Simple But True: The Dual-Aspect-Theory of Moral Behavior

One: We humans have only a limited capacity to live up to our ideals of goodness, and to solve problems and conflicts in a peaceful way. Although this capacity varies much among people as already Socrates noticed (Menon) nobody is perfect. Even the wisest people’s and saints’ lives are full of contradictions and regrettable decisions. Is human life too complex to be moral? Is there no other possibility than to choose between either giving up our moral ideals, or following people with simple but unwarranted answers?

Two: Yes, the world is very complex and becomes more complex almost every day because of the dynamics of economy, technology, politics, and migration. But complexity cannot be healed by “complexity.” If we want to keep pace with these developments we do not need more but less complex answers, as simple answers as possible.

Three: The founders of natural science understood this basic condition of the human mind. One of their most important figures, the Franciscan monk William Occam (Wilhelm von Ockham) has questioned the endless growth of complexity of thinking in the medieval monasteries by stating: Do not multiply concepts without necessity! Why? Well, because the simpler the theory the better it can be tested for truth, and the better it can be taught. Without this insight, often called ‘Occam’s Razor,’ no modern technology would exist. Of course, simplicity of theories is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for scientific progress. Theories must also be true, that is, they must survive rigorous attempts to falsify them. Such attempts have indeed made it necessary sometimes to add some new concepts and differentiate old ones.

Four: In the domain of social, psychological, and moral science, the same need for simple truth exists, with the emphasis on both words: ‘simple’ and ‘truth.’ Unfortunately, in the social and art sciences this need does not seem to be fully recognized yet. Too often, ‘complexity’ instead of simplicity is adored. Too often truth is only claimed but is not tested in rigorous experiments, not even attempts are made to test them. Theories exist and live only because they are forwarded by authors of high social prestige. They die with their authors (Thomas Kuhn).

Five: This neglect of the basic human need for simple truth invites charlatans, self-appointed leaders, and religious soul catchers to close the gap between demand and supply. It is true that these kind of people try out their tricks also in the field of natural science, especially when they are sponsored by rich people and corporations that seek to protect their sales market, like the tobacco industry, the soft drink industry, and the car industry. They question the well-established links between smoking and cancer, between sugar drinks and obesity, and between CO2 pollution and climate change. However, in social sciences (psychology, education, economy etc.) the simple-fake-tellers seems to be more numerous. Instead of putting their efforts into the uncovering the simple fakes, social scientists prefer to do “exploratory studies” hoping to find a “significant difference” which is sensational enough to make it into the large media.

Six: Wittgenstein’s observation of 1953 still applies: “The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a ‘young science’; its state is not compatible with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings. … For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. The existence of experimental methods makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and methods pass one another by.” His observation applies to all social sciences.
(L. Wittgenstein: Philosophical investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. The Macmillan company, New York, 1953, chapter xiv).

Seven: Simple truth in social science is possible. Over forty years ago, I chose Occam’s motto of conceptual parsimony as a maxim for my studies on moral behavior and development. This maxim carried my research a long way: from clarifying and testing basic assumptions about the nature of moral behavior, to formulating and testing hypotheses about the development of moral competence and orientation, and to designing an effective method for fostering moral competence. Although some find it difficult to understand the concept of moral competence, because it seems to contradict their habituated thinking about morality, my dual-aspect theory of moral behavior is both very simple and true, that is, many researchers in the field found it understandable, and have confirmed it in  rigorous tests of empirical validity.

Eight: The dual-aspect theory of moral behavior is simple and has also shown to be true without exception. It states the following:

  • Two aspects, not just one, are needed to adequately describe moral behavior: 1. The moral orientation, and 2.  the moral competence revealed in a person’s pattern of behavior.
  • Basic moral orientations (also called moral ideals or principles) are few, universal and inborn, e.g., justice, freedom, and cooperation.
  • For solving genuine moral problems, all people chose the highest type of moral orientation (as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg) over lower types. [We call this hypothesis: “Preference hierarchy.”]
  • Types of moral orientations form not only a hierarchy but also a simplex-structure of inter-correlations [“Simplex structure.”]
  • Moral competence is the ability to solve problems and conflicts on the basis of one’s moral orientations through thinking and discussion instead of through violence, deceit, and force.
  • Moral competence is an ability and not just an attitude: it cannot be faked up. [Non-fakeability.]
  • The higher people’s moral competence, the more clearly their preference hierarchy is. [Affective-cognitive parallelism.]
  • People with higher moral competence show, e.g., lower risk of criminal behavior, more helping behavior, more engagement for democratic principles, quicker decision-making, and better learning ability.
  • Moral competence can, and must, be taught to develop to a level high enough for relinquishing violence, deceit and force as a means for solving problems and conflicts. [Teachability.]
  • The best method for fostering moral competence is that of ‘immunization,’ that is, of confronting people with moral problems and conflicts that are similar to the problems and conflicts for which this competence ist needed, but which do not hurt so much that no learning can take place.
  • On the basis of this simple truth, we developed the Konstanzer Methode der Dilemma-Diskussion (KMDD) which works with semi-real moral dilemma stories. As expected, the KMDD is highly effective if applied by a sufficiently trained KMDD-Teacher.