Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Principles or Principals: Levels of Moral Development

The other day someone complained about something the dean had done that he though was up to the faculty. I said it was the right decision and the response was "but it is the principle of the thing!" The "thing" was faculty governance.

I had two thoughts. I sincerely hoped that that a faculty that had abused faculty governance to enrich itself would have faculty governance removed. For the most part faculty governance is used to fleece people who have no say in the matters that affect them.

The second thought was about how many time people say "principle" when what they are really concerned about are the "principals" involved.

So, suppose the Dean says something like " it would be better for the students is everyone taught 4 courses instead of three each year." "Wait a sec" someone might say, "That is a matter for the faculty to decide. It's the principle of faculty governance." But then when the faculty actually votes it's not about principles but principals.

Sometimes I think it has to do with moral development. Some may recall the stages of moral development from readying the work of Lawrence Kohlberg. If memory serves me there were 6 stages that could be distilled to three. Lowest was a strict cost benefit analysis. Second was a broader sense of caring for the community. Finally were people who acted consistent with principles even though the outcome might be counter to self interest.

An example of level 1 would be like the day my wife told my 4 year old that he could have one cookie while she was away. I say him with 4 cookies and asked him about it. His reply "But mom is not here yet. "

As best I can tell, many or most law profs are stuck, at least when in the context of law school, at level one. This is where the side deals and special treatment come in. It all takes place in a dean's office and has nothing to do with fairness or even what is best for the community. Faculty each want as many cookies as they can get as long as they are not caught.

Do faculties ever make it to the middle stage of caring about the community? For example, does anyone ever say " I should not do this because, if everyone did it, it would create uncertainty and chaos within the faculty?" Or how about, "I am doing this even though it makes me worse off because it will make the community better off."   I am not saying that they do not cooperate from time to time but, when they do, it is consistent with the getting all the cookies they can. No principles, just principals acting like a school yard gang.

The top level of moral development is very rare and frankly scares me a little. I am sure some of the worse villains in history believed they were acting on principle. I now know why this would be the highest level of moral development since the principle may have cruel and awful consequences. Still, I'll take that risk with law faculty and just once like to hear someone invoke "principle" and not mean "principal."

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