Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, was among the pioneers of moral development research. Building on from the original propositions of Jean Piaget, Kohlberg theorised that humans develop their moral judgements in 6 stages. To confirm his theory, Kohlberg interviewed boys between the ages of 10 and 16. He then analyzed how they would justify their decision when confronted with different hypothetical moral dilemmas. Superimposing the participants’ argumentation onto their cognitive development, Kohlberg postulated, that humans progress through the stages in a hierarchical order, as their cognitive abilities develop. To see how it works and try it yourself, read on!
The full story
Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory claims that our development of moral reasoning happens in six stages. The stages themselves are structured in three levels: Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional. To understand this better, imagine a conflict at school.
There is a fight in the schoolyard. Two ninth-graders are beating up Tom. Those who watch the fight are at different stages of moral development. Let’s see what they do and how they justify their behavior.
Stage 1: Obedience and punishment
At stage one, we make moral judgments based on obedience and punishment. Finn’s sense of good and bad is directly linked to whether he gets punished or not. Finn sees what is happening to his friend and wants to help. He doesn’t, however, because he is afraid the teacher may punish him if he gets caught fighting. He asks himself, how can I avoid punishment?
Stage 2: Self-interest
At stage two, we are motivated by self-interest. Mary decides to intervene and help Tom. She knows that she might get punished, but she also knows that she could become a victim herself, someday. If she helps Tom now, he might help her in the future. She is asking herself: What’s in it for me?
Stage 3: Interpersonal accord and conformity
At stage three, interpersonal accord and conformity guide our moral judgments. Betty sees the fight and wants to intervene, but when she realizes that all the others are just watching, she decides not to get involved. She wants others to see that she is a good girl, who is conforming with the ethics of the community. She asks herself: What do others think of me?
Stage 4: Authority and maintaining social order
At stage four, we value authority and want to maintain social-order. When the teacher sees the group fighting, he immediately steps in and shouts: “Stop, fighting at school is forbidden!”. He feels that, above all, it is important to follow the rules, otherwise chaos breaks out and that it is his duty to uphold the rules that sustain a functioning society. The teacher at that moment asks himself: How can I maintain law and order?
Stage 5: Social contract
At stage five, we understand rules as a social contract as opposed to a strict order. Jessy, who watches from afar, is not sure how she feels about this. To her, rules make sense only if they serve the right purpose. Obviously, the school rules prohibit fighting, but maybe Tom deserves to finally learn his lesson. Just yesterday he punched a young girl from grade one. She asks herself: Does a rule truly serve all members of the community?
Stage 6: Universal ethical principles
At stage six, we are guided by universal ethical principles. All those involved now have to face the headmaster. He first explains the school rules, and why they exist. He then clarifies that rules are valid only if they are grounded in justice. The commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust rules. The headmaster’s highest moral principle is compassion. He believes that all people should learn to understand each other’s viewpoints and that they don’t feel alone with their feelings. He asks: What are the abstract ethical principles that serve my understandings of justice?
At the pre-conventional level, Finn is driven by fear and Mary by self-interest. Both judge what is right or wrong by the direct consequences they expect for themselves, and not by social norms. This form of reasoning is common among children.
At the conventional level, Betty responds to peer pressure, and the teacher follows the rules. Their morality is centered around what society regards as right. At this level, the fairness of rules is seldom questioned. It is common to think like this during adolescence and adulthood.
At the post-conventional level, Jessy knows that things are complicated because individuals may disobey rules inconsistent with their own morality. The headmaster follows a universal ethical idea, at complete disconnect with what society thinks or the rules say. To him everything is solved through compassion. The right behavior in his opinion, is therefore never a means to an end, but always an end in itself. Not every person reaches this level.
“I love content like this where we are presented with different social theories or experiments. Love Sprouts for doing this. I am thankful to you that I am finally discovering content that I love.”– Krithik Vakil
- Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development – Simply Psychology
- Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development – Lumen Learning
- Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia
- The Heinz Dilemma – Wikipedia
- Robert Sapolsky: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst – Youtube video
- Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development – by Sprouts
- Critiques of Kohlberg’s Model of Moral Development: A Summary by Paul C. Vitz
We will now present to you the most famous moral dilemma Kohlberg presented to his students. Let’s see what you would do:
The Heinz dilemma
A woman was on her deathbed. There was only one drug that the doctors thought might save her. The druggist that made that particular medicine sold it for ten times the price of the production costs. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, was poor and could not afford to buy the drug, not even with the financial help of his friends. Heinz then asked the pharmacist to sell it to him for half the price, but he refused.
To save the life of his wife, Heinz broke into the man’s laboratory and stole the medicine.
Now, tell us:
- Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
- Would it change anything if Heinz didn’t love his wife?
- What if the person dying was not his wife, but a stranger?
- Should the police arrest the druggist for murder if the wife had died?
Please write your answers and their justifications in the comments below! To see how the answers relate to each of Kohlberg’s stages, read more about the Heinz Dilemma on Wikipedia.