Does Debating Moral Issues Make You Moral?

JP Stuckert

            We hear that LD debate is “values debate,” but what is the point of having a style of debate that differs from Policy or PF in this way? And what does this claim, which is often made in lay circuits and rounds, say to “circuit” debaters? One way of answering these questions is to consider whether debating moral issues makes students more moral . If this is the case, it could provide a justification to schools and parents with limited resources to devote time and money to LD; and may help students in circuit rounds to flesh out the benefits of moral debate in theory-heavy rounds.

However, “making students moral” is not a simple concept. Obviously, whether a change in a person makes her more moral depends on what morality is. And even if we have a clear answer to that question, the duties of educators (and even what would be permissible for them to do) may not be simple. For example, suppose utilitarianism is true and students who do debate tend to become utilitarians. Under utilitarianism, ironically, it is possible that this would be a bad thing. It may be that believing in unconditional rules, even if they do not exist,[1] makes us happier and more sociable. There is some evidence, for example, that sick patients recover more quickly when their doctors at least appear to act in a non-utilitarian way (e.g. arguing that their patients receive organs from a limited supply, even when others may have greater need).[2] And utilitarian thinking among policy-makers may lead to escalating cycles of securitization. Obviously, these harms would have to be weighed against the benefits of having more utilitarians. For instance, it may be that patients would be happier and recover more quickly if they think their doctors place personal relationships above aggregate well-being; but perhaps the patients who have a greater need for organs will lose more utility than everyone else gains from more personable doctors.

But even for deontologists there may be certain restrictions on how we make others more moral. If a form of education amounts to indoctrination, some deontological theorists may view it as an intolerable violation of freedom, even if it leads to more moral behavior. This was a concern for Kant, who equates morality with freedom, but wonders how people could be educated to be free without teachers becoming authority figures themselves.[3] It was also a concern for Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist who wanted a form of moral education that did not teach moral relativism, but which was also not a form of indoctrination.[4]

For Kohlberg, the answer to this dilemma lies in his stage theory of moral development. In mainstream psychology, this theory has been relegated to brief summaries in textbooks; but it is rather philosophically complex. It is based in a constructivist epistemology. Piaget, another developmental psychologist, drew a distinction between his constructivism and what he called innatism and empiricism. According to Piaget, empiricism was the idea that humans are blank slates and gain all their knowledge from their experience of the world outside their minds. Innatism says that some things are known by humans before any experience.[5] In other words, for innatists (some) actions of the mind have their own specific content independent of the world, and for empiricists the objects of the world act upon a passive mind. But for Piaget’s constructivism the mind’s activity upon objects of the world generates knowledge. So, humans gain knowledge from their experience of the world; but we can give (fairly) universal accounts of how human minds develop as they act on this experience. The fact that we have different individual experiences does not imply that our minds structure the mental world in different ways.[6]

Kohlberg is, essentially, an heir to Piaget and applies this understanding of human development to moral development. He believes that as humans develop there is a (fairly) universal progression. Each stage of this development has its own characteristics, and when an individual sees the limitations in a stage’s manner of moral reasoning and, realizes this limitation, he moves toward a new stage of moral development. Each stage (after the first) integrates the former stage but moves past its limitations.

Kohlberg tries to get around relativistic and indoctrinating methods of moral education by using this theory of moral development. He criticizes what he calls the “bag of virtues” approach to moral education. A teacher might, for example, place a list of virtues on a poster in the classroom and refer to it whenever disciplining or praising students. This method may be successful in getting students to think about those virtues, but it will potentially be based in the arbitrary preferences of the teacher. And it seems, on some level, to be a form of indoctrination because morality is given from top down instead of facilitating students to come to their own moral conclusions.[7] Another teacher might avoid speaking about ethics at all. Instead, this teacher may treat classroom rules as only instrumentally valuable for facilitating education. But from Kohlberg’s perspective, such an approach is hardly neutral, as it tends to promote a subjectivist view of ethics.[8] Kohlberg proposes a third way whereby teachers attempt to facilitate the moral development of their students without dictating morality to them. His proposed method for doing this involves Socratic questioning and the discussion of moral dilemmas. One would present a morally difficult case to students and ask them what is he right thing to do. Instead of telling them the answer, the teacher would simply challenge them to reflect on their own reasoning. In this way, Kohlberg hopes students would progress more rapidly and society would become more just without resorting to indoctrination. [9]

Kohlberg’s method complements his constructivism. Moral reasoning does not improve as students learn new or more nuanced versions of rules. Instead, they become better at applying principles (which may initially vary culturally). They learn from challenges in applying principles to worldly cases; and while individuals start with different experiences they will generally develop toward a universal morality. Moral reasoning improves as individuals become better at identifying salient aspects of particular situations and applying principles to them. (Interestingly, Kant also proposes a Socratic moral education.)[10]

But we should notice that the assumptions of this model are not only on the level of normative ethics (i.e., as deontologists Kant and Kohlberg want to avoid relativistic, instrumentalist, and/or authoritarian models of pedagogy), but also at the metaethical level. A constructivist metaethic assumes individuals can converge toward a normative agreement even if ethics are not “discoverable,” like an artifact. This understanding of morality, however, is obviously controversial. Moreover, some theorists might reject the very notion of developmental psychology as either too essentialist or outdated. Furthermore, Kohlberg’s account assumes that morality cannot be translated into a closed set of rules. While philosophers these days generally take it for granted that rules alone cannot comprehensively answer every moral question, and debaters do not even bother warranting the rule-following paradoxes anymore, this is not a closed question.

Yet, it is striking how well Kohlberg’s theory would justify something like LD debate. I have informally gathered data to see whether former LD debaters score higher in terms of Kohlberg’s stage theory and found that they do (generally debaters from other events score about the same as college students at comparable universities who did not debate, and former “phil” debaters score slightly higher than those who were “LARPy”). This is far from conclusive, however, because my sample size was too small to produce statistically significant results and there is a considerable worry of self-selection (people who score higher on Kolhberg’s scale may be more likely to join LD debate or be “phil” debaters in the first place).[11]

Even if someone expanded this investigation into a real study it would not definitively prove that LD debate makes people moral or that LDers should be “phil” debaters. Not only does Kohlberg’s theory assume certain metaethical commitments and that relativism is false and indoctrination is wrong, but his (final) stage six moral reasoning is itself controversial. In fact, he never found enough people to demonstrate that anyone ever reaches stage six. And the type of moral reasoning it espouses as superior is largely Rawlsian (it requires individuals to consider the situation from the perspective of others). Gilligan criticized Kohlberg from a feminist standpoint arguing that stage six moral reasoning requires individuals to ignore personal relationships and the community and that Kohlberg’s theory in general focuses on formal rights and duties instead of care. She argues that an “ethic of care” is an alternative form of moral reasoning, and she believed that women were more likely to hold such an ethic and score lower on Kohlberg’s tests.[12] Kohlberg responded in two different ways. He was concerned that the personal and communitarian nature of Gilligan’s ethic of care was too relativistic to be the foundation of a just society (Kohlberg was the son of a Jewish man and volunteered to help Jews displaced by the Holocaust, and it was very important to him that no moral theory could deny the existence of intrinsically evil actions[13]). He believed a universal formal theory of justice should inform all societies and cultural variation, and personal relationships should develop upon this foundation. Moreover, he argued that his research found no difference between the moral development of men and women when controlling for political participation (men were more likely to engage in local politics and this seems to increase a person’s score – though there may be another self-selection problem).[14]

Finally, there is a concern that Kohlberg’s theory does not address the gap between moral reasoning and moral motivation. A person may get better at figuring out the right thing to do in a given circumstance but this does not imply that she will necessarily take the right action. Kohlberg believed he found evidence of a correlation between higher stage reasoning and moral motivation. His argument is that the “normativity” of a moral judgment becomes stronger the more secure its foundation is. As people reason at higher and higher levels, they come to respect morality more. In this, Kohlberg is very Kantian; but this is another disputed question in moral philosophy.

The point I have tried to demonstrate is this: the question of LD debate’s effects on moral reasoning is important, but it must be answered from a philosophical standpoint. If a debater attempts to argue in-round that “phil debate” or “values debate” is superior to other styles there may be some warrant. But, the question cannot be disentangled from the ethical frameworks on the flow. And if we try to justify LD debate to outsiders, we will find that a great deal depends on what we share philosophically.


[1] Unconditional duties or obligations cannot exist under utilitarianism, at least under act-utilitarianism because there is always a potential set of consequences which can justify any action no matter how despicable.

[2] Goold, S., & Lipkin, M. (1999). The Doctor–Patient Relationship Challenges, Opportunities, and Strategies. J Gen Intern Med., 14(Supp. 1), S26-S33.

[3] Kant, I. (2011). Kant: Anthropology, History, and Education (R. B. Louden & G. Zöller, Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Kohlberg, L. (1971). “Indoctrination versus relativity in value education.” Zygon, 6: 285-310. Reprinted in Kohlberg, L. (1981). The Philosophy of Moral Development, Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

[5] Psychologists would say they know these things “a priori” but insofar as debaters are more familiar with the Kantian definition of a priori which is better matched with a constructivist epistemology I here refrain from using it.

[6] This series on YouTube is quite good at explaining Piaget’s psychological theory in more detail:

[7] Kohlberg, L. (1970). “Education for justice: A modern statement of the Platonic view.” In T. Sizer, ed., Moral Education: Five Lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Reprinted in Kohlberg (1981).

[8] Kohlberg, L. Charles Levine, and Alexander Hewer (1983). “Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics.” Contributions to Human Development, 10. Basel: S. Karger. Reprinted in Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development, Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

[9] Kohlberg (1970).

[10] Kant (2011). 9:477

[11] I hesitate to even mention this lest someone card this as if I conducted anything like an actual study.

[12] Gilligan, C. (1977). “In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of the self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47: 481-517. See also: Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass..: Harvard University Press.

[13] I, for one, believe in the existence of intrinsically evil acts but I also find that Kohlberg’s theory does not understand the way in which relationships factor into proper moral reasoning. Therefore, if people tend to become more Kohlbergian when they do LD, I will have mixed feelings on this.

[14] Kohlberg (1983).