Moral Development

Reason and DesireLawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development in humans that has been quite influential in emotion and moral reasoning developmental psychology. He believed that most adults reason at the 3rd or 4th stage level. A few reach the 5th and very few reach the 6th. However, people can reason at different levels at different times, with someone using stage 5 reasoning one day and stage 3 the next. However, people do tend to reason at one particular level more often than at other levels. The stages of moral development are as follows:

Rules outside oneself

Stage 1: Heteronomous morality

  1. Punishment-and-obedience orientation
  2. What is wrong is punished
  3. What is right is rewarded or not punished

Stage 2: Individualism, instrumental purpose, and exchange

  1. Naïve hedonism
  2. Egocentric or needs-based

Internalized rules and expectations: Family or society reference

Stage 3: Mutual interpersonal expectation, relationships, and interpersonal conformity

  1. Good boy or girl orientation
  2. Make moral choices based on family or peer expectations
  3. Make choices based on being a “good” person

Stage 4: Social Systems Morality

  1. Social-order-maintaining morality
  2. Make choices based on what society expects or defines as moral
  3. Make decisions based on societal laws

A search for the underlying reasons behind society’s rules. Reference point at something broader than society.

A minority of adults ever reach these stages

Stage 5: Social contract or Utility and Individual Rights

  1. Social contract orientation
  2. Laws and rules are important for fairness but not unchangeable
  3. Need to take in the big picture
  4. Moral context

Stage 6: Universal ethical principles

  1. Individual principles of conscience orientation
  2. Search and live for the deepest set of moral principles possible
  3. Universal human rights
  4. People such as Gandhi (and Kohlberg, of course)

In order to test people’s reasoning, Kohlberg used a series of moral dilemmas to study how people reasoned. The story about Heinz and the ensuing dilemma is his most famous moral dilemma.

“A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?”

The answer to the dilemma is not as important as the reasoning behind it. Just to provide a couple of quick examples, you could say that Heinz should steal the drug because marital promises to his wife take precedence over the laws of the land. Or, you could argue that he should not steal the drug because – regardless of human laws – stealing is wrong. Taking something from someone else without their permission breaks the underlying social contract between people, the contract that helps provide order and trust between human beings. Without such underlying social contracts, people could not peaceably and successfully live together in a society.

Kohlberg’s theory has a number of flaws (including his belief that parents have little or no influence on the moral reasoning of their children), however, it stands up fairly well to research. The real question though is whether or not people actually behave in concert with how they reason.

Image by trying2 on Flickr. Link.

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