Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (1958) are the stages in thinking about right and wrong that everyone goes through growing up. Each stage builds on the one before so you have to go through them in order. You can get stuck at any stage, though most make it to Stage 4. The first three stages are universally human.
Kohlberg loved to ask questions like the Heinz Dilemma:
Heinz’s wife is dying. The druggist in town has discovered the cure. It cost him $200 to make but offers it to Heinz for $2000. Heinz asks everyone he knows for money but can only come up with $1000. He promises to pay the rest later. The druggist says no: he wants to make money from his discovery. That night Heinz breaks into the shop and takes the medicine.
Was Heinz right? Why or why not?
Here is the common sort of thinking at each stage:
Stage 1: Avoiding punishment
- Key concepts: authority, obedience, punishment
- Those at this stage: small children
Heinz was wrong: he will wind up in prison! Punishment is proof that it is wrong.
Stage 2: Self-interest
- Key concepts: fair deal, favours, What’s in it for me?
- Those at this stage: schoolchildren
Heinz was right: he wanted to save his wife. After all, she takes care of his children and maybe some day she will return the favour. Or: Maybe after a while he will see that going to prison to save his wife was a raw deal.
Stage 3: Good boy attitude
- Key concepts: motive, character, doing what society expects
- Those at this stage: anyone who lives only in a face-to-face world: early teens, people who live in small towns or tribes cut off from the rest of the world
Heinz was right: it is what any good husband would do! No judge with his head screwed on right would put him in prison. If anyone should go to prison it is that druggist!
Stage 4: Law and order morality
- Key concepts: law and order, duty to society
- Those at this stage: late teens, most people in large, faceless societies
Heinz was wrong: without respect for the law, society would fall apart!
Society has to somehow work even though most people do not know each other. You see moral action from the point of view of society as a whole,
Stage 5: Social contract
- Key concepts: rights, democracy, changing unjust laws, revolution
- Those at this stage: Jefferson, some in their middle twenties or later
Heinz was wrong but the judge should go easy on him. The druggist has a right to profit from his discovery, but the wife has a right to life.
You judge society against your own ideas of right and wrong. After all, societies can be well-run yet evil, like Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South.
Stage 6: Principle
- Key concepts: duty to justice, civil disobedience
- Those at this stage: Gandhi, Martin Luther King. No one Kohlberg tested had clearly reached this stage!
Heinz was right. We have a duty to justice to break unjust laws.
– Abagond, 2011.