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Skip's Corner: Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development   (Views: 46,604)
Contributed by Skip on March 4th, 2002

Lawrence Kohlberg was a distinguished professor at Harvard who developed a very interesting theory for human moral development that helps explain why some people have higher moral standards than others.

It's actually pretty simple. It's a matter of being exposed to examples (people) exhibiting higher levels of morality that affords us the opportunity to accept their more universal logic as our own.

I say more universal because according to Kolberg's theory, the "lower" stages of morality revolve around oneself, then as the morality gets "higher" it includes other individuals and "society".

Here's the scale (more or less as I can remember off the top of my head).

First stage: Personal Survival - "Me against the world" - No altruism at all. You don't expect anyone to help you. You act upon survival instincts (I think some individuals lapse into this under stress). These people just take what they need without consideration of the impact on others.

Second stage: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". You recognize that others can help you, and that you must return the favor! (I think this is the level of politics and politicians). Still no altruism.

Third stage: Good & Bad. Behavior is dictated by whether it is seen as good or bad depending upon whether it conforms or goes against some learned doctrine of acceptable behavior. (Typical of many religious fundamentalists and peer pressure). Any altruism is only seeking the approval of others.

Fourth stage: Law & Order. Recognition that behavior needs to conform to written laws. The Law is the final arbiter and is seen as something that should be obeyed without question. (Typical of law enforcement types and bible thumpers). Any altruism is seen as a responsibility (like tithing).

The next two stages Kolberg calls "Post Conventional", and go beyond the social programming, requiring individuals to discover for themselves the "higher morality".

Fifth stage: The Social Contract. Recognition that laws exists for the common good, but that these laws must not be viewed as applying in every case. There is a geniune interest in the welfare of others and the concept of justice. Altruistic. This stage is typical of those who protest the inequities of the system, go to jail on social principles, etc.

Sixth stage: Recognition of Universal Principles. The individual fully realizes that there is a "higher law" to which we are all subject. The individual's highly evolved conscience is the sole basis for behavior. Most behaviors are for the benefit of others. These people are willing to risk their lives for others. The ultimate example being Christ.

Kohlberg postulated that each indivdual must go through each stage and cannot skip stages. The way that people progress is through social interaction and exposure to individuals that exhibit these "higher" traits. Through encounters with "moral dilemmas" people get to test their beliefs against those of others and thereby learn which belief system yields a more acceptable result.

According to Kohlberg, children usually develop through stages 1 & 2 and settle into 3 & 4. A minority of adults pass into the higher stages 5 & 6.

Once you understand this theory, it explains a great deal about the varying morality that exists in any society. It also shows the way to elevate others.

Does any of this sound familiar to you folks? It's what we hippies deal with everyday! The advantage of this perspective is that we can better understand what motivates other people, their words and deeds.

You can see by the responses in our forums, just where people are coming from. That is the reason why these forums are here. To help everyone by exposing us all to a diversity of moral reasoning. After awhile it's easy to see the flaws in the reasoning of the different stages.

Those who come here only to cut others down belie their own stage of moral development. Here we all have equality, a voice, and a stage on which to reveal our true souls. Why waste your time trying to prove to others how smart you are or highlight a narrow point of view? We have much to accomplish here, and we need to get to work on it. Open your minds and you will be enlightened!

The point is these stages are universal and apply to everyone. That certain religions acknowledge this only supports the theory further. Morality must be developed. Religions are one way to progress throught the stages. Wasn't Christ's story full of moral dilemmas and how he dealt with them. That's the most important part of Christianity. Likewise Buddha also faced the same dilemmas (materialism, temptation, etc.).

Hippies present many moral dilemmas for other people. That's why we get such strong reactions. I love it when we get all this hate mail. I just reply asking what it is about hippies that they fear. Is it Peace, Love, concern for others, etc? I never hear from them again. These knee jerk reactions that people have reveal their level of moral development. If we take the time, and explore their reactions further we create cognitive dissonance forcing them to face their own moral dilemma, hopefully enlightening them.

This is how you should proceed with people who put us down. Just the fact that they bring up the issue indicates something inside them is seeking answers. And if you're the person thus confronted, you must take on the responsibility of responding with understanding and love.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that."

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development
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