Kohlberg's Stages


Kohlberg's stages of moral development outline a theory of how people learn and grow in their ethical judgments, created by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1950’s. While I certainly don’t think his ideas are perfect, his research is a fascinating insight into human morality. His theory holds that there are six discernable “stages” of ethical judgment that people may progress through, one-by-one, as they live their lives. He believed that people cannot regress in these stages and cannot jump stages, as each one provides the necessary perspective that leads to the next (if it is ever attained.) A now-famous scenario used by Kohlberg in his research is the Heinz Dilemma. It goes something like this: “A man, Heinz, has a wife dying from cancer. Her only hope is an expensive new drug. Unfortunately, Heinz cannot gather enough money to pay for the treatment and the druggist refuses to accept anything other than full payment in advance. Should Heinz steal the drug for his wife?” Presumably, Heinz will face criminal prosecution if he steals the drug and his wife will die if he doesn’t. Boys of all ages were asked this question. Whether the subjects answered yes or no was not as relevant as their rationale behind it.


According to Kohlberg, we all start life in stage one. In this stage, we have a simple egocentric cause-and-effect judgment. Someone in the first stage considers the immediate consequences, and might respond to the dilemma with “Heinz should not steal the drug because he would be put in prison.” Kohlberg thinks that when someone advances to the second stage, he or she is still egoistical, but is able to see beyond immediate effects. They are free to say something like “Heinz should steal the drug because, despite any jail time, he will be happier saving his wife.”


The next two stages are supposed to be typical of adolescents and adults. In the third stage, people try to fulfill their social roles. Individuals want to live up to expectations and may judge morality by what their family and community thinks they are supposed to do. “Heinz should steal the medicine because that’s what a loving husband should do.” In stage four, the beliefs are similar, but people are said to follow the rules to maintain social order, not just because they want to be seen as good. “Heinz shouldn’t steal the medicine because it violates the law.”


In the last two stages, people are shown as being more principled. They are more aware and respectful of the values and opinions of others, they view laws as social contracts instead of absolute dictates, and they are more interested in social welfare and compromise. Someone in stage five might say that Heinz should steal the drug because his wife has the right to live, or that he shouldn’t because the druggist has the right to sell his products as he wishes. In the seldom-reached stage six, a person is said to use more abstract reasoning and try to consider universal ethical principles. He will consider duty and justice over what is expected or legal. One in the last stage may say that Heinz should steal the drug because human life has more fundamental value than property rights. Or not, because stealing is dishonest and shouldn’t be applied universally.


While Kohlberg’s research offers amazing insights into the human mind, I have a slightly different interpretation of the results. The responses of the youngest children (“stage one”) represent the nature of human ethical judgment before we are influenced by others. In it, we define moral rights and wrongs by expected rewards and punishments to us. Does this support my belief that people naturally judge right and wrong by consequences, or the beliefs of culture and religion that right and wrong exist objectively somehow, apart from us? Also in stage one, the subjects seem to view rules as absolutes given by unquestionable authorities. I believe this is because young children are largely unaware of the nature of the forces that control their world. As they reach stage two, they discover that these forces are not inevitable parts of life, but risks to be factored into their decisions. People also become more aware of others in the second stage. They understand that the theft can be right to Heinz and wrong to the druggist. How odd that a ten-year-old can know this while the rest of the world searches for objective morality.


What happens? According to Kohlberg, people grow up and start wanting to behave in “good” ways, which means fulfilling community expectations and having feelings for others. That sounds innocent enough. In fact, that basically is the definition of goodness for most people. But that is the very problem that Individual Valuism is fighting against. What if a community expected people to burn “witches,” make sacrifices to nonexistent gods, hate people in other groups, or believe in superstitions? Then people would think that doing those things was good, and that is exactly what has been happening throughout recorded human history. But what is it that makes someone make the change? What is it that makes someone abandon his or her personal standards of goodness for community standards, whether they are altruism, Nazism, or anything? I believe that it is social pressure. Have you ever hungered for acceptance? Could you live your life, especially your adolescent years, being labeled a deviant? Have you ever been told, “Who are you to judge?” In the midst of having a large, cohesive family and society with near-unanimous convictions, how many can hold onto their individual values for long? In the midst of decrees from seemingly-valid authority figures and rituals that decrease personal awareness, how many can hold onto their individual values for long? Being social creatures that crave social approval, how many can hold onto their individual values for long? But social values are not real values any more than social truths are real truths. Recall the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes. While hundreds of adults were trying to impress one another by agreeing that the Emperor’s clothes were beautiful, only a child was willing to exclaim that he was actually naked.


I don’t have as much to say about the last three stages. Stage four seems to be only a more developed version of stage three in the same way as stage two is more developed than stage one. One’s basic definition of goodness does not change as he or she goes into stage two or four. Rather, the progression into those stages only seems to be an “upgrade” that comes with increased knowledge, perception, or experience. Both stages have more awareness of other people and long-term implications than in the previous stage. Stage five strikes me as just another upgrade, with institutional authority being replaced with “rights” and social contracts. I consider stage six to be a bunch of Kantian rubbish that Kohlberg wished to be at the peak of moral reasoning. However, almost no one can be shown to use stage six thinking consistently and even Kohlberg stopped using it before his death.


Considering everything, I would not describe moral development with a stage model. I would instead use a continuous scale in which people grow in their ethical judgments as they increase their capability to acquire and apply knowledge to do what is best to them. Using the Heinz Dilemma, a very young person may only consider that stealing the drug will cause Heinz to be arrested. As he grows older, more knowledgeable, and more intelligent, he will consider other things such as his wife’s life being worth it. He could further analyze such things as his wife’s chances of surviving with other treatments, what the likely civil and criminal punishments will be, the chances of getting caught, the chances of getting sympathy in the court and media, whether or not his wife wants to live, whether or not he wants his wife to live, the value of life in general, the value of property rights in general, how his decision will affect how people view the value of life and property rights, etc. With that continuous model, social norms may be guidelines that assist people in learning what is good to them but they can also be a corrupting influence that hijacks one’s cognition and focuses it on arbitrary values that do not have good results. I suggest that everyone turn their moral compass away from popular society and towards intelligence and reality. And in case you were wondering how I’d respond to the Heinz dilemma: “Whether or not Heinz should steal the drug depends upon which of his choices will have the best long-term consequences in reality to him.”