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Moral Development

Moral Development

Author: Erick Taggart

Recognize key figures and ideas related to theories of moral development.

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Hello class. So today we're going to be talking about the moral development of people, which is to say, this is an area that's very focused on social development as well as emotional development. It's trying to figure out what right and wrong is in according to how we behave with other people.

So the major figure we want to know about today is Lawrence Kohlberg, who's a Jewish American psychologist who in the mid-1900s developed this theory of moral development. He's a cognitive theorist, and he studied Piaget, and so his theories are an extension on Piaget's ideas.

So his theory of moral development is divided into six stages, which can be grouped into three different levels. So there's two stages at each level. And he highlighted this with a sort of moral dilemma, a thought experiment, with a character that he called Heinz, as we have here.

Now, Heinz, according to this experiment, is a man whose wife is dying of a disease, and she needs a particular drug to be cured by that. However, the person who produces that drug, the druggist, is charging way more than they should be. And Heinz can't pay it. He's a bit poor.

So he decides to steal the drug for his wife, who's dying. So the idea is, what is right or what should be done in this situation? Was that the correct thing to do? So in this thought experiment and in the steps we're going to see, the behavior of the person is important but more importantly the reasoning behind it.

So why do you say it's right or wrong for him to have stolen the drugs? That's what's especially important in these stages, as you'll see. The three levels that Kohlberg divided his theory into are preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Now, the idea is that everybody starts at a preconventional level of morality, and not everybody necessarily progresses to the final stage in postconventional.

Some people might stop further along the way. So preconventional thought is concerned with particularly consequences of actions. It's a very sort of self-centered where they're concerned with what's going to happen to them as a result of the action. So this is very common in children especially.

The first stage under preconventional is the obedience or punishment stage, where the person determines the right or wrong of an action according to the consequences to themself. Generally they try to follow the rules in this way.

So for in this example, Heinz, our man, would not be right for stealing that drug because he will go to jail for it. So he's going to receive some kind of consequence as a result, a punishment. The second stage under preconventional is the self-interest stage where the person is more concerned with what's best for the individual themself and not on other people.

So in the example, Heinz would have been wrong for his action because his wife needed a drug and not him, so he shouldn't have done something that helped other people. He should just be worried about himself. The second category is the conventional stage where we're more outwardly concerned.

We're looking at other people and about society, and we want to know, what would they say or what do they think of us? OK, this is very much governed by rules of appearance. Appearance is very important here. So the first conventional stage is the personal relationship stage, where we want approval from the people that are close to us especially.

So in other words, we want to be a good boy or girl. We want them to look at us favorably. So in this instance, Heinz would be wrong. Again, the reasoning for that though is different. He'd be wrong because people would call him a thief, and that would be a bad thing. Especially his wife, who he's stealing it for would call him a thief for doing what he did, regardless of the outcome.

And the second stage is the societal order stage, which is to say, this is when we have generalized thoughts about society as a whole. And we feel a sort of duty to respect authority and a duty to follow the rules of society. So under this law, Heinz would be wrong again.

You notice that he is wrong in all of these sorts of ideas because everyone needs to obey the laws. They're general rules that apply to everybody, and it's regardless of the circumstances. He should do what the law says. So you'll notice some of the reasoning is similar, but there are different nuances in the reasoning that change the sort of level of thought that they're going through.

In the postconventional, the first stage is the social contract idea, where the law is thought of not as something that's made by society. But it's made by the people, and so it's responsive to the people. Individuals have different views. They have different opinions about the law.

And so the law might be a little bit different in its application. Or in other words, some people might be allowed to break it as a result. So Heinz in this situation would be right for having stolen the drug because while it is against the law, in the situation like his where somebody's going to die, the individual right to life is a bit more important.

So the law is more flexible in this regard. And the final stage, and the one that not everybody would necessarily get to, is the universal principles idea, where a person has an individual sort of moral code, and they determine moral behaviors based on their abstract reasoning. So they've thought these through, and they've created these universal principles to guide their behavior.

This is sort of self-chosen, but it's also grounded in an idea of justice. So it's not just what's best for the person, but what's best considering their thoughts and their moral codes. So Heinz would be right again in this situation because it's better to save a life according to him than to have broken the law.

But under this kind of reasoning, he should also probably turn himself in because he will have broken the law, so he should still do what's right.

Terms to Know

Second level of moral development - focused on what society expects, rules


Third level of moral development - focused on universal principles and social contracts, individuals have differing views.


First level of moral development - focused on consequences, self-centered

People to Know
Lawrence Kohlberg

Studied moral development