Final Reaction on David Moshman’s Advanced Psychological Development

This reaction paper, nowhere near as good as my summary of interpretivism for scopes & methods, is a required reaction paper for David Moshman’s Adolescent Psychological Development: Rationality, Morality, and Identity (2nd Edition). It was one of the three books I read for Adolescent Psychology, along with David Elkind’s All Grown Up And No Place To Go and Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.

I’ve previously turned in and posted quest sets of Moshman before, on cognitive development, identity development, and the purpose of education. The paper below focuses mostly on moral and advanced psychological development. For a taste of my take on Moshmanite reasoning, see my comment’s to Mark’s post The Epistemological Battlespace.

As a political science instructor, I commonly see students grapple with moral (what we call “normative”) issues while analyzing situations. From collateral damage to unaverted genocides, and everything in between, the rules of statecraft Therefore Moshman’s section on advanced psychology development, especially rationality and morality, intrigued me. In this reaction paper I will sail closely to the order the book presents issues, but interpret each in light of my experience.

First, Moshman cites Ketternauer’s moral espitemologies (116). These are intuitionist, subjectivist, and transubjectivist. In my experience the vast majority of freshmen at UNL appear to be transsubjectivists. Two weeks ago my recitations help mock trials of Slobodan Milosevic, after learning about the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. In every section, the arbitrarily named defense team put up a well-thought-out and well-reasoned defense. In one, the defense even earned an acquittal from a judge who had previously been selected by the students. Milosevic’s actions were defined as necessary in the context he was operating under, and superior to other options he had. This is the essence of transubjectivism. As my classes are composed of freshmen interested in politics, as opposed to “graduate students with background in moral philosophy” (117), either UNL’s student body is significantly above-par or Krettenauer’s findings need to be rethought.

Second, Moshman’s discussion of moral identity is helpful, because it can help in explaining “idealism” — one of the main perspectives in international relations. An idealist believes that people are motivated by thoughts that drive their action, even if that action is not self-beneificial. Moshman’s definition of a moral agent — “one who acts on teh basis of respect and/or concern for the rights and/or welfare of others” (121) is essentially the definition of an idealist. Using this definition, George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Chang Kai-Shek, and Hitler can all be explained in idealst/moral agents ways. Going back to the previous example with Slobodan Milosevic, one of the defense arguments used was “He had to protect his people.” That is a clear example of reasoning based on moral agency.

Third, Moshman’s constructivism section is useful because the same theory, under the same name, exists in international relations, as well under the term “interpretivism” in political science generally. It can be helpful to explain to students that their reality, and their nation’s reality, both are formed because “individuals play an active role in constructing their own knowledge and reasoning and in generating their own behavior.” (126). With the end of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism, where the fate of nations now hang more on individuals with boxcutters than bureaucracies with bombs, constructivism enables students to apply their own metacognition to the field they study.

Fourth, and here is a failing of Moshman’s, I could use discussion that “we should consider the relationship of differences across individuals to differences within individuals” (132) as an example of fallacious reasoning. Intergroup contests come up constantly in political science, and Moshman’s example of how even an educated author can be misled by statistics will be insightful. For instance, imagine that there are two groups A and B, each of whom as a standard variation (sigma) of 3, and in each of whom the variation with individuals is 6, and that the difference in means (mu) between them across whatever domains is only .1. Moshman would say here the intergroup variation is meaningless, because variance within groups is larger than between groups, and variance within individuals is greater than within a group. Yet this analysis would be deeply misleading, because in any highly-intense competition that strongly selects for some characteristic (say, Senate races), we could except all winners to be from the favored group (because we would be chopping off the normal curve at the very upper tail) even with this comparatively minor intergroup variation.

Fifth, while I disagree with Moshman’s belief that education’s “core purpose should be the promotion of rationality” (it should instead be preparing students for personal happiness and national success, in accordance with the U.S. Constitution), I enjoyed the important features of discussion he mentions (138): “each students has multiple opportunities to present and defend his or her views,” “each student was exposed to a variety of alternative views and justifications,” “students were encouraged to reach agreement on a conclusion they all deemed most justifiable,” and “students were not required to change their views if they remain unconvinced by the critiques and alternatives.” I run all ofy recitations as a democracy with a three stage process: students elect representatives to a Class Assembly through proportional representation, the Class Assembly selects a President through a 2/3ds Majority, and the President names a Prime Minister who has to be approved by more than half of the Class Assembly (actually, because I allow the Class Assembly to change the Constitution with a 2/3rds vote, two of the recitations have altered the process — in my original formulation the Prime Minister has a judicial role, but now one recitation has named a standing Supreme Court, and the other created multiple classes of suffrage as well as an elected, judicial Speaker of the Assembly). Every class begins with this entire process (with the exception of the one with a Supreme Court, whose appointments are for life). Among the many benefits of this approach are that they force students to go through Moshman’s four stages first thing. The election generally takes only five minutes, but even contested elections are valuable, because they force students to practically confront politics in the context of increased rationality.

In conclusion, the Moshman book was valuable. Indeed, I found it to be the best thing in the course. His words on moral epistemologices, moral identity, and constructivism are clearly useful and relevent to me. Even when he falls down, such as in statistical analysis or the purpose of schooling, his book is still valuable. I enjoyed it.