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How do people learn to make morally sound decisions? To illustrate Kohlberg’s levels of moral development, we’ll follow Lauren as she makes difficult decisions.

Moral decision

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been faced with a moral dilemma. Consider this example: a father tells his daughter, Lauren, that she can have a bike if she saves enough money from her weekly allowance to pay for half of it.

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Then, when Lauren tells her father she’s saved up all the money, her father reverses his decision and tells Lauren to give him the money because he wants to use it to buy beer. On the one hand, Lauren wants to obey her father; on the other, she doesn’t want to support his destructive drinking habits. Lauren is torn about giving her father the money.

Lawrence Kohlberg: Stages of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was especially interested in how children develop their ability to make moral decisions like this one. He came up with several stages of moral development, which, though not without criticism from other psychologists, form a good starting point to think about these questions. It is important to remember that not everyone, even adults, necessarily make it into all of the higher stages.

Pre-conventional Level

People first pass through two stages known collectively as the pre-conventional level. In the first stage, people are motivated by trying to avoid punishment; their actions are bad if they get punished and good if they don’t. In this stage, Lauren would give her father the money because she doesn’t want him to punish her.

At the second stage, people are motivated purely by self-interest. Lauren at this stage would likely keep the money, thinking that, even if she can’t afford a bike, she can use it to buy something else good for herself.

Conventional Level

The next level of moral development, the conventional, also contains two stages. Adolescents typically operate at this level, as do some adults.

In stage three, people make moral decisions based on getting people to like them. Lauren might decide to give her father the money because this will improve her relationship with him; but if her mother is upset by her father’s drinking, she might decide to give the money to her mother in order to be a ‘good girl’ in her eyes. Her decision would be based on whichever social relationship seemed most important. In stage four, moral reasoning centers around maintaining a functioning society by recognizing that laws are more important the individual needs. In this stage, Lauren probably wouldn’t give her father the money, because his alcoholism is disruptive to the stability of their family and community.

Post-Conventional Level

The final level of moral development is called the post-conventional. Not all adults reach this level; many are stuck at some of the earlier stages. Post-conventional moral thinkers reject the rigidity of laws, believing that they should be ignored or changed if they’re not good laws. In stage five, people will try to act in ways that achieve the most good for the most number of people; they’d judge a law as unjust if it failed to do this.

Lauren at this stage would not give her father the money, because she’d recognize that his alcoholism is hurting his family and himself. Stage six thinkers develop ethical principles and a sense of justice. Actions are taken because they are right in themselves, not because they help achieve other goals. Though Kohlberg theorized that this stage existed, he had trouble finding people who were always operating at this level. For Lauren to exhibit stage six moral reasoning, she’d have to have a strongly developed sense of the injustice of giving her father money for beer.

Carol Gilligan

Kohlberg’s theories are not without their detractors.

Perhaps the best-known of his critics is Carol Gilligan, who criticized Kohlberg’s stages for being too focused on boys. Kohlberg claimed that boys tended to reach the higher stages more frequently than girls, which Gilligan and others have taken issue with. Yet Kohlberg has remained influential, largely because he took the first steps toward defining moral values through empirical studies. Though his conclusions may be flawed, and even sexist, his methodology is important.

Lesson Summary

So we’ve learned that Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development proposes three levels on which we make judgments of right and wrong. Pre-conventional decisions are based on the direct consequences to the individual who is perpetrating the morally questionable act.

Conventional decisions are based on wanting to please and to be accepted by others. And post-conventional decisions are based on an individually formulated sense of justice and respect for others.

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