Kohlberg's stages of moral development
If you have an understanding of the normal stages of moral development, it should help you to develop or improve upon your own morals or values. This is especially true if the characteristics of highly moral people are clearly described. The following six stages are taken mostly from Piaget (1932), Kohlberg (1975), and Rosen (1980).
Stage 1: Respect for power and punishment.
A young child (age 1-5) decides what to do--what is right--according to what he/she wants to do and can do without getting into trouble. To be right, you must be obedient to the people in power and, thus, avoid punishment. Motto: "Might makes right."
Stage 2: Looking out for #1.
Children (age 5-10) tend to be self-serving. They lack respect for the rights of others but may give to others on the assumption that they will get as much or more in return. It is more a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," instead of loyalty, gratitude, or justice. Motto: "What's in it for me?"
Stage 3: Being a "Good Boy" or "Nice Girl."
People at this stage (age 8-16) have shifted from pleasing themselves to pleasing important others, often parents, teachers, or friends. They seek approval and conform to someone else's expectations. When they are accused of doing something wrong, their behavior is likely to be justified by saying "everyone else is doing it" or "I didn't intend to hurt anyone." Motto: "I want to be nice."
Stage 4: Law and order thinking.
The majority of people 16 years old and older have internalized society's rules about how to behave. They feel obligated to conform, not any longer to just family and friends, but also to society's laws and customs. They see it as important to do one's duty to maintain social order. Leaders are assumed to be right; individuals adopt social rules without considering the underlying ethical principles involved. Social control is, therefore, exercised through guilt associated with breaking a rule; the guilt in this case is an automatic emotional response, not a rational reaction of conscience based on moral principles (as in stage 6). People at this stage believe that anyone breaking the rules deserves to be punished and "pay their debt to society." Motto: "I'll do my duty."
Stage 5: Justice through democracy.
People at this stage recognize the underlying moral purposes that are supposed to be served by laws and social customs; thus, if a law ceases to serve a good purpose, they feel the people in a democracy should get active and change the law. Thought of in this way, democracy becomes a social contract whereby everyone tries continually to create a set of laws that best serves the most people, while protecting the basic rights of everyone. There is respect for the law and a sense of obligation to live by the rules, as long as they were established in a fair manner and fulfill an ethical purpose. Only about 20-25% of today's adults ever reach this stage and most of those that do supposedly only get there after their mid-twenties. Motto: "I'll live by the rules or try to change them."
Stage 6: Deciding on basic moral principles by which you will live your life and relate to everyone fairly.
These rather rare people have considered many values and have decided on a philosophy of life that truly guides their life. They do not automatically conform to tradition or others' beliefs or even to their own emotions, intuition, or impulsive notions about right and wrong. Stage 6 people carefully choose basic principles to follow, such as caring for and respecting every living thing, feeling that we are all equal and deserve equal opportunities, or, stated differently, the Golden Rule. They are strong enough to act on their values even if others may think they are odd or if their beliefs are against the law, such as refusing to fight in a war. Motto: "I'm true to my values."
General criticism of Kohlberg's Stages
Kohlberg's conception of moral development is based on thinking and logic, not on feelings for others. Surely feelings can not be neglected. Likewise, Kohlberg believed that morals were based on age and "wisdom," rather than real life experience and empathic identification with others. The truth is that children of 3 or 4 can and do empathize with others and try to help. Caring doesn't require Ph. D.-level, middle-aged reasoning! It requires feelings. Coles (1986) describes some impressively moral children and teenagers. Some children have stood up to mobs of unfair adults. Lastly, Kohlberg's focus is on the individual, not on what makes for a moral community. Thus, he doesn't balance a self-orientation as opposed to a group-orientation. He doesn't ask, as the Greeks did, the question "what would accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people?" And, he doesn't question, as do the Quakers, the morality of settling issues by voting (resulting in as few as 51% imposing--often with glee--their preferences on the remaining 49%) rather than by consensus (everyone agreeing to a carefully considered compromise). Yet, these stages can be a useful way to begin assessing one's own morals.
Discussion of Kohlberg's Stages 5 & 6
Kohlberg's evaluation of moral decisions was based on the quality of the reasoning behind a person's decision, rather than whether or not some specific behavioral decision was made. The thinking process used by some in stage 6 to decide what is fair and reasonable in a moral dilemma is called "second-order Golden Rule role taking" (Kohlberg, 1984). There are two steps: (1) Understanding how each person involved sees the situation and (2) imagining how each person would feel if placed in each other person's situation. The aim of this empathic process is to find a "reversible" solution, one that would be seen as equally just from each person's perspective and considered fair by a high percentage of rationally thinking people. Example: (1) Imagine the situation of a poor dying patient, her husband, and a druggist who wants $1000.00 profit (10 times its cost) for an effective drug and (2) imagine how each would feel in the other's shoes, e.g. how the patient would feel as the druggist, the druggist as the dying patient, the patient as the husband thinking about stealing the drug, etc. A solution that might result from this process would be for the druggist to give the patient the drug, and the couple, in turn, would agree to pay for it by working part-time for the druggist after the patient gets well. As we will see later, an 11-year-old girl in Gilligan's study (1982) arrived at a similar solution.
Current theorists believe it takes time (40-50 years), experience with different cultures and values, emotional maturity, self-control and self-esteem, considerable thought about values, and/or moral development training to acquire this kind of moral reasoning. I suspect stages 5 and 6 will be achieved at age 12 or 14, when we know enough to provide the proper training and experience at that age. Good but extraordinary examples of stage 6 morality are Jesus Christ (he spoke cogently of universal principles but he died at age 33!), St. Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King (he became a civil rights activist at age 26!), and Sister Teresa of Calcutta. Don't let this awesome list of saintly people scare you or discourage you. Try to become a stage 5 or 6 person by finding some good causes you are willing to argue for, decide what lifestyle you most value, and start doing it.
As you understand these stages better, you may understand more about why you have made certain moral decisions in the past. Also, you will realize that you and everyone else operate on several levels at the same time. For example, you may avoid shoplifting for the fear of punishment (stage 1), you may watch your little brother carefully to be sure he doesn't get more attention than you (stage 2), you may want to impress your parents or a teacher (stage 3), you may unthinkingly enforce school rules as a monitor (stage 4), and you may be active in the women's movement or help support a child in India through CARE (stage 5 or 6). Furthermore, you may find your moral reasoning on one level and your behavior on another: 20% of the people at stage 6 of moral reasoning still conformed (stage 3 or 4) when asked by an authority to hurt another person (Kohlberg, 1984). Likewise, my value system says I should share most of my worldly possessions, but often I don't (partly because most people would think I was weird and stupid).