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Jean Piaget introduced the idea of how moral development occurs in stages, each level built on life experiences and active reasoning. Lawrence Kohlberg furthered this idea by examining how moral reasoning changes as we grow. How did people determine what was right or wrong? Following specific patterns of human behavior, Kohlberg organized the six stages into three levels of moral reasoning. Participants in his studies, including adults, teenagers, and children, were asked to offer reasoning to a dilemma. An example that Kohlberg used as a moral dilemma is as follows:
A man named Heinz, who lived in Europe, had a wife whom he loved very much. His wife was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and did not have long to live. Luckily, there was a pharmacist who invented a drug called radium that could cure her. The pharmacist owned all rights to this medication and decided to sell it at a high markup in order to make a profit. While it cost only $200 to make, he sold it for 10 times that amount: $2000. Heinz did not have enough money to pay the exorbitant price, so he tried fundraising to cover the costs. With time running out, he had only managed to gather $1000, which was not enough to buy the medication. Heinz begged the pharmacist to sell it to him at a reduced price but the man refused. Desperate and running out of time, Heinz broke into the pharmacy after hours and stole the drug. Was this the right or wrong thing to do? Why?
Stages of Moral Development
There were three levels of moral reasoning that encompassed the six stages. Like Piaget, subjects were unlikely to regress in their moral development, but instead, moved forward through the stages: pre-conventional, conventional, and finally post-conventional. Each stage offers a new perspective, but not everyone functions at the highest level all the time. People gain a more thorough understanding as they build on their experiences, which makes it impossible to jump stages of moral development.
- Stage 1 (Pre-Conventional)
- Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
- Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me? aiming at a reward)
- Stage 2 (Conventional)
- Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms, good boy – good girl attitude)
- Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
- Stage 3 (Post-Conventional)
- Social contract orientation (Justice and the spirit of the law)
- Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
Preconventional morality – young children under the age of 9
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
The first stage highlights the self-interest of children in their decision making as they seek to avoid punishment at all costs. In relation to our example above, the man should not steal the medication from the pharmacy as he may go to jail if he is caught.
Similar to the first stage in Piaget’s theory, Kohlberg reflects on the moral thought of children. At a young age, they believe that rules are meant to be followed and those in charge will undoubtedly follow through with punishment. A child’s reasoning to the above example may include “it’s bad to steal,” or “it’s against the law,” without assessing the perspective of the man whose wife is sick.
This stage is labeled preconventional due to the limited association that children have with the outlined principles. They view the ethics taught as something that society implements, not as something they internalize themselves.
Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange
This stage observes how children begin to adopt the views taught, but also recognize that there is more than one point of view for each matter. Each person is different and will, therefore, have a unique outlook according to their interests. In terms of our example above, they may reason that “he may think that it is right to take the drug, but the pharmacist would not.”
The second stage relies heavily on the exchange of favors and can be summarized with the common marketing saying “what’s it in for me?” Children at this stage are not motivated by friendship or respect but by the personal advantages involved. For example, if a parent asks their child to complete a chore around the house, the child may ask what the benefit would be to them. Parents often recognize the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” mindset at this stage and offer a reward, such as an allowance.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
Conventional morality – older children, adolescents, and most adults
Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships
This stage recognizes the desire to be accepted into societal groups as well as how each person is affected by the outcome. In terms of our example above, the man should take the medicine from the pharmacy in order to be a good partner to his wife.
Children in the third stage are typically pre-teens or early teenagers and have now adopted the societal norms as their own. While they believe that people should behave appropriately in their communities, they recognize that there is no simple solution to moral dilemmas. In Kohlberg’s study per the example above, they accepted that he should steal the medicine and “he was a good man for wanting to save her.” They also reasoned that “his intentions were good, that of saving the life of someone he loves.”
Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order
In this stage, laws and social order reign supreme. Rules and regulations are to be followed and obeyed. In the above example, the man should not steal the medicine because it is against the law.
Stage four shows the moral development of a person as a part of a whole society. Each person becomes more aware of the impact of everyone’s actions on others and focuses now on their own role, following the rules, and obeying authorities. While stage three highlights the close relationships with family and friends, stage four attempts to maintain social order in the community. Pertaining to the example above, participants in stage four would argue that while they understood why he wanted to steal the medication, they could not support the idea of theft. Society cannot maintain order if its members decided to break the laws when they thought they had a good enough reason to do so.
Postconventional morality – rare with adolescents and few adults
Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
This stage acknowledges the introduction of abstract reasoning as people attempt to explain specific behaviors. In our example above, the man should steal the medication for his wife because she is deathly ill and the laws do not take the circumstances into account.
In the fifth stage, members begin to consider “What makes for a good society?” They are able to step back and assess each situation as a whole, reflecting on what is good and just. Reflecting on the morals and ethics of their current community allows them to address inconsistencies in their values and attempt to fix what they do not agree with. A society that runs smoothly does not necessarily uphold their desired principles. This is one step ahead of stage four, where the main goal is to keep a society functioning at all costs.
Stage 6: Universal Principles
The final stage of Kohlberg’s theory states that moral reasoning is based on personal values. In the above example, it is okay for the man to take the medication without paying as objects or property are not as valuable as his wife’s life.
Stage six was developed when Kohlberg discovered that elected processes do not always result in fair outcomes. Individuals at the fifth stage of moral reasoning recognized the importance of protecting human rights while also resolving challenges in a democratic way. Unfortunately, some majority votes resulted in regulations that actually hurt a minority group, leading to questions of an even higher level of reasoning.
See also: Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
The sixth stage was created to acknowledge the use of justice in moral reasoning. General, universal morals and ethics are used as a baseline for what is right and just. These are often abstract concepts that cannot be clearly defined, only outlined. Equality, justice, dignity, and respect are all ideas that form the basis of universal principles. Laws and rules are only effective if they support the universal principles, which each person at this stage works to uphold.
Similarly, they work on disobeying laws that are unfair, and feel guilty if they don’t obey the laws that they believe in. Individuals at this level of reasoning behaved in a certain way because it was the right thing to do, and were not motivated by laws or societal expectations. Kohlberg found it challenging to identify participants in his studies who could consistently display moral reasoning in the sixth stage.
In the first stage, children obey the rules taught and believe what society says is right. Avoiding punishment is a leading factor in their desire to obey authority. This has diminished by stage two, where children can see that they are multiple points of view to the matter in question. They tend to reason according their own self-interests, including bartering with others.
In stage three, people value a supportive community and therefore have the desire to be a good, helpful member. This changes as they move into stage four, where they seek instead to meet the goals of the society, which includes maintaining law and order. Throughout both stages, we see how young teens value the morals and ethics of the group of which they are part.
In stage five, people evolve from the idea of being ‘good’ into what would be the right thing to do. They seek to create morals and values for a good society instead of maintaining the society for the sake of doing so. They take these ideas one step further in stage six, where they work to incorporate justice and creating a fair society for all.
See also: How To Design A Course