Levels of Thinking Applied to the Coronavirus Crisis

Different levels of moral reasoning give rise to different fears in a crisis.

Posted Apr 04, 2020

This post was co-authored by Lene Rachel Andersen

As we explored in a previous post, there are different ways of reacting to a threat like the coronavirus. We looked at our fears and at what kind of justifications we may apply to our behavior during the crisis, and we did so through the lens of moral psychology as described by American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.

In short, Kohlberg described three broad categories of moral reasoning, with two subcategories under each. Relevant to the current crisis, these six levels of moral reasoning can be applied to how we respond to new regulations from authorities:

I. Pre-conventional moral reasoning: The primary focus is fearing harm to the self.

1 ) How can I avoid punishment?

2) What’s in it for me if I do comply?

II. Conventional moral reasoning: The primary fear is social rejection/exclusion.

3) Will others like me and trust me? What would happen if people saw me not comply?

4) Will this serve societal structures? Am I contributing to upholding the rules?

III. Post-conventional moral reasoning: The primary fear is social disintegration and widespread harm.

5) Do my actions serve everybody and the bigger picture?

6) Does this serve a purpose beyond our own time? Will the measures taken now improve or damage life in the future?

As one can tell from the six levels, the moral reasoning becomes increasingly abstract and complex, and inclusive of larger groups of people. Each of the six levels of moral reasoning requires that the underlying levels are consolidated; as we mature through life, one cannot skip a level but must develop through each level to move to the next.

These different levels of moral reasoning are important because, when we apply them to policy and the values and decisions that guide democracy, the six levels have different consequences. Here is a summary of the different kinds of considerations, this time moving from the more abstract to the less.

6) Citizens and political leaders who base their moral judgement on a principled, long-term perspective can uphold democracy and develop long-term sustainable solutions; they will be willing to sacrifice current needs and wants for future benefits for society as a whole.

5) Citizens and political leaders who see the bigger picture in the current societal model can uphold democracy; they have the moral capacity to appreciate disagreements as long as we are all focused on what benefits all of society as a whole, not just sub-groups or personal interests.

The post-conventional fear groupthink and submissive obedience to authority. They also fear shortsightedness and scopes that are too limited. For this group, having to succumb to convention causes high levels of frustration and stress, perhaps even anger.

4) Citizens and political leaders who focus on upholding existing rules without questioning the rules do not have the capacity to see when the rules are insufficient; they trust authority and are not free to speak their honest mind if they actually do see authorities making mistakes.

3) Citizens and political leaders who take their moral guidance from their near surroundings i.e. family, friends or fellow congregants, and fear the moral judgment of others, adjust their viewpoints, moral reasoning and actions accordingly.

The conventionally-minded fear having to take an independent moral stand. For this group, not being able to take guidance from others is terrifying, and they would rather follow orders than risk not being liked. According to the conventional way of making judgments, people who do not respect the social norms and play by the same rules as everybody else are traitors or bad people.

2) Citizens and political leaders who focus on "what’s in it for me?" can maintain corruption but not democracy, and not even rule of law or any coherent society.

1) Citizens who are only concerned with avoiding personal suffering would probably not even consider politics or society as something that concerns them.

The pre-conventional mindset can rule by manipulation, deceit, opportunism, and violence, but they cannot contribute to holding together a community, much less a society and its institutions, except by fear and/or violence.

It is also useful to note the powerful impact fear and defensiveness can have on thinking styles. Psychotherapists have long noted how, under duress, people can regress into more basic or simple or primitive ways of being. That is, a threat to our current existence, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can cause us to simplify our moral reasoning.

I. Higher moral considerations can give rise to exceptions.

From the sixth level of considering the long-term perspective, one can regress to considering society as a whole here and now.

From level 5, one can regress to wanting to uphold existing rules without questioning the political leadership and their decisions as the crisis unfolds.

II. Democracy can regress to authoritarianism.

From level 4, one can regress to in-group loyalty and see other groups in society as a threat to law and order.

From level 3, one can regress to thinking about oneself and one’s own family only.

III. The authoritarian society can regress into chaos.

From Level 2, one can regress into survival mode without any concern for the well-being of others.

As our societies lock down and the health and economic consequences are unknown, it is crucial that we address openly the fears that people have and pay attention to the different kinds of fears that emerge at different levels of moral reasoning.

The best possible antidote to massive regression into fear and authoritarianism is probably for the individual to feel a sense of empowerment and control. Control over one’s own life situation and over something useful one can do that will benefit others. In a future post, we are going to suggest what the individual may do to feel empowered and what you may suggest others do depending on their fears.