Course 3506

Lawrence Kohlberg

Psychologists have noticed that the way in which people make moral judgements -- decisions about right and wrong -- change with age. Piaget's observations of children's moral reasoning led him to the conclusion that there are two general types of moral thinking:

Morality of constraint operates for most children to somewhere around the age of ten. This is rule-bound moral reasoning. Authority figures (adults) have decreed what is right and what is wrong and that is the way things are. This view, sometimes called moral realism, makes no allowances for intentions or other aspects of the context in which actions occur. However, the results of an action do figure into the moral reasoning. For instance, two children are asked to help clear the table after dinner. One child picks up two drinking glasses and starts to juggle with them. The child drops one of the glasses and it breaks. The second child gets a tray and puts six glasses on it. The child then carries the tray toward the kitchen, but someone pushes the door open, striking the tray and the child drops four glasses. Three of them break. In the eyes of young children, both of the children are "naughty" because it is wrong to break glasses. However, the second child is more naughty because more glasses were broken.

Morality of cooperation is adopted by older children. This may also be called moral flexibility or moral relativity. In this view, rules are not "carved in stone." Rules are seen as general guidelines and must be interpreted in the context of actions. From this view, the above example would be interpreted quite differently than as seen by a younger child.

Kohlberg delved more deeply into the moral reasoning that Piaget had studied. Kohlberg used stories called moral dilemmas such as the following widely-quoted example:

In Europe a woman was near death from cancer. One drug might save her, a form of radium a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The druggist was charging $2000, ten times what the drug cost him to make. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later, but the druggist said "No." The husband got desperate and broke into the druggist's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that? Why?

Another commonly-used moral dilemma is the overloaded lifeboat scenario. From his studies of responses to the dilemmas, Kohlberg proposed a model of three stages of moral reasoning with each stage having two substages.

Preconventional morality (birth - 9 years) encompasses judgements made before children understand the conventions of society. Behaviour is guided by a desire to avoid punishment and a belief that good conduct should be rewarded.

Conventional morality (9 years - young adulthood) consists of judgements based on societal rules or conventions. If an action tends to maintain the social order, it is good. There is a desire to impress others and peer relationships become very important.

Postconventional morality (adulthood) consists of judgements that recognize the need for mutual agreement within a society through the use of consistent principles. A person gives situations careful thought and reflection and so devises a self-generated set of principles for moral decisions.

Kohlberg argued that a person progresses through the stages of moral development in a similar manner to what Piaget claimed for cognitive development. However, other researchers claim that how an individual reasons can differ from one dilemma to another. There is evidence that males and females tend to reason differently about these questions. There is also some question about whether Kohlberg's theory is culture specific. It fits in fairly well with a Western tendency to individualism, but has less explanatory power in other cultures.

 

 

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