Moral Development

Dr. C. George Boeree

Kohlberg's Theory

Traditionally, psychology has avoided studying anything that is loaded with value judgements.  There is a degree of difficulty involved in trying to be unbiased about things that involve terms like "good" and "bad!"  So, one of the most significant aspects of human life - morality - has had to wait quite a while before anyone in psychology dared to touch it!  But Lawrence Kohlberg wanted to study morality, and did so using a most interesting (if controversial) technique.  Basically, he would ask children and adults to try to solve moral dilemmas contained in little stories, and to do so outloud so he could follow their reasoning.  It wasn't the specific answers to the dilemmas that interested him, but rather how the person got to his or her answer.

One of the most famous of these stories concerned a man named Heinz.  His wife was dying of a disease that could be cured if he could get a certain medicine.  When he asked the pharmacist, he was told that he could get the medicine, but only at a very high price - one that Heinz could not possibly afford.  So the next evening, Heinz broke into the pharmacy and stole the drug to save his wife's life.  Was Heinz right or wrong to steal the drug?

There are simple reasons why Heinz should or should not have stolen the drug, and there are very sophisticated reasons, and reasons in between.  After looking at hundreds of interviews using this and several other stories, Kohlberg outlined three broad levels and six more specific stages of moral development.

Level I:  Pre-conventional morality.  While infants are essentially amoral, very young children are moral in a rather primitive way, as described by the two preconventional stages.

Stage 1.  We can call this the reward and punishment stage.  Good or bad depends on the physical consequences:  Does the action lead to punishment or reward?  This stage is based simply on one's own pain and pleasure, and doesn't take others into account.

Stage 2.  This we can call the exchange stage.  In this stage, there is increased recognition that others have their own interests and should be taken into account.  Those interests are still understood in a very concrete fashion, and the child deals with others in terms of simple exchange or reciprocity:  "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."  Children in this stage are very concerned with what's "fair" (one of their favorite words), but are not concerned with real justice.

Level II:  Conventional morality.  By the time children enter elementary school, they are usually capable of conventional morality, although they may often slip back into preconventional morality on occasion.  But this level is called conventional for a very good reason:  It is also the level that most adults find themselves in most of the time!
Stage 3.  This stage is often called the good boy/good girl stage.  The child tries to live up to the expectations of others, and to seek their approval.  Now they become interested motives or intentions, and concepts such as loyalty, trust, and gratitude are understood.  Children in this stage often adhere to a concrete version of the Golden Rule, although it is limited to the people they actually deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Stage 4.  This is called the law-and-order stage.  Children now take the point of view that includes the social system as a whole.  The rules of the society are the bases for right and wrong, and doing one's duty and showing respect for authority are important.

Level III:  Post-conventional morality.  Some adolescents and adults go a step further and rise above moralities based on authority to ones based on reason.
Stage 5.  The social contract stage means being aware of the degree to which much of so-called morality is relative to the individual and to the social group they belong to, and that only a very few fundamental values are universal.  The person at this level sees morality as a matter of entering into a rational contract with one's fellow human beings to be kind to each other, respect authority, and follow laws to the extent that they respect and promote those universal values.  Social contract morality often involves a utilitarian approach, where the relative value of an act is determined by "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Stage 6.  This stage is referred to as the stage of universal principles.  At this point, the person makes a personal commitment to universal principles of equal rights and respect, and social contract takes a clear back-seat:  If there is a conflict between a social law or custom and universal principles, the universal principles take precedence.

Kohlberg's original work was done with boys.  When the research began to include girls, they found the girls to be less morally "developed" than the boys!  Psychologist Carol Gilligan, involved in that research, began to notice that it wasn't so easy to distinguish "good boy/good girl" from "universal principles", especially in the girls. Since then, psychologists have readjusted their work to take into account for the fact that girls often express their morality in terms that emphasize personal caring more than abstract principles.

Bronfenbrenner's Theory

Another psychologist unafraid to tackle morallity was Urie Bronfenbrenner.  He is famous for his studies of children and schools in different cultures.  He outlines five moral orientations:

1.  Self-oriented morality.  This is analogous to Kohlberg's pre-conventional morality.  Basically, the child is only interested in self-gratification and only considers others to the extent that they can help him get what he wants, or hinder him.
The next three orientations are all forms of what Kohlberg called conventional morality:
2.  Authority-oriented morality.  Here, the child, or adult, basically accepts the decrees of authority figures, from parents up to heads of state and religion, as defining good and bad.

3.  Peer-oriented morality.  This is basically a morality of conformity, where right and wrong is determined not by authority but by one's peers.  In western society, this kind of morality is frequently found among adolescents, as well as many adults.

4.  Collective-oriented morality.  In this orientation, the standing goals of the group to which the child or adult belongs over-ride individual interests.  Duty to one's group or society is paramount.

The last orientation is analogous to Kohlberg's  post-conventional level:
5.  Objectively oriented morality. By objectively, Bronfenbrenner means universal principles that are objective in the sense that they do not depend on the whims of individuals or social groups, but have a reality all their own.
Bronfenbrenner noted that while 1 is found among children (and some adults) in all cultures, 6 is found in relatively few people in any culture.  The differences between 2, 3, and 4 are more a matter of culture than of development.  Many cultures promote strict obedience to authority figures.  One can see this in very conservative cultures, where the word of the religious authorities is law.  In many modern cultures, conformity to one's peers is a powerful force.  And in others still, the welfare of the collective group is considered far more important than that of the individual.

Bronfenbrenner also talks about how we get movement from one orientation to another.  The movement from 1 to 2, 3, or 4 involves participation in the family and other social structures, where concern for others begins to take precedent over concern for oneself.

Movement from 2, 3, or 4 to 5 occurs when a person is exposed to a number of different moral systems which at least partially conflict with each other, a situation he calls moral pluralism.  This forces the person to begin to think about what might lie beneath all the variation, and lead him or her to consider ultimate moral principles.  Gaining a broader experience of the variety of people in the world, for example, tends to advance one's moral thinking.

On the other hand, sometimes people slide back down to the lowest orientation when they suffer from the disintegration of social structures, as in war and other social disasters.  This can force a person's attentions back onto their own needs, and cause them to begin ignoring the welfare of larger social groupings.

© Copyright 2003, 2009, C. George Boeree