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The Child of the Moral Order

Gilbert V o y a t

he choice of the general topic under discussion, "The Formation

and Development of Moral Values in an Immoral World,-- and the
title of my presentation, "The Child of the Moral Order," reflect a real
concern for both the development of moral and ethical judgments in our
children and the current period of moral crisis, called into public view
by the events of Watergate, which questions, in fact, the very foundations
of our democratic system. In other words, my focus is on the actual moral
and ethical order within the Watergate climate. Watergate is, of course, not
the first moral scandal in American history, but it does constitute, probably,
the most profound case of unethical and immoral conduct at the highest
level of American governance; it is certainly the first time that these
behaviors have been widely exposed, made public, and discussed and the
first time that their meanings are unambiguous.
What preoccupies us today from the point of view of developmental
psychology are the consequences of such a situation for our children and
their education, and, in a final analysis, the consequences for their ethical
and moral commitment in the world that they will be responsible for
fostering, creating, and maintaining in the future. I will attempt to
analyze my topic from two different but related frames of reference.
The first aspect concerns the child's development of moral judgment
and involves a theoretical discussion of values - how they are acquired
and developed in the child. I refer here to an academic, research-oriented
view of how children acquire and change their moral judgment. As is known,
a distinction is often drawn between two kinds of values; namely,
Gilbert Voyat is
intrinsic value and extrinsic or instrumental value. By extrinsic value is
associate professor,
meant the character of being good or of having value as a means to
Department of
achieve a goal.By intrinsic value is meant the character of being good or
Psychology, Graduate
valuable in itself in relationship to the individual's internal state of mind.
Faculty, City College of
As is known also, moral value can be contrasted with fact or existence,
the City University of
the contrast intended being between the "is" and the "ought." If Piaget's
New York.
findings are used as a frame of reference, this distinction - which implies
an understanding of a difference between the real and the possible - is
This is a slightly
amended version of a
not achieved by a child before the formal level of thought, that is not
paper presented at the
before 10 to 11 years of age at the minimum, and probably, in most
annual convention of the cases, not before the later part of adolescence.
Nassau and Suffolk
The young child, characterized in cognitive terms as either at the preCounty (NIT)
Psychological Association operation stage (before seven) or the concrete operational stage (between
seven and nine) of intellectual functioning, will essentially focus upon
on April 1974.

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extrinsic or instrumental values. In light of Watergate - particularly in light

of Watergate - this has important consequences, since the child views
authority not only as instrumental but also as absolute. Piaget, in his
now classical book on the moral judgment of the child, and Lawrence
Kohlberg, who continued and is still pursuing with his collaborators the
issues of moral judgment, both stress this period of unilateral respect
that characterizes the young child.
This unilateral respect is characterized by the term "moral realism,"
which expresses the tendency that a child has to regard duty and the
values attached to obligation as primarily self-subsistent and independent
of the mind. The tendency implies an essential focus upon extrinsic values
and a definition of good and bad in relationship to good as defined by
the majority and particularly by the adults. In moral realism, good is
clearly defined by obedience. Furthermore, the child demands that the
letter rather than the spirit of the law be observed. Since the child takes
rules, obligations, and duty in a concrete and absolute perspective, he
will evaluate acts not in accordance with internal motives but in terms
of their conformity with established rules. Thus, his or her focus will be
dependent primarily upon the results of the actions, upon the outcomes
rather than the intent.
An excellent example of the above can be found in the way children
solved the following moral dilemma. Piaget told children two stories: In
the first, a child helping his mother to set the table trips and breaks 12
cups; in the second, a child who has been forbidden to climb up a cupboard for jam does so and breaks only one cup. The young children to
whom these stories were told felt that the first child needed greater
punishment since he broke 12 cups, while older children tended to find
the second child more worthy of punishment because he intentionally
disobeyed his mother. Thus, as David Elkind puts it, summarizing Piaget's
findings, young children judge a person according to the amount of
damage he does, rather than on the basis of his intentions.
In this context, we as adults might ask ourselves if, in the Watergate
situation, a simple judgment based upon the outcomes or the amount of
damage done would not have been preferable to what did transpire,
since focusing upon the intent of the group of officials involved in the
Watergate scandal allowed these officials to defend themselves on this
basis. In this case, however, a judgment on the outcomes alone would
seem to have been sufficient to clarify the intent. It is not my purpose to
sound ironic, but in this case the analysis and the clarification of the real
intents of these officials have prolonged both the agony of the President
and the explicit threat that Watergate represents to a functioning democracy.
Using the child's quantitatively different mind from ours might paradoxically
have settled the issue a long time ago.
The same principle of moral realism holds when one considers the
development of the idea of justice in children. Piaget delineated three
major periods: Until seven to eight years of age, children see the idea of
justice as again subordinated to adult authority. Between 8 and 1 I, one
observes a period of progressive egalitarianism. Around 11 to 12, justice
is based on the consideration of equality between people and reciprocity
among them. Thus again, where the idea of justice is concerned, we
observe a shift from outcomes to motives.

Voyat: Child o f the Moral Order

*"Watergate and the

Legal Order, ""

January 1974.


Watergate has created an explicit unbalance of constitutionally stated

norms of morality, ethics, and values; moreover, these norms have been
distorted by the very people who are supposed to maintain them. In a
recent article,* the late Alexander Bickel, professor of law and legal
history at Yale, immediately defined the issues when he stated, "The
test of a legal order is its self-executing capacity, its moral authority. In
an extraordinarily sustained experience of civil disobedience and
conscientious objection on the part of at least three distinct, sizable
groups in the society over a period of some 15 years, which perhaps no
other society could have endured without a change of regime - in this
sustained experience the limits were lransgressed. The experience started
with white Southerners in the mid-1950s, it was followed and overlapped
by the civil rights movement, and it ended with and was overlapped by
the white middle-class movement against the war, which bade fair for a
while to take permanent shape as a movement addressing numerous other
issues as well, all the way up, down, and sideways to gay liberation. The
limits were often transgressed and in some measure Watergate is a replica
of these transgressions." What Watergate also means is that the use of civil
disobedience has permeated our society as an almost natural way of
having things changed; in a sense, it represents the reaction against these
perceived, demanded changes. It is no wonder, then, that the concept
has finally reached our children - an excellent example of vertical and
horizontal permeation of distortion of ethical concepts at all levels of a
functioning society.
Bickel adds: "The legal order heaved and groaned for years under a
prodigality of moral causes, and if not broken, it is no wonder that it is
badly bent. Vietnam was, let us not forget, not only a moral error but
for its authors a moral urgency. The urgencies of 'peace with honor,' of
the clean life, of patriotism - in a word, Watergate - were merely the last
straws. It is ironic, but entirely natural, that 'law and order' as a moral
imperative should have clashed with the legal order."
The legal order, after all, to use a Piagetian term, is an accommodation.
It cannot sustain the continuous assault of moral imperatives, not even
the moral imperative of "law and order," which as a moral imperative has
only a verbal resemblance to the ends of the legal order. At this point,
it is interesting to note that the American democratic system reflects an
intermediary position between stages 4 and 5 as observed by Kohlberg.
According to Kohlberg, stage 4, which is part of the conventional level
of morality, is characterized by authority and social-order-maintaining
orientation. Right behavior consists in doing one's own duty, showing
respect for authority, and maintaining the social order for its own sake.
Stage 5, which is part of the postconventional level of morality, consists
in the contractual legalistic orientation. Right action is defined in terms
of individual rights and of standards that have been initially examined
and agreed upon by a majority of the society. Changes can occur when
agreed upon through an acceptable, democratically enforced procedure.
As Kohlberg puts it: "Stage 5 is the 'official' morality of the American
government and finds its ground in the thought of the writers of the
Given this historical context, we are confronted with a real conflict:
It consists of the need to affirm concepts of moral imperatives, which

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had been agreed upon by a majority, but which in reality have already
been vitiated. Thus, in a situation where there exists a substantial discrepancy between intents and outcomes, we adults become equally
conflicted. If the President can he, why shouldn't I, or children for that
This brings me to the second aspect of my topic, which concerns the
practical issue of how values are transmitted from one generation to
another at a time when one can so easily observe the gap between what
moral values are and what they should be. While we, as adults, have
many ways of integrating and facing this discrepancy, our children,
especially our adolescents, lack this ability to synthesize and, finally, to
compromise. The problem is thus to understand what happens to a child
in a world where adults themselves are confronted with a legal order that
is enforced by clearly immoral officials.
In this respect, it might be of some interest to take a hypothetical
child, such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland and attempt to understand
what her experience could become, given the conflictual social context
that we, as adults, are currently enduring. In many ways our situation can
be compared to hers, and as you know Alice in Wonderland has been
interpreted from points of view ranging from the poetry of nonsense to
the psychoanalytic. From a cognitive developmental point of view, what
Alice as a child essentially experiences is the absurdity of the adult's
world, the absurdity finally of a world of power. For her, the adult's
world is not only perceived and assimilated in a qualitatively different way,
but it seems very much illogical and entertains conflicts, which she does
not clearly understand but which affect her as a child. In this sense, Alice
is very much like the child of Watergate; in other words, the child of our
moral order.
In the Watergate climate, Alice's dialogue with the Duchess might
have sounded like this:
Duchess: Has anyone told you that one should always tell the truth?
Alice: I have heard that, but I would like to know why?
Duchess: Because it is the right thing to do; honesty is a virtue and
it makes you be a better person.
Alice: Does your king always tell the truth, then?
Duchess: That depends upon your point of view.
Alice: Who is then to say that his truth is any better than my truth?
This then turns into a real impasse; there is no acceptable synthesis that
can be presented to her at this time. The distinction between beliefs and
facts is precisely what she cannot, and later will not, make.
In a world of relative morality, a world of protest and moral outrage,
amidst the confusion that the child feels in trying to establish his or her own
values while understanding those of the adult's, what filters down to him
or her is that those who are leaders - and therefore should be considered
as people of distinction and integrity - are most often those in whom we
have lost our faith. For a child, a world where the heroes are disgraced becomes a world without moral values.
As developmental psychologists, we cannot pretend to explain let
alone solve such grave problems. But I would like to offer the following
hypothesis: The adult awareness of moral relativity allows the establishment of very mobile and fluid boundaries between egocentric moral

Voyat: Child of the Moral Order

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thought and reciprocal moral thought. Moral meaning seems to have

acquired an essentially individual meaning. Thus, those who study
children's values, whether they be psychologist or teacher, indeed all
the adults involved with children in one way or another, must also come
to terms with and understand their own values.
On the other hand, even if moral values now seem to have become more
individual, we as a collectivity are still under the necessity of affirming
our values to our children. A collectivity cannot hold without some
shared values because values are also largely social and should be
symbolized in many ways, particularly in the officials that one elects.
The problem at this point, really, is that there are no longer firm guarantees
that our public leadership can still do this.

Those of us who want to understand how children grow up to

embody the political and ideological variations of this planet - revolutionists, loyal soldiers, restive but apparently obliging "natives,"
troubled men of property, confident proponents of one or another
government - would do well to recognize that, like adult sexuality, a
political inclination has a "developmental history." There are, of
course, all too many psychological determinists; one who winces at
the thought that "developmental history" will quite soon be read
as "developmental imperative." In fact, both clinicians and historians
have reason to know that in the lives of individuals and nations alike
there is simply no way of knowing at what moment an apparently
unremarkable, even unknowable set of feelings or attitudes will
suddenly emerge, to everyone's surprise, as utterly critical and
persuasive in the life of a person or community of people. Or, as a
Hopi girl of thirteen put it, blending a child's political awareness with
a culture's wisdom, and an intelligent citizen's practicality: "The
news of Watergate is a dark cloud. The sky was clear, and the hunters
ran wild; then dark clouds gathered and rain fell, and the hunters
stopped for a while. Will we soon get more hunters, just as greedy?
Or will we learn to control greed, so that we don't just pray and pray
for bad weather to stop the hunters in their tracks?"
Robert Coles, The Mind's Fate (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975)