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Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism
by Owen Flanagan
Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $34.95

In this challenging book, Owen Flanagan addresses a number of important and neglected connections between ethics and psychology. He begins with the suggestion that it is time for philosophers of the moral life to take “a cold, hard look at what is known about human nature.” Psychological knowledge, he argues, introduces a kind of realism that undermines over-rationalistic philosophies of ethics and also raises questions concerning certain philosophical theories of virtue. It is difficult, however, to summarize Flanagan’s answers to the question of how psychological realism is to be introduced into moral philosophy, in part because these topics are themselves complex and in part because of the nature of Flanagan’s treatment. For example, the author makes much of what he calls his Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism (PMPR):

Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behavior prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible, for creatures like us.

Flanagan spends considerable time defending the validity of this principle, but one wonders if the effort is worth it. It seems such a minimum as to be at best minimally useful. Has any moral teacher ever conceded that his moral ideal was “perceived” as impossible for everyone? And, from another perspective, Christianity could be said to violate this principle deliberately on theological grounds: Christians are told to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” but they are also told that no one is perfect, indeed that, on our own, we cannot be truly virtuous.

By far the most significant part of the book are the five chapters on moral psychology. Flanagan gives a good summary and critique of the moral philosophy of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He notes its Kantian roots and describes in some specificity its cognitive character, in particular Piaget’s assumption that all morality consists in a system of rules. In his critique, Flanagan effectively exposes the dubiousness of exclusively rule-based morality.

The limitations of such Enlightenment-based psychological assumptions are most clearly brought out in the chapters focused on the moral psychology of Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg’s elaborate scheme of stages of moral development, in many respects derived from Piaget, was especially influential from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Flanagan’s discussion of Kohlberg (and of Carol Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg) is a major contribution. The author carefully dissects the different rational assumptions and arguments behind Kohlberg’s position and goes on to identify in detail the system’s various limits and contradictions. Indeed, by the time Flanagan is through, one can hardly imagine how anyone can remain a Kohlbergian. Certainly Kohlberg made contributions to moral psychology, but the phenomenal enthusiasm that developed for his system remains a mystery. (I suspect it was something of a mystery to Kohlberg as well.)

Flanagan offers, to begin with, a “seasquirt” critique of Kohlberg’s assumption that a later developmental stage necessarily represents a higher level of functioning. Seasquirts are creatures that in their larval stage have a rudimentary brain that allows them to swim and to identify an appropriate place to which to attach themselves. Once a seasquirt locates such a spot, it puts its head down, attaches itself, and proceeds to absorb its own brain. Thus, “cognitively speaking, grownup seasquirts are considerably more primitive than their offspring.” We all have met human seasquirts: people who as adults are less cognitively and morally sensitive and developed than they were as children. The seasquirt analogy brings into question more than Kohlberg’s assumption of moral progress through time. It also affects his claim that there is no possibility for a person who has reached a higher stage to regress to a lower stage. Indeed, Kohlberg appears to have accepted, on the basis of empirical evidence, the possibility of stage-regression.

Flanagan identifies many other weaknesses with Kohlberg’s stages, and the cumulative weight of his argument supports his summary judgment:

Once we pay attention to the multifarious content of moral issues and think of the various cognitive and affective dispositions required to meet them, it seems simply unbelievable that there could be a single ideal moral competence and a universal and irreversible sequence of stages according to which moral personality unfolds and against which moral maturity can be unequivocally plotted.

Flanagan is also persuasive on the recent Kohlberg-related work of Carol Gilligan on presumed gender differences in moral thinking. Although Flanagan agrees that Gilligan’s work undermines the Kohlbergian system, he does not accept most of Gilligan’s own proposals, for both empirical and theoretical reasons.

Gilligan initially claimed that Kohlberg’s understanding of morality, with its focus on justice in a rule-based system, was predominantly male in character. Her work suggested that women’s moral thinking, by contrast, was focused on interpersonal relationships and expressed an ethic of caring. These two moralities, if you will, justice vs. caring, were, according to Gilligan, reliably associated, the former with men and the latter with women. And whichever mentality characterized a person was stable and resistant to change: thus individuals were either “just” or “caring,” rarely a combination of both. Flanagan does not deny that there may be reliable but probably modest underlying differences in the use of these two paradigms, nor does he deny that male and female understandings of the self have significant differences between them. But he draws attention to recent research that demonstrates, apparently even to Gilligan’s satisfaction, that both men and women can use either mode, and that even those who prefer one are commonly able to use the other mode of moral judgment as well.

In the final section of the book, Flanagan takes up issues of the stability of moral character, the influence of the social environment on morality, and the possible well-being that the virtuous life might bring. Here the author’s underlying theme becomes clear. In the final analysis, Flanagan argues, there is no single ideal moral character.

It strikes me as an utterly liberating thought that we abandon the idea of a single ideal type of moral personality. As fictions go, this is an especially constraining and damaging one. It keeps us from appreciating the rich diversity of persons that everywhere abounds and it seeds the ground for intolerance, disrespect, and overconfidence in one’s own life form.

The psychology that Flanagan deals with, he deals with well. But his book suffers from some significant omissions. For example, the writings of Robert Coles, particularly relevant in the context of a critique of Kohlberg, are noticeable by their absence. Flanagan also overlooks the important research and theorizing on moral psychology by Martin Hoffman, with its focus on empathy—something equally relevant to many of the topics addressed in this volume. Finally, he omits or scants studies that suggest the existence of stable moral virtues and moral character, perhaps because such studies do not fit well with his antipathy toward the idea of an ideal moral character.

Unfortunately, all that Flanagan appears to have to put in the place of any single ideal is a kind of personal moral relativism. Flanagan expresses in his Epilogue a distinct enthusiasm for human self-creation in the moral realm, freed from any serious restrictions. As he puts it, “Our ends are not specified either by God or by our essence as homo sapiens.” He seems to look forward to the withering away both of any fixed notion of human nature and of religion—at least in its Judeo-Christian form. Fortunately, Flanagan’s unsatisfactory Epilogue (like the equally unsatisfactory Prologue) is not an integral part of the book—and the faults of these two unreasoned bookends do not undermine the contributions of the main text.

Paul C. Vitz is Professor of Psychology at New York University.

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