Social Affairs

The toll of ‘moral underdevelopment’

“…moral development is highly informative in making sense of what is going on around us today. As evident in our political, professional, and daily social life, while those hypocrite, wicked and inept individuals are well embraced and granted significant public positions simply on account of their mere submissiveness, loyalty, affinity and relatedness; in contrast, those highly enlightened, independent-minded, and decent individuals are, by and large, alienated…”

Taye Negussie (PHD)

 One of the ironical developments evident in today’s world is the unfolding of grave social injustices – discrimination, abject poverty, inequality, and alienation–at the time when the world has registered unprecedented levels of material prosperity and technological achievements.

Some scholars attempted to associate these otherwise unlikely parallel developments to some technical faults in running the economic and political machineries; however, the real nature of the problem is quite complex and is indisputably rooted in the pervasiveness of deficiencies in moral values and characters emanating largely from psychological naivety as well as the malfunctioning of major social institutions such as government, family, religion, school and community among others.

As a matter of fact the quality of life we often aspire to achieve (a happier and more fulfilled life), is impingent upon the extent to which the moral values we uphold both as individual citizens as well as collective entities realize the ideals of social justice, freedom and equality.

Unfortunately, our understanding of morality and moral values which is indispensable in illuminating the critical problems of social injustice that we currently face such as what caused them? where are we heading? and most importantly, how can we control them?  is dangerously limited.

Philosophers define moral values as part of values (that we deem worthy) which applies to human conduct. In the course of the pursuit of our life, some of us are more inclined to place premium on maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain while the rest of us tend to regard virtues (living in truth, and honesty) as worthwhile in itself that ought to be pursued even at great personal inconvenience.

Psychologist Lawrence Kholberg is one of those prominent scholars who have shed some light on our understanding of the nature and characteristics of morality prevalent in a given society. According to him, individuals pass through three levels of moral development: the pre-conventional level, the conventional level, and the post-conventional level.  In his view, at the pre-conventional level people exhibit “unquestioning obedience” to the power that be and care only for the satisfaction of their individual needs. With such people, the concepts of “fairness”, “justice”, and “loyalty” are utterly non-existent. Any action is taken in the “instrumental sense” –“You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours”.  The distinguishing features of these people are excessive hypocrisy, servitude and weak character.

At the conventional level, the overriding concern of individuals is to live by the conventions, customs and laws prevailing at the moment no matter what their contents may be. Credulity and blind faith are the hallmarks of these individuals. For them what matters most is intention rather than consequences of actions. Thus, racism may be wrong, but one shouldn’t protest against it for it leads to social chaos. This view of morality undoubtedly commits the fallacy of logic – “what is”, “ought to be “, too.

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In Kholberg’s view, the post-conventional level is characterized by higher values and the questioning of the existing system in the light of social utility and such abstract principles as justice and human dignity. People at this level are highly enlightened endowed with sound and critical judgment; alas, they are often a rarity in many societies.

Kholberg’s theoretical framework of moral development is highly informative in making sense of what is going on around us today. As evident in our political, professional, and daily social life, while those hypocrite, wicked and inept individuals are well embraced and granted significant public positions simply on account of their mere submissiveness, loyalty, affinity and relatedness; in contrast, those highly enlightened, independent-minded, and decent individuals are, by and large, alienated and unjustly denied to fulfill their rightful roles in the society. Sadly enough, all this happens at the expense of the larger public interest.

‘Moral underdevelopment’–which I define as a situation symptomatic of the preponderance of the pre–and conventional levels’ moral views as well as the absence or rarity of moral behavior at the post–conventional level in Kholberg’s schema of moral development is indeed a global phenomenon; however, it takes its worst tolls in Africa.

In my view, the politics of totalitarianism, quite wide-spread in the continent, takes the lion’s share for deepening and expounding the problem. In their desperate attempt to cling onto power as long as possible, totalitarian regimes in Africa (led by morally corrupt politicians infested with negative attitude of hatred and prejudice) strive hard to manipulate and multiply the number of individuals found at the pre-conventional and conventional levels while weakening and subsequently banishing those at the post-conventional level, supposedly their archetypal “enemies”.

The most common strategies employed by these seemingly ‘absolutist states’ to implement their totalitarian rule are: implement the ’politics of hatred’–an ideological project bent at brainwashing and blinding people with prejudices and hatred– and engage in the ‘politics of fear’–exercised through enacting oppressive and draconian laws and rules.

It is, therefore, no wonder that the African people suffered exceptionally from the inevitable consequences of ‘moral underdevelopment’ manifested primarily in the deepening of such social ills as abject poverty, profound inequality, wide-spread social, economic and political injustices, conservative ideologies (such as religious and ethnic fundamentalism) which may eventually lead to the disintegration and ultimately the break-up of the social fabric of the society.

Thus, unless some corrective measures are taken in time both at individual as well as societal levels, the ominous consequences of the ever deepening ‘moral underdevelopment’ are bound to be irreversible. In this regard, I would suggest the following as some initial steps worthy of consideration.  Scrutinizing the existing moral values and reinstituting the most constructive and positive ones; redefining, reorganizing and reorienting the currently operating institutions and norms; instituting good-governance and substantive democracy (as opposed to formalistic democracy); empowering communities; and, encouraging private individuals to actively engage in self-education and development programs so as to replace ignorance with knowledge, and credulity with critical judgment.

The writer is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at tayesosa@yahoo.com

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