Exceeding Our Grasp: An Examination of Moral Development
That we find incredible about Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh is the level of moral development exhibited by the central character Marty. When we examined Marty’s behavior against Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, we found evidence of every level. However, from early on in the novel, Marty consistently behaves at Kohlberg’s Stages 5 and 6, which is behavior hard to accept from an eleven-year-old boy.
At Kohlberg’s Preconventional Reasoning level, when a child is at Stage 1, "they obey because adults tell them to obey" (Santrock, p. 440). We think, when Marty first sees Shiloh on his walk along the river and tries to ignore the dog because he knows that his parents won’t "approve" of his having a dog, this behavior can be placed at Stage 1. Another example of obeying is when Marty hides Shiloh to avoid punishment and to keep his Dad from taking Shiloh back to Judd, the legal owner. In addition, Marty’s reason for hiding the dog is also operating at a higher reasoning level. We think that Marty seeks the rewards that Shiloh provides by his unconditional love, which illustrates Stage 2 behavior, where moral reasoning is "based on rewards and self-interest" (Santrock, p. 440).
At Kohlberg’s Conventional Reasoning level, internalization of standards of others becomes important (Santrock, p. 440). In Stage 3 "children value trust, caring, and loyalty to others as the basis of moral judgments" (Santrock, p. 440). By his actions, Marty values his parents wishes, so he lies — in part — to keep them from finding out about his actions. Of course, there is also a fear of punishment; but, again, the real reason for his hiding Shiloh goes even higher. His behavior has clearly moved to Stage 4, where the laws of society rule, when he wants to report Judd to the law for the way he mistreats his animals. The fact that he can’t prove any of his concerns to the law is one of the reasons, though not the only one, that he takes another, higher moral action.
Marty’s reasoning goes something like this: Judd owns Shiloh by law, but Judd mistreats Shiloh. The law should take care of this breach of care, but it doesn’t. Marty doesn’t want to break the law, but the cruelty that Shiloh has received is worse than Marty’s breaking the law, so he decides to protect Shiloh from cruelty. Doing so is the greater good. At Kohlberg’s Postconventional Reasoning level, Stage 5, morality is based on an individual’s own values and standards, which the individual believes are more important than the standards that society condones (Santrock, p. 440). In Stage 5, the individual acts on a personal set of standards because there are "some values, such as liberty, . . . more important than the law" (Santrock, p. 440). In Shiloh’s case, the value is cruelty. Cruelty is not right, so Marty will do whatever it takes to remove Shiloh from harm’s way. He even explores the possibility with his friend David of taking Shiloh to Ohio, where he will be safe.
Finally, in Stage 6, an individual "will follow conscience, even though the decision might involve personal risk" (Santrock, p. 440). Marty has decided that he will not "give up Shiloh without a fight" (Naylor, p. 117). He will go to Judd Travers and insist that Judd sell Shiloh to him. Worse, Marty is not sure that Judd won’t kill him when he finds out what he had been up: "Will he shoot me? That thought crosses my mind, too. Some kid got shot down in Mingo County once. Easy as pie for Judd Travers to put a bullet hole in my head, say he didn’t see me" (Naylor, p. 117). But Marty keeps on heading for Judd Travers’ house. He is determined to end Judd’s cruelty to Shiloh even if it involves personal injury to himself.
Marty works himself to exhaustion to fulfill the agreement he makes with Judd to buy Shiloh. Marty reasons that he can’t control Judd but that he can keep his part of the agreement, no matter how hard the tasks Judd asks him to do. Clearly Marty’s consistency of action and his high moral conduct finally affect Judd, who operates at Stage 1 throughout the book. He lets Marty have the dog.
Although we have identified behaviors that might be located somewhere in Kohlberg’s Stages 1-4, we really feel that Marty consistently operates at Stages 5 and 6 throughout the book, a conclusion that begs the question, Is this level of moral behavior a reasonable expectation of a normal, eleven-year-old boy? We think the answer has to be no. Most adults, let alone children, do not operate on this high level. In fact most people never get beyond the societal standards imposed by the law at Stage 4. So, are we left with a character who is too good to be true? Or are we left with a character that is believable? The Newbery committee apparently thought Marty was believable, and so do thousands of readers. We believe that what Marty does for readers, particularly children, is provide them with an example of what they can aspire to become. Robert Browning said in his poem "Andrea del Sarto" that our "reach should exceed out grasp," and Marty’s love for Shiloh is evidence that such a thing can happen in fiction. If children can read about such high moral behavior in fiction, maybe they can make similar things happen in real lives.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Shiloh. Bantam, 1991.
Santrock, John W. Child Development, 7th ed. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark, 1996.
Edgar H. Thompson is a professor of education at Emory & Henry College in Virginia. Connie Blevins and Allison Fitzgerald are seniors, who both plan to teach at the elementary level.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Edgar H. Thompson, Connie B. Blevins, and Allison Fitzgerald (1998) Exceeding Our Grasp: An Examination of Moral Development. The ALAN Review, Volume 25, Number 2, 42.