Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Levine, Charles G.


This research seeks to address long-standing empirical questions about human morality arising from the critical sociological tradition. It examines, in social-psychological terms, the theoretical contention that systems of ownership predicated on exclusionary conceptions of what is “mine” and/or “ours” causes people to overlook or decidedly ignore the needs of others and of society at large. More specifically, it draws upon the theoretical works of Karl Marx, Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson, and C. B. Macpherson to examine the relationships between individuals’ attitudes toward private property relations and the kinds of “active” or “passive” cognitive processes individuals use when reasoning about moral problems.

A sample of 139 graduate and undergraduate students completed an online survey that contained both established and exploratory attitude scales pertaining to property ownership norms, humanism, and possessive individualism. Following the psychological research of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, participants were also asked to express moral judgments on two hypothetical moral dilemmas, and their responses were coded according to characteristics of morally “heteronomous” or “autonomous” reasoning. OLS regressions were conducted to investigate the relationships between these forms of moral reasoning and the aforementioned attitude scales.

The study’s results suggest a positive relationship between cognitive moral autonomy and humanism, as well as for the inverse relationship between cognitive moral autonomy and both private property attitudes and possessive individualism. These findings provide general (albeit tentative) support for certain theoretical critiques of private property within the Marxist-humanist tradition, namely the premise that private property norms are at odds with the exercise of autonomous moral cognition. Theoretical implications of these findings, both for the Marxian theoretical tradition and for the development of a critically oriented social- psychology of morality are also addressed.