Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009, 2011



Moral development

Morality begins with biology, and specifically with the instincts we have evolved over eons to aid in our survival and reproduction. For human beings, there are three of these instincts:  

One is based on kin selection, and it tells us that we should care for our closest relatives, especially our children.  After all, caring for our relatives increases the likelihood of their survival and reproduction, which in turn increases the likelihood of our genes - including the ones that lead us to care for our relatives - get passed on to future generations.  

The second is the care we feel for our mates.  As an animal that produces few offspring, requires a nine month gestation culminating in a precarious delivery and resulting in a very vulnerable infant requiring years of care, we have evolved a strong tendency to develop attachments to our mates.  As any parent can tell you, it takes at least two people to raise children.

The third is sympathy.  We, like many other animals, are social creatures, and, like so many prairie dogs, we are attuned to the emotions and behaviors of our fellow humans.  When one of us is frightened, the rest go into high alert; when one of us is angry, we can rouse the ire of an entire mob; when one of us is laughing, others begin to laugh as well - even when they don't get the joke.

Of these three, sympathy is the weakest.  In the animal world, there are always "cheaters," animals of the same species who take advantage of others who instinctually aid each other.  In the human world, we have a great many examples of these cheaters, whom we often label "sociopaths."  Also, the tendency to sympathy depends a great deal on social learning.  It needs to be nourished by example.  In any family where sympathy is lacking, any instinctual tendency a child may have can easily be destroyed by abuse or neglect, or just self-centered parenting.

As human beings, we have evolved a rather large brain, and one that is capable of learning a great many things, not least of which is language.  The ability to learn allows much quicker adaptation to environmental change than evolution, and so tends to "drive out" much of the hardwiring that animals come supplied with.  Certainly we still have instincts, but they can be over-written with social learning far most easily than in, say, cats and dogs.

A community that has survived and expanded for many decades or centuries is one which has provided its members with patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that permit that survival.  We could call these patterns memes, or stick to older words such as beliefs and techniques - it doesn't matter.  Among the patterns that appear to work well for most societies are ones that encourage extending the range of the instincts of sympathy and love of family to all members of the community, rather than just close relations.  Traditions of mutual respect, obedience to authority, cooperation, and so on, are good examples.  These traditions make it less likely that community members waste their energies on internal conflicts and use it instead on productive activities, community defense, and, possibly, expansion at the expense of other communities.

The Hebrews of the Old Testament are a great example of a community whose beliefs allowed them to prosper.  But when the Bible says we should love our neighbor, it clearly meant our neighbor literally, our fellow Hebrew, and not, say, Egyptians or Assyrians or Canaanites, as evidenced by all the rather vicious warfare of the day.  Being good to one's enemy, someone who is not a member of our "tribe," is a rather novel concept, one, in fact, that makes its appearance only among the Jews of Hellenistic times (after Alexander the Great).  After all, any community that has the belief that they should be nice even to aggressors, is a community that usually doesn't last long and takes that pleasant belief down with it.


The good Samaritan

Although the idea of universal respect had been promoted earlier, notably by Buddha, Jesus, and Greek philosophers, the movement that would be most influential in actualizing the idea would not come until the Enlightenment.  I believe that this was because it was only then that we had essentially filled the planet.  Nations and Empires were butted up against each other with no room to wiggle.  It had become clear that, if we were to be happy, we could no longer stop at making nice with our literal neighbors or our fellow tribe-mates.  We had to make nice with other nations, other cultures, perhaps even everybody!  The difficulty here, of course, is that you need to convince people to move beyond their instinctive love of family, beyond the social indoctrination provided by their tribe, towards accepting the fundamental sanity of universal respect.

The great value of this biosocial view of morality is that it removes the issue from religious and philosophical debate and places it squarely in the realm of the pragmatic.  Without denying the inherently subjective nature of our goals as human beings, we may be able to agree that one reasonable goal is the maximizing of happiness.  The question is then how do we educate people to understand that it is in all our best interests to nurture our innate tendencies toward compassion.

Kohlberg's Theory

Traditionally, psychology has avoided studying anything that is loaded with value judgements.  There is a degree of difficulty involved in trying to be unbiased about things that involve terms like "good" and "bad!"  So, one of the most significant aspects of human life - morality - has had to wait quite a while before anyone in psychology dared to touch it!  But Lawrence Kohlberg wanted to study morality, and did so using some of the most interesting (if controversial) techniques.  Basically, he would ask children and adults to try to solve moral dilemmas contained in little stories, and to do so outloud so he could follow their reasoning.  It wasn't the specific answers to the dilemmas that interested him, but rather how the person got to his or her answer.

One of the most famous of these stories concerned a man named Heinz.  His wife was dying of a disease that could be cured if he could get a certain medicine.  When he asked the pharmacist, he was told that he could get the medicine, but only at a very high price - one that Heinz could not possibly afford.  So the next evening, Heinz broke into the pharmacy and stole the drug to save his wife's life.  Was Heinz right or wrong to steal the drug?

There are simple reasons why Heinz should or should not have stolen the drug, and there are very sophisticated reasons, and reasons in between.  After looking at hundreds of interviews concerning this and several other stories, Kohlberg outlined three broad levels and six more specific stages of moral development.

Level I:  Pre-conventional morality.  While infants are essentially amoral, very young children are moral in a rather primitive way described by the two preconventional stages.

Stage 1.  We can call this the reward and punishment stage.  Good or bad depends on the physical consequences:  Does the action lead to punishment or reward?  This stage is based simply on one's own pain and pleasure, and doesn't take others into account.

Stage 2.  This we can call the exchange stage.  In this stage, there is increased recognition that others have their own interests and should be taken into account.  Those interests are still understood in a very concrete fashion, and  the child deals with others in terms of simple exchange or reciprocity:  "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."  Children in this stage are very concerned with what's fair, but are not concerned with real justice.

Level II:  Conventional morality.  By the time children enter elementary school, they are usually capable of conventional morality, although they may often slip back into preconventional morality on occasion.  But this level is called conventional for a very good reason:  It is also the level that most adults find themselves in most of the time!
Stage 3.  This stage is often called the good boy/good girl stage.  The child tries to live up to the expectations of others, and to seek their approval.  Now the concern includes motives or intentions, and concepts such as loyalty, trust, and gratitude are understood.  Children in this stage often adhere to a concrete version of the Golden Rule, although it is limited to the people they actually deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Stage 4.  This is called the law-and-order stage.  Children now take the point of view that includes the social system as a whole.  The rules of the society are the bases for right and wrong, and doing one's duty and showing respect for authority are important.

Level III:  Post-conventional morality.  Some adolescents and adults go a step further and rise above moralities based on authority to ones based on reason.
Stage 5.  The social contract stage means being aware of the degree to which much of so-called morality is relative to the individual and to the social group they belong to, and that only a very few fundamental values are universal.  The person at this level sees morality as a matter of entering into a rational contract with one's fellow human beings to be kind to each other, respect authority, and follow laws to the extent that they respect and promote those universal values.  Social contract morality often involves a utilitarian approach, where the relative value of an act is determined by "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Stage 6.  This stage is referred to as the stage of universal principles.  At this point, the person makes a personal commitment to universal principles of equal rights and respect, and social contract takes a clear back-seat:  If there is a conflict between a social law or custom and universal principles, the universal principles take precedence.

I can't leave Kohlberg without mentioning his younger colleague at Harvard, Carol Gilligan.  Kohlberg's early research was done at a boy's school.  Later, when girls became part of the research population, the girls were regularly rated as lower in the stages than boys of the same age.  Upon investigating further, Gilligan found that it was the way in which the girl's expressed themselves that led the raters to place them in earlier stages, and that, under review, their answers were often at the same or even higher levels than the boys.  It seems that girls (and women) tend to view moral situations in terms of relationships and commitment, rather than in terms of rules and regulations.  That made them appear to be functioning at level 2 or 3, when in fact they were expressing something closer to level 5.

Gilligan went a bit further with this than I am comfortable with, by suggesting that the differences in moral thinking between males and females is tied to genetics, and that female forms of morality are essentially superior to male forms.

Bronfenbrenner's Theory

Another psychologist unafraid to tackle morality was Urie Bronfenbrenner.  He is famous for his studies of children and schools in different cultures.  He outlines five moral orientations:

1.  Self-oriented morality.  This is analogous to Kohlberg's pre-conventional morality.  Basically, the child is only interested in self-gratification and only considers others to the extent that they can help him get what he wants, or hinder him.
The next three orientations are all forms of what Kohlberg called conventional morality:
2.  Authority-oriented morality.  Here, the child, or adult, basically accepts the decrees of authority figures, from parents up to heads of state and religion, as defining of good and bad.

3.  Peer-oriented morality.  This is basically a morality of conformity, where right and wrong is determined not by authority but by one's peers.  In western society, this kind of morality is frequently found among adolescents, as well as many adults.

4.  Collective-oriented morality.  In this orientation, the standing goals of the group to which the child or adult belongs over-ride individual interests.  Duty to one's group or society is paramount.

The last orientation is analogous to Kohlberg's  post-conventional level:
5.  Objectively oriented morality. By objectively, Bronfenbrenner means universal principles that are objective in the sense that they do not depend on the whims of individuals or social groups, but have a reality all their own.
Bronfenbrenner noted that while 1 is found among children (and some adults) in all cultures, 6 is found in relatively few people in any culture.  The differences between 2, 3, and 4 are more a matter of culture than of development.  Many cultures promote strict obedience to authority figures.  One can see this in some middle eastern cultures, where the word of the religious authorities is law.  In many western cultures, conformity to one's peers is a powerful force.  And in others still, such as some Asian cultures, the welfare of the group is considered far more important than that of the individual.

Bronfenbrenner also talks about how we get movement from one orientation to another.  The movement from 1 to 2, 3, or 4 involves participation in the family and other social structures, where concern for others begins to take precedent over concern for oneself.

Movement from 2, 3, or 4 to 5 occurs when a person is exposed to a number of different moral systems which at least partially conflict with each other, a situation he calls moral pluralism.  This forces the person to begin to think about what might lie beneath all the variation, and lead him or her to consider ultimate moral principles.

On the other hand, sometimes people slide back down to the lowest orientation when they suffer from the disintegration of social structures, as in war and other social disasters.  This can force a person's attentions back onto their own needs, and cause them to begin ignoring the welfare of larger social groupings.

Perspectives theory

As you may have come to expect, I also have some theorizing of my own in regards to this topic.  Moral development has, in fact, been my main interest for the last 30 years or so. My theory comes pretty naturally out of the ideas I presented earlier in this book: Although there is only one reality, each of us has our own perspective on that reality, based on things like genetics, health, cultures, upbringings, unique experiences, etc. However, when you look a little closer, you find that there are a few broad perspectives that have some internal coherence. And, of course, these perspectives include perspectives on morality.

The egocentric perspective

The first perspective I call the egocentric perspective. I used to call it the autistic perspective, but since I originally wrote about it, the word "autistic" has come to be associated strongly with the disorders of the autistic spectrum. Nevertheless, the egocentric perspective on morality is the perspective held by infants, very young children, perhaps autistic children, and perhaps some psychotic adults. The person taking this perspective sees the world from one point-of-view and one point-of-view only: their own. It is, in other words, purely self-centered. Egocentric morality probably overlaps with Bronfenbrenner's self-oriented morality and at least with Kohlberg's reward-and-punishment stage.

The authoritarian perspective

The authoritarian view is a common one - perhaps the most common one.  It is a step above the egocentric in that, although it is a subjective view, it takes into account the views of others.  In fact, it may be said to absorb the views of others.  Developmentally, the simple fact of living among other human beings leads one out of the egocentric into the authoritarian.  The child must inevitably broaden his or her perspective to encompass that of “significant others,” if only to survive.  In most circumstances, this process is enormously simplified by the fact that all of a child's immediate contacts share most of a single social reality.

This is the perspective that most fully accepts social reality.  This means, however, that an authoritarian person accepts only one social reality, and understands it as universal.  Someone who does not accept the same social reality is seen as either an infant or insane.  When this social reality is threatened, either by another social reality or by more immediate experiences, the tendency is for the person to engage their defensive mechanisms.

Most children, as well as the adults of primitive or isolated societies, or of highly structured traditional societies, will take this position.  There is a tendency to legalistic thinking and an inordinate respect for tradition, even when that tradition is painful.  Further, authoritarians tend to classify events, objects, and even people in pigeon-hole types or categories, with relatively few gradations.  And they tend to believe in universal dualities - black vs white, good vs bad, us vs them... - with little room for “in between” or “both.”

I would divide the authoritarian perspective into four parts: The first part - call it the familial orientation - would be pretty close to Kohlberg's exchange stage plus good girl/good boy stage. The second part would be Bronfenbrenners three social types (authority-oriented, peer-oriented, and collective-oriented moralities).

The objective perspectives

I am personally more interested in adult forms of morality, especially those that rise above the authoritarian perspective. So instead of a single "post-conventional" or "objectively-oriented" level, I postulate several:

First, there's the rationalistic perspective. People with this perspective value reason, words, logic. They seek an objective truth that  they view as contained within the mind. When someone who is brought up in one of the authoritarian traditions is exposed to other social realities beyond their own, they are most likely to seek commonalities among those traditions and develop ideal (and often idealistic) structures to contain them, such as a moral system that extends beyond any one culture or society. Rationalistic morality is similar to Kohlberg's stage of universal principles.

Next, there's the mechanistic perspective. It also seeks objective truth, but views it as outside the mind, in the world. It is more empirical and materialistic than the rationalistic perspective. People in this perspective are often more extreme in their rejection of the subjective and traditional thinking, and strive to reduce all mental reality to physical reality. Like some behaviorists, they may even go so far as to reject the existence of consciousness itself. It is a very practical perspective, and much of the successful side (and some of the dark side) of the modern world is due to mechanistic thinking.

In terms of morality, it tends to be utilitarian and often focuses on the social contract, and is similar to Kohlberg's stage of that name. Some see morality as little more than social customs or even individual tastes. And at its worst, it may reduce morality to material force - i.e. "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest".

The cybernetic perspective is a synthesis of the rationalistic and the mechanistic.  Instead, it accepts both reason and empiricism as valid approaches to knowledge, and sees mind and matter as two sides of the same coin.  Instead of vast, ethereal rationalistic theories, or cold, mathematical mechanistic descriptions, this perspective tends to try to model reality - in words, or images, or computer simulations.

The cybernetic view of morality is, as you might expect, an interactive one.  The impact of the valuer becomes important, and moral judgments are viewed as having contexts.  It is this view that I think better accounts for the highly moral women that Kohlberg’s colleague, Carol Gilligan, wrote about.  These women, because they kept moral judgments in the context of social expectations, individual pains and pleasures, and so forth, were judged by traditional Kohlberg standards as being of rather low moral development, conventional (authoritarian) if  not lower.  Instead, she viewed these women as having a different approach to morality than the men, but at the same, or even higher, level. I agree with Gilligan, although I don't think this perspective is restricted to women.

The highest perspectives

Due to my life-long interest in phenomenology, existentialism, and Buddhist philosophy, I have come to the conclusion that there are still higher perspectives. They may be rare, but every once in a while, one comes across a person that seems special - a saint, we might say, or a bodhisattva. I have met a few, and read about a few more, as I suspect the reader has as well. Here's my attempt at analyzing these people's perspectives:

The lower version I call the intersubjective perspective. As the name implies, people in this perspective understand what I started this section with: That there is one reality and we all have different perspectives on that reality. And more: No one person can have a complete understanding of the one reality. It's just too big. So the best way to go about understanding the universe - including ourselves - is to take a good look at all the various ways of looking at it - that is, being very open-minded and tolerant - while always staying humble.

Of course, it isn't easy to be this way. For one thing, it's rather impractical. People in the lower perspectives make up their minds (or have their minds made up by others) and get down to the business of making the world fit their beliefs. But intersubjective people, after listening to hundreds of different opinions, can always be persuaded to listen to just one more! Plus, because they are so tolerant, they sometimes seem to pay too much attention to what others may think of as strange or even repulsive ideas. Most of us pay no attention to an ass - but the intersubjective person know that the ass is sometimes right!

The intersubjective perspective views moral value as necessarily involving consciousness, yet having its own reality.  That is to say, good is to be found in the interaction of mind and world, yet is not to be dismissed as therefore somehow unreal - especially when you consider that all reality, to the extent that we have anything to do with it, is a matter of such interaction!

While it is true that the great majority of things that distinguish one person from another - or one culture from another - are just a matter of habits or customs, there are, of course, some things that are of moral significance. The intersubjective perspective respects the variety of individuals and cultures, but does not shy away from the idea that some perspectives are, in fact, morally better than others. It recognizes that the good is a direction, not a place, and that it is real even though it cannot be expressed in the form of absolutes.

There is one more perspective I can see, even though I’d be the first to admit that I am not “in” it:  the transcendental perspective.  It is even more “open,” “impractical,” and, yes, “flaky” than the intersubjective, from the perspective of most of modern society, although primitive and traditional societies seem more accepting of it.   It involves, as the name implies, transcending the multiple perspectives of the intersubjective and coming into direct contact with uninterpreted, immediate reality.  This is done by stripping away constructed reality altogether, through techniques such as meditation.

This ultimately involves the diminution of desire and self.  That means moving closer and closer to an unconscious state while retaining the ability to recall the experience.  In a very real sense, it is a matter of dying - or almost dying - and returning to everyday reality with a new perspective on life.

Since eastern traditions have made quite an impact on the west in the last century or so, quite a number of words have become current as labels for this perspective:  Tao, satori, moksha, buddhahood, enlightenment, nirvana, cosmic consciousness, and so on. A good label is Maslow’s peak experiences, in that it distances the phenomenon from particular religious practices and philosophical points of view, and especially recognizes that the experience is one that normal people can have in their everyday lives, not one only available to monks seated in the lotus position. It describes any experience in which one loses one’s sense of individual separateness and feels instead a strong sense of union with all living things.

In the transcendental mode of morality, the good is what is done.  It is an expression of one’s intimacy with the universe, with the needs of all life, the desire of all consciousness.  The good is an expression, as the philosopher Spinoza might put it, of God-or-Nature, and  we are capable of recognizing it intuitively.  Again, I’m only speculating rather than describing when it comes to this perspective.

The transcendental perspective is very suspicious of words. The very first chapter of the Tao te Ching, for example, warns us that the Tao that can be spoken isn't the true Tao.  This said, I will take my own advice and cease to discuss the transcendental perspective. Or anything else, for that matter, until the next chapter.