Measuring morality

I probably remember the lesson more because of the circumstances than the content.

I’d missed an honors class the previous week and when I came in for class this week I was told I couldn’t catch up until I had taken a test that the whole class had taken  the previous week.

I was told that there were no right answers to the test (which I didn’t believe) and that my score didn’t mean anything (which I also didn’t believe) but that the test would tell me something about myself.

I was highly suspicious.

The test had somewhere between ten and twenty questions maybe? They were each stories like the one below:

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later.

The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

At the end of the story I was asked to choose why it was OK for Heinz to steal the drug. Answers included things like “Because the chemist was greedy” and “Because Heinz’s wife’s life was more important”.

I remember being furious because, in almost all of the stories, the actors took an action I believed was morally wrong, and the only choices I was given to answer the questions were to justify those wrong actions. It was a real-life Kobayashi Maru — a no-win situation where I couldn’t explain what I thought was right or choose the things I believed in, but I also found it abhorrent[1](If I could go back to talk to past me, I would give me such a lecture on morality.)  to choose things I didn’t believe in.

That might be why it’s stuck with me so long.

The test was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg as a study of how morality and values develop within people. Kohlberg tested boys ages 10-16 with these scenarios and open-ended questions, which he then analyzed to develop his “Stages of Moral Development”. Then he followed up with most of the boys at 3-year intervals for 20 years to see how their morality changed.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one furious at the test (and to be clear, a little bit at the teachers for putting me in the situation). It’s hard for seventeen-year-olds, especially those that excel in academic settings, to believe that “this test ranks your morality stage from 1-6” and “the people who scored four are not better than the people who scored two”. At the time the lesson I took away was that I somehow had to progress to a level five of morality in order to be a good person, which is probably exactly what a level-four rules-follower would think.

It also turned out that there were more problems with Kohlberg’s methods than you can shake a stick at. They appear to be biased toward a justice-based system (which itself tends to be biased toward how men are raised, thus making the system gender-biased), with hypothetical questions, a gender-biased sample (all boys), poor research design, and a host of other issues.

Which is all a fancy way of saying “When I was a teen, someone made me take a very poor psychological research study and I’m still pissed.”

So why tell you now?

Because there are a few lessons I did take from the lesson that have stuck with me.

The first is obvious, and yet not-obvious. There are a lot of ways to judge morality, but we have a tendency to believe that the one we’re currently using is the “right” one and the people using different methods are somehow suspect or (in the worst of cases) suspicious.

Sometimes that person you think is an asshole is an asshole specifically because you and they are using different measuring sticks. They probably think the same of you. Acknowledging that you’re using different measuring sticks can help both sides step down an argument. (Warning: it can also refocus the argument on the measuring sticks and that can rapidly escalate into a prick-waving dick-fight of epic proportions.)

The second is a tool: if we know how people measure what is right and wrong, then we can also find tools to negotiate with them on their terms. Someone who’s more concerned about the consequences of their actions based on personal punishment impacts (i.e. “If I do that I’ll get fired”) don’t listen to arguments that work on someone who’s more concerned about consequences to their reputation (i.e. “if I do that everyone will think I’m a jerk”) and vice versa. When we assume that everyone’s using the same toolset we are to make moral judgements, we hamstring our own ability to persuade others.

In other words, we have to figure out someone’s goals to figure out how we can reach goals together. In my experience as a User Experience Designer, we recognize that these differences exist between our personas (or between the different roles on our teams) but we don’t often explore it except by accident. It may be valuable to explore it explicitly on tough projects.

Finally, it’s critically important to recognize that Kohlberg was not the be-all and end-all of morality either. He had his own struggles, struggles that ultimately led to his suicide.

He also had a cis-male-centric system of measuring morality that doesn’t apply to everyone all of the time, even if it does more often than not shape the society we’re currently living in. Women are much more likely to be socialized into an ethics-of-caring system (at least in the US) than an ethics-of-justice system, which is what was being measured by Kohlberg’s tests. On Kohlberg’s system, the ethics applied to people most concerned about goodness and wellbeing of others, compassion and nonviolence, couldn’t climb “above” Level 4.

So I recommend awareness of different models of morality, and looking for places where your morality may differ from someone else’s. But I also recommend not ranking people as more or less moral, or even more or less mature, based on their model, because it doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

And I also recommend not pissing off teenagers with questionable research methods, because we’ll remember for years to come.


1 (If I could go back to talk to past me, I would give me such a lecture on morality.) 

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)