Morality has been an issue of concern to humanity ever since civilization. However, it was until the late 1950s that the scientific study of moral development earnestly began. In its definition, moral development can be said to involve the establishment of values that guides a person in making right or wrong decisions (Crain, 2015). Lawrence Kohlberg was among the first people to contribute to the scientific study of moral development. This paper will discuss Kohlbergs moral development theory. Later, decisions and actions of two characters will be defined based on different stages of the theory
Lawrence Kohlbergs Six Stages of Moral Development
Kohlberg was an American psychologist who came up with six stages of moral development in a doctoral thesis he presented in 1958. Kohlberg developed the six stages based on the previous work that was done by Jean Piaget regarding cognitive reasoning. In coming up with the stage theory, Kohlberg conducted a series of interviews where the participants were presented with moral dilemmas. The participants were then asked to answer justifiably what they thought was the right action to take. From the responses of the participants, Kohlberg came up with the stage theory that had three levels of moral reasoning, with each level containing two stages that were qualitatively distinct (Puri & Treasaden, 2010).
Level one was referred to as the pre-conventional moral reasoning. The first stage in this level is obedience and punishment avoidance. In this stage, Kohlberg argued that the physical consequences of any action play a vital role in determining whether this action is right or wrong disregarding the meaning or values that humans have on these consequences (Kohlberg, 1971). The second stage in level one is called the acquisition of favors. In this stage, Kohlberg argued that the right action is what comprises of what satisfies ones needs and the needs of others (Kohlberg, 1971). According to Kohlberg, there should be fairness, reciprocity, and sharing on an equal basis in human relations.
The second level of Kohlbergs stage theory is the conventional level. At this level, people view the maintenance of the expectations of their families, peer groups, and families as beneficial regardless of the immediate and the expected consequences (Kohlberg, 1971). The first stage in this level is the good boy/girl orientation or the interpersonal concordance. According to Kohlberg, good behavior pleases others, and they approve such behavior. For this reason, a person who pleases others maintains close interpersonal relations with them (Brent & Lewis, 2014). The second stage in the conventional level is referred to as the law and order (Kohlberg, 1971). In this stage, a person is exposed to authority, maintenance of social order, and rules to be abided by. The right behavior in this stage is fulfilling ones duties, respecting the authority, and maintaining the required social order.
The third level of Kohlbergs six-stage theory of moral development is the post-conventional level. This level is also referred to as the principled or autonomous level. At this level, a person strives to know what moral value is. A person also attempts to define valid principles and their applications. The first stage in this level is the social-contract legalistic orientation (Kohlberg, 1971). At this stage, a person understands that rules are social agreements that can be changed when need to change them arise (Brent & Lewis, 2014). The second stage in the post-conventional level is the universal ethical principle. At this level, a person adheres to just a small number of principles that he or she feels are right. The decision to adhere to self-chosen ethical principles emanates from the conscience. At this stage, a person views the right thing as one that is logical, universal, and consistent (Kohlberg, 1971).
Analyzing the Actions of Two main Characters using Kohlbergs theory
One character whose moral development can be described by the Kohlbergs six stage theory is Heinz. Heinz was a person who stole a cancer drug from a doctor to save his wifes life. This drug was too expensive for Heinz to afford. The dilemma that Heinz had in whether to steal the drug or not can be explained using the Kohlbergs theory:
Stage 1 (Obedience and punishment avoidance): Heinz was faced with the dilemma of choosing between obedience by not stealing the drug and stealing to save his wifes life. The consequence of stealing the drug was going to prison. On the other hand, the consequence of stealing the drug was saving a life.
Stage 2 (Exchange of favor): Analyzing Heinzs situation using this stage, it is clear that he was in a dilemma of being happy as a result of stealing the drug because he would have saved his wife. On the other hand, going to prison as a result of stealing the drugs would have exposed him to more suffering than the death of his wife.
Stage 3 (Good boy/girl): Stealing the medicine could have pleased Heinzs wife and make Heinz a good husband. On the other hand, Heinz was breaking the law by stealing the drug, meaning that theft was disapproved.
Stage 4 (Law and order): At this stage, the law prohibits stealing making it illegal. However, stealing the drug could have saved Heinzs wife life making him face the consequences of breaking the law.
Stage 5 (Social contract): Heinz could have justified the stealing of the drugs to human rights. It is everyone's right to remain alive regardless of what the law stipulates. On the other hand, the druggist also had the right for fair compensation for making the drug. This means that Heinz was violating other peoples right by stealing the drug.
Stage 6 (Universal ethical principle): it is universal human ethic to save a persons life. This reason could have justified Heinzs reason to steal the drug for his dying wife. On the other hand, stealing the drug meant that other patients who equally needed this drug could have died (Kohlberg, 1985).
The other main person whose actions and decision can be explained using the Kohlberg theory is the Martin Luther King, Jnr. Luther advocated for the principles of justice where the claims of everyone should be treated fairly and impartially while their dignity is respected. The decisions and actions of campaigning for principles of justice can be ranked on the third level of Kohlbergs theory. Luther was assassinated because of this campaign which indicates that it can be dangerous to act on moral principles at times. It can thus be said that it takes courage to have post-conventional behaviors (leadershipskillsandvalues.com).
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Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development.Moral education, 23-92.
Kohlberg, L. (1985). Kohlbergs stages of moral development.Theories of development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 118-136.
Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Reasoning - Leadership Skills and Values.(n.d.).Retrieved May 19, 2016, from http://www.leadershipskillsandvalues.com/lessons-and-readings/kohlberg-s-stages-of-moral-reasoning
Puri, B. K., & Treasaden, I. H. (2010).Psychiatry: An evidence based text. London: Hodder Arnold.
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