reasoning. Pro-abortionists try to magnify concern for women whose lives are “destroyed by unwanted pregnancies” and who are endangered by “back alley abortions.” Pro-lifers counter with pictures and models of the unborn child, trying to use the evident humanity of the unborn child as the fulcrum for shifting the attachments of “mushy middle” toward the baby.

While this pro-life strategy is effective for those who feel free to choose a higher ideal, it is often ineffective for those who feel bound by “practical necessities.” For example, the father of a pregnant fourteen year old girl is likely to be consumed by fears of how this pregnancy will “destroy” his daughter’s future. Even if his daughter wants to keep the child, he may well insist on the abortion “for her own good” because he believes her desire to keep the child is just a juvenile fantasy.

If presented with the facts about fetal development, such a father may experience a twinge of conscience, but he is unlikely to be deterred. He will push aside reminders of his grandchild’s humanity simply because he cannot afford to consider “abstract” issues. His daughter’s future is at stake.

For such “pragmatic” parents, moral abstracts will not take root until “pragmatic” concerns first give them pause. It is a top priority, then, to give such parents the facts about the destructive effects of abortion on their teenage daughters. They must be educated about the risks of permanent reproductive damage. Even more importantly, they need to be educated about the impact of abortion trauma on a young girl’s psychological development.

Abortion forever changes a young woman’s perceptions of herself, her sexuality, her maternity, and her familial relations. After an abortion, as many as 50% of women will begin or increase drug and alcohol abuse. In the years to follow, 60% experience suicidal tendencies, with 28% actually attempting suicide. Other problems include promiscuity, depression, flashbacks, concentration problems, dramatic personality changes, and alienation from parents. Recent studies show that approximately 20% of women having abortions will suffer full-blown, clinically diagnosable, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and over 50% will have some PTSD symptoms.

Clearly, once a young woman is pregnant, it is no longer a choice between having a baby and not having a baby. It is a choice between having a baby and having an abortion, having a baby and having a traumatic experience. This is especially true for teens, since the rates of negative effects increase the younger the woman is.

Since 53% of women of who suffer post-abortion problems report feeling “forced by others” into unwanted abortions, it is absolutely critical to educate these “others” about abortion’s risks. By encouraging abortion, these “significant” others are actually hurting the loved ones whom they are trying to help. Unless we educate parents, boyfriends, and society in general, women will continue to be pressured into dangerous abortions “for their own good.”

This brings us to educating people at the third level of moral development: those who are concerned only for themselves. For such women, representing 25% or less of those having abortions, abortion is a simple decision. It is simply a tool for controlling their own lives. They have little or no concern for the “thing” growing inside them. They may even resent “it” for being there. Thus, the only way to reach a person at this stage of moral development, the only way to encourage them to reconsider the abortion decision, is to educate them about the risks abortion poses to them. It is only when they see abortion as posing a threat to their own self interests that they will begin to think more deeply about their situation. Only when they begin to weigh the dangers of abortion against the burdens of pregnancy will they begin to open their minds and hearts to the needs and rights of their unborn children.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 5(3) Summer 1997. Copyright 1997 Elliot Institute

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