Ever since G. Stanley Hall’s 1892 description of infants learning to love because of the mother’s embrace, the field of moral development has been searching for the answer to one of humanity’s most interesting questions: What does it mean to be highly morally developed?

At the risk of criticizing my own field of study, moral development, I think the 100+ years of asking this question have not yielded adequate answers.  Let us examine some of these attempted answers and then I will propose an alternative that I think is higher still.

Jacqueline Song
Source: Jacqueline Song

First, to Jean Piaget (1932), whose focus was not the pinnacle of moral development, but instead ended with a focus on later childhood.  For Piaget, a key to being highly morally developed (at least in childhood) is to understand reciprocity: If you give half of your orange to me at lunchtime, I own you part of my apple tomorrow.  Give-and-take is important in life, but it does not necessarily imply a deep connection between the orange-and-apple sharers.  Each is independent of the other and there may not be any deep affection or obligation between the persons as persons other than the exchange of objects.

Although Sigmund Freud (1917) did not characterize his developmental scheme as a decidedly moral endeavor, it does have implications for what is good.  His psychosexual descriptions imply that as people mature, then they become more interested in others’ pleasure and not just their own.  The highest developmental level, which he called the genital stage, concerns mutuality of sexual pleasure.  Yet, as in the Piagetian description, this need not imply a deliberate connection between two people, but instead only a mutual and respectful exchange of that pleasure.  One can give and receive pleasure at an emotional distance, without a meaningful connection between the two.

Jaqueline Song
Source: Jaqueline Song

Even though Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) advanced our thinking regarding what it means to be highly morally developed, he, too, stopped short.  For Kohlberg, to be highly developed is to take the position of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and to treat people as ends in-and-of-themselves so that you do not use others for your own gain.  This surely is good because we do not try to interact with the other for our own power, for our own gain, for our own pleasure.  Yet, one can show such respect from a distance, without entering into the other’s world, without being present to one another in any meaningful sense.  One can be respectful without connection.

Jonathan Haidt’s (2000) idea on what he calls moral elevation advances the study of moral development because of its focus on warm, caring, and loving feelings.  Watching an inspiring story of altruism, for example, can lead to this kind of moral elevation inside of a person.  Yet, cannot one be feeling such warmth by sitting alone in one’s room, not reflecting deeply on what is happening, not making a free-will choice to deliberately act on this emotion, and not, therefore, connecting in any deep way with the other?  Surely, one might interact in such a way, but the theory does not describe how this occurs and even postulates that the moral elevation, because it is based on emotion, can quickly fade without bearing any positive, long-term consequences in the world.

Perhaps the antithesis of connection is Jean Paul Sartre’s (1938) philosophy of what he implies as the highest form of human existence: freedom. As you are free to choose as you wish, you disconnect from others and in a sense you disconnect from your very self, realizing that the self is nothing.  The highly developed person lives in a nihilist world of meaninglessness, with the only meaning being that I am free from others and even from myself.  Consider Sartre’s (1943) explosion of the concept of generosity, which he leaves cut and bleeding and lying in the gutter: “To give is to appropriate by means of destroying and to use this act of destruction as a means of enslaving others” (p. 685).  This is anti-reciprocity, anti-respect, anti-moral-elevation.  It seems to be a devolution of development and not an advance at all, even though Sartre considers this to be a form of human maturity of what we have whether we like it or not.

Jacqueline Song
Source: Jacqueline Song

I would like to challenge over 100 years of thinking on moral development to suggest that the field itself is not highly morally developed because it has left out the theme of genuine human connection, genuinely being present to one another, through the understanding, feelings, and practice of love.  To love is to be reciprocal in that you are concerned about the other, but there is more.  To love is to be concerned with the other’s pleasure, but there is more.  To love is to treat others as ends-in-and-of themselves, but there is more.

To love is to do much of what is described above and to add, as the philosopher, Gabriel Marcel (1954), reasons: a) being present to the other rather than being only accessible (which implies being an instrument of aid but not a person interacting with another person and acknowledging personhood in both); b) not allowing yourself to be an object to the other or the other an object to the self; c) deliberately connecting with the other as person so that what you have together transcends time and space; d) even if the other were to die, that love remains and can guide how one thinks, feels, and acts toward others; e) and that sense of love can be passed to others who pass this still to others so that the love lives in the world long after you are gone.

This is not a sentimental romanticism, but a genuine caring for and connection with others for their benefit.  If this is not encouraged in the field of moral development, then how can that field advance the human condition?

The field of moral development needs to consider the Marcellian philosophy if it is to advance as a field.

Because love encompasses all that has been considered in the field of moral development for the past 100+ years and goes beyond all of this, extending it to a realm that is deeper (connection) and more permanent (existing in others and long after you are gone), it does appear to be a more highly developed sense of humanity than the theories thus far generated in the field.

Do you see yourself as an independent entity, free from others and deliberately so, or do you see yourself as decidedly connected to others, present to them for their good?

Where are you on the moral development spectrum?  The challenge is to begin to examine these various forms of development and begin to ask:  Where do I want to be on this continuum?  Can I deliberately will to advance in my moral development by cultivating a presence when with others, with a deliberate connection with them as persons, meeting them person-to-person, not to get something for one’s own pleasure, but to give, to advance the other?

The theory of love has begun to be advanced to a point and is discussed in Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2001) and in Enright (2012).  More must be done.


Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life.  Washington, DC: APA Books.

Freud, S. (1917/1952).  A general introduction to psychoanalysis.  New York: Pocket Books.

Haidt, J. (2000). The positive emotion of elevation. Prevention & Treatment, 3, 3c. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1522-3736.3.1.33c

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