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Theory of Moral Development

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1 Theory of Moral Development

2 Lawrence Kohlberg Kohlberg created a number of scenarios such as the ‘Heinz Dilemma’ to study people’s responses. He used these responses to develop his theory of moral development.

3 Moral behaviour Moral development is defined as the change in moral behaviour over time. Moral behaviour is the ability to distinguish right from wrong and to behave accordingly.

4 Kohlberg’s stage theory
The stage theory was based on the idea that people progress through a series of levels of moral development, with each level divided into two stages. Kohlberg believed that everybody passes through these six stages, in order, and that no stages could be skipped.

5 The three levels Kohlberg named his three levels of moral development pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Pre-conventional level: children think in terms of an external authority where acts are described as wrong if they are punished and right if they lead to some sort of positive consequence.

6 Conventional level: older children view rules as necessary for maintaining social order. Rules are followed not so much to avoid punishment but to show how virtuous they are and to win approval from others. Moral thinking is inflexible and rules should be rigidly enforced. Post-conventional level: adolescents and adults decide on a personal set of ethics. Acceptance of rules is less rigid and moral thinking tends to more flexible. If one’s personal ethics and society’s rules conflict then they may choose their own personal beliefs or ethics to guide their behaviour.

7 Pre-conventional level
Stage 1: Punishment and obedience Moral decisions are based primarily on fear of punishment or the need to be obedient. Stage 2: Naïve reward – related to self Moral reasoning is guided by satisfying one’s own self-interests, which could involve making some sort of bargain.

8 Conventional level Stage 3: Mutual interpersonal expectations, relationships and conformity Reasoning is guided by conforming to what other important people believe is of value. Stage 4: Authority – law and order Moral reasoning is determined by conforming to society’s rules and laws.

9 Post-conventional level
Stage 5: Social contract/ individual rights Reasoning is determined by careful consideration of all the alternatives and then trying to balance one’s human rights with the laws of society. Stage 6: Individual principles and conscience Reasoning is determined by principles that are quite abstract, while simultaneously emphasising equity and justice.

10 The Heinz Dilemma and the stages
Stage 1: Heinz should not steal the drug as he’ll be caught and go to jail. Stage 2: Heinz should steal the drug to save his wife, but he will have to pay a price for this and go to jail. Stage 3: Heinz should steal the drug as this is what his family would expect him to do.

11 The Heinz Dilemma and the stages
Stage 4: Heinz should not steal the drug because of the effect on society if everybody did this sort of thing. Stage 5: Heinz should steal the drug as life is more important than money. Stage 6: Heinz should steal the drug – life is very important and his wife’s life is a key aspect for Heinz personally.


13 Scenario Dr Howe (a famous biologist) conducted numerous studies demonstrating that simple organisms such as worms and paramecia can learn through conditioning. It occurred to him that perhaps he could condition fertilised human ova to provide a dramatic demonstration that abortions destroy adaptable, living human organisms. This possibility appeals to Dr Howe as he is very much against abortion.

14 Scenario continued… However, there is no way to conduct the necessary research on human ova without sacrificing the lives of potential human beings. He desperately wants to conduct the research, but obviously, the sacrifice of human ova is completely incompatible with his belief in the sanctity of human life. What should he do? Why?

15 What level of moral reasoning?
Dr Howe should do the research. Although it’s wrong to kill, there’s greater good that can be realised through his research. Dr Howe shouldn’t do the research because people will think that he’s a hypocrite and condemn him. Dr Howe should do the research because he may become rich and famous as a result.

16 Answers Post-conventional reasoning – commitment to personal ethics is a characteristic of this level. Conventional reasoning – concern about approval of others is a characteristic of this level. Pre-conventional reasoning – an emphasis on positive and negative consequences is characteristic of this level.

17 Evaluation of Kohlberg Strengths
A review of 45 Kohlberg-like studies supported his theory that people seem to progress the through the stages in the proposed order. As children get older, their moral reasoning alters in predicted directions. Longitudinal studies found that over a 20-year period, participants progressed through the first four stages. The first four stages have also been found in many cultures.

18 Limitations Most people never reach the stage 6 level of morality and some people may skip stages or even go in reverse order. The dilemmas proposed by Kohlberg may be too difficult for children to relate to, or too culturally biased. Kohlberg only used males in his studies, which may have caused a gender bias. People can show signs of several levels of reasoning at the same time.

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