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Module 5: Moral Development

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Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory

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One of the best-known explanations of how morality of justice develops was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1991). Using a stage model similar to Piaget’s, Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development, grouped into three levels.

Individuals experience the stages universally and in sequence as they form beliefs about justice. He named the levels:
1. Preconventional
2. Conventional
3. Postconventional

The levels and stages are summarised in the table.

Preconventional justice: obedience and mutual advantage
The preconventional level of moral development coincides approximately with the preschool period of life and with Piaget’s preoperational period of thinking. At this age the child is still relatively self-centered and insensitive to the moral effects of actions on others. The result is a somewhat short-sighted orientation to morality.

Initially (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), the child adopts an ethics of obedience and punishment—a sort of “morality of keeping out of trouble”. The rightness and wrongness of actions is determined by whether actions are rewarded or punished by authorities such as parents or teachers.

Example:
If helping yourself to a cookie brings affectionate smiles from adults, then taking the cookie is considered morally “good”. If it brings scolding instead, then it is morally “bad”.

The child does not think about why an action might be praised or scolded; in fact, says Kohlberg, he would be incapable at Stage 1 of considering the reasons even if adults offered them. Eventually the child learns not only to respond to positive consequences, but also learns how to produce them by exchanging favours with others.

This new ability creates Stage 2, an ethics of market exchange. At this stage the morally “good” action is one that favours not only the child, but another person directly involved. A “bad” action is one that lacks this reciprocity. If trading the sandwich from your lunch for the cookies in your friend’s lunch is mutually agreeable, then the trade is morally good; otherwise it is not. This perspective introduces a type of fairness into the child’s thinking for the first time.

But it still ignores the larger context of actions—the effects on people not present or directly involved. In Stage 2, for example, it would also be considered morally “good” to pay a classmate to do another student's homework—or even to avoid bullying or to provide sexual favours—provided that both parties regard the arrangement as being fair.

Conventional justice: conformity to peers and society
As children move into the school years, their lives expand to include a larger number and range of peers and (eventually) of the community as a whole. The change leads to conventional morality, which are beliefs based on what this larger array of people agree on—hence Kohlberg’s use of the term “conventional”.

At first, in Stage 3, the child’s reference group are immediate peers, so Stage 3 is sometimes called the ethics of peer opinion. If peers believe, for example, that it is morally good to behave politely with as many people as possible, then the child is likely to agree with the group and to regard politeness as not merely an arbitrary social convention, but a moral “good”.

This approach to moral belief is a bit more stable than the approach in Stage 2, because the child is taking into account the reactions not just of one other person, but of many. But it can still lead astray if the group settles on beliefs that adults consider morally wrong, like “Shop lifting for candy bars is fun and desirable.”

Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands even more, she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends. She is therefore more likely to encounter disagreements about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order, in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what the majority of society believes.

Now, an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from ethical mistakes.

Example:
A community or society may agree that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect or that a factory owner is entitled to dump waste water into a commonly shared lake or river.

To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these require further stages of moral development.

Postconventional justice: social contract and universal principles
As a person becomes able to think abstractly (or “formally”, in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from acceptance of what the community does believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed.

The new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract. Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that respect the rights of the people affected.

Example:
Consider the laws in some countries that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In what sense are the laws about this behaviour ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? Were cyclists consulted and did they give consent? Or how about doctors or the cyclists' families?

Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes should be. In focusing on the processes by which the law was created, however, individuals are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of the position they take about wearing helmets.

In this sense, beliefs on both sides of a debate about an issue can sometimes be morally sound even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it should help to avoid mindless conformity to conventional moral beliefs. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to the content of what gets decided.

In principle (and occasionally in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, for example, but would deciding this by due process make it ethical? The realisation that ethical means can sometimes serve unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles.

At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), but also other principles, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or the sacredness of the natural environment.

At Stage 6, the universal principles will guide a person’s beliefs even if the principles mean disagreeing occasionally with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).

As logical as they sound, Kohlberg’s stages of moral justice are not sufficient for understanding the development of moral beliefs. To see why, suppose that a teacher has a student who asks for an extension of the deadline for an assignment. The justice orientation of Kohlberg’s theory would prompt the teacher to consider issues of whether granting the request is fair:
• Would the late student be able to put more effort into the assignment than other students?
• Would the extension place a difficult demand on the teacher, since she would have less time to mark the assignments?

These are important considerations related to the rights of students and the teacher.

In addition to these, however, are considerations having to do with the responsibilities that the teacher and the requesting student have for each other and for others:
• Does the student have a valid personal reason for the assignment being late?
• Will the assignment lose its educational value if the student has to turn it in prematurely?

These latter questions have less to do with fairness and rights, and more to do with taking care of and responsibility for students. They require a framework different from Kohlberg’s to be understood fully. The next unit deals with a different type of framework from Carol Gilligan.