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Moral Development: Kohlberg

Moral Development: Kohlberg

In a previous article on the development of morals, we looked at the arguments of Piaget for how morals develop and adapt as we get older, and the views of evolutionary psychologists about how morals come into existence. Kohlberg, another researcher developed Piaget’s ideas. He agreed with Piaget that this developmental process from heteronomous to autonomous morality took place, but though that there were more stages to the development. He identified six stages, which he then grouped into 3 levels. The lower two stages were grouped as pre-conventional morality and were supposed to be less than would be expected in a healthy adult, the next two as conventional, which most adults would achieve, and the final two as post-conventional, which were only observed in special cases. This is the most widely accepted model of moral development today.

In Stage 1, the consequences of an action (reward or punishment) is thought to totally determine whether it is good or bad. Obedience to rules is all that is taken into account. This stage is only observed in very young children.

In Stage 2, morality is determined by what satisfies own needs. This level of morality is more common in slightly older children. This still involves keeping to most moral rules since breaking these rules will lead to punishment, which is not wanted by the individual. However, the individual now understands that if they are not caught, there will be no punishment. This is why Kohlberg suggested most criminals will be at this level of moral development, believing that as long as they are not caught for breaking a law, it is okay.

Stage 3 reverts back to the idea of trying to satisfy the rules of others, but this time it is centred on aiming to please other people, not the general rules of society. It is the belief that what is good is what pleases other people, whether this fits into the rules of society or not. How someone with this level of morality will act is dependent on the group of people that they are surrounded by. This stage of development is conventional, and is achieved by most by the age of 9.

Stage 4 on the other hand goes right back to the idea of society making the rules. It does not believe that these rules are so inflexible as before, but individuals believe that behaviours maintaining social order and harmony are the right course of action.

Stage 5 is a more complex understanding that only some will reach, and is thought to be more related to the autonomous morality described by Piaget. It involves the understanding of a social contract, whereby there are agreed-upon laws in society and upholding these is the priority. It focusses on morals as those rules agreed upon by the most, since those actions that will result in most people being happy are the ones that are correct. The post-conventional levels such as this are only supposedly reached by around 10-15% of adults and according to Kohlberg cannot be reached before the mid-30s.

Stage 6 is the most complex stage, and refers to the understanding that ethical principles are self-chosen and that only we can determine whether we believe an action is moral or not. Kohlberg believed that very few would reach this stage.

This is such an important part of our cognition, since it is in many ways the element of us that makes us human. Our social codes and practices are what stops us from killing people for everyday disputes and make us think about the feelings of others when making decisions. Without them, our society would fall apart. 


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