Friday, February 02, 2007

Michael Scott meets Lawrence Kohlberg

I'm taking a class in Human Development for my Counseling Psychology program. Our teacher assigned a project to help us understand Kohlberg's six stages of moral development. The project involved watching a TV show and writing about the moral decisions made in the episode. Then we had to identify where the characters seem to be on Kohlberg's continuum.

I picked one of my favorite shows, The Office. (How's that for a great assignment!) The episode I wrote about was the most recent one, called "Ben Franklin." Not only was the show hilarious, but there were a lot of moral (and immoral) decisions made in it.

Michael (the manager of the Scranton, PA, branch of Dunder-Mifflin Paper Co.) decides he wants to hire strippers to celebrate Phyllis's upcoming wedding. Everybody in the office pretty much complies; they don't walk out, or file a complaint, or cry sexual harassment or anything. (Angela fusses about it for a moment, but like all good Pharisees she jumps right in there with everyone else.) So the office staff seem to be at about Stage Two of Kohlberg's six stages. Like children, they accept the rules of their authority figure. They seem motivated mostly by self-interest (i.e., keeping their jobs).

Well, the male stripper turns out to be a Ben Franklin impersonator. But the female stripper is the real thing. She starts dancing for the guys, when all of a sudden Michael gets upset, tells her to stop, and orders everybody to get back to work. He says to the stripper, "Shame on you!"

It seems that Michael has had a sudden surge of shame himself. He feels bad that he's attended a bachelor party. He feels that he's cheated on his girlfriend Jan and owes her an apology. He's torn: Should he tell Jan the truth, and risk being dumped? Or should he keep it quiet, and violate his conscience? The Ben Franklin impersonator tells Michael not to confess; it would only upset Jan. (That, according to Kohlberg, is Stage Three thinking. Ben makes moral decisions on the basis of whether they would upset other people, not on the basis of right and wrong, honor and justice.)

To his credit, Michael doesn't follow Ben's advice; he calls him a sleazebag!

So Michael goes to the female stripper and asks her advice. Should he tell his girlfriend that he attended a bachelor party where a stripper performed? She tells Michael, "Secrets, secrets are no fun; secrets, secrets hurt someone." In other words, she implies that the loving thing for Michael to do is confess the truth. That's a Stage Five response. Her advice is based on the ideal that people be respected and social contracts honored.

Michael follows her advice and tells Jan about the bachelor party.

For once, Michael shows a little integrity in this episode. I think he even goes all the way to Stage Six - the highest of Kohlberg's stages. Stage Six is respect for universal principles of right and wrong and the demands of individual conscience. Michael's choice illustrates Proverbs 28:13 - "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy."

Maybe Michael Scott meets God as well as Kohlberg!



orangejack said...

Ha! That's awesome!

orangejack said...

BTW, you know that's a pic of Dwight, not Michael nor Lawrence.

But I blogged about it anyway!

Mike said...

Just 'cause you complained, I changed the picture!

Kelly said...

That's great!! We watched this episode last night, so I was tracking.

Patricia said...

That episode was the most random one yet. but it still had me laughing out loud!

tim (page) said...

That's deep, Mike. Thanks to your post, I had an epiphery.

Pam said...

That's a pretty cool assignment. Who knew that the writers of "The Office" were so tuned in?