Lawrence Kohlberg, born in October 25, 1927 in Bronxville, New York, where he grew up and passed away in January 19, 1987, was an American professor and a psychologist who served at the University of Chicago and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is renowned for the theory of moral development that he advanced. He enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago in 1948 and graduated in the same year because of his high scores in the admission tests with a bachelor’s degree. He completed his graduate degree in psychology at the same university. The theories by Jean Piaget on moral judgment among adolescents and children fascinated Kohlberg to the extent that he embarked on becoming a clinical psychologist to research into moral issues. He published his first work in 1958. This was after the publication of his doctoral dissertation on the moral development’s six stages, which placed him among the century’s leading developmental psychologists. The success of his work was profound and changed the way people thought about moral development.
The dissertation developed by Kohlberg resulted from working with a sample of boys aged between 10 and 16 years. He used their responses to develop hypothetical moral dilemmas and showed how their reasoning justified their moral stands. He realized he could classify these moral stands in six distinct moral judgment patterns. These patterns related to age but were not dependent on it, and thus characterized as moral judgment levels. Adults do not impose the morality concept on their children, but rather the children generate moral judgments of their own. Kohlberg died at the age of 59 having drowned in the ocean. Even after his death, his great works continue to influence the world. His contribution to moral education was very valuable in that he almost revived research on social science singlehandedly into the moral science field.
Traditional psychology avoided studying anything loaded with judgment. This is because of the degree of difficulty involved when one tries to be unbiased over things involving terms such as bad or good. Therefore, no one dared to touch on aspects of morality. However, Kohlberg chose to study morality using the most controversial and interesting technique. He asked both adults and children to attempt to solve moral dilemmas found in little stories. He did his original work with boys, but later included girls in his research. He discovered that girls had less moral development than their male counterparts did. Psychologists used this to readjust their works in order to take into account the fact that girls usually expressed their morality in terms of the emphasized personal caring rather than the abstract principles of life.
One of the stories that Kohlberg used to express dilemma was the Heinz Dilemma story. This happened in Europe where a woman was about to die from rare cancer. The doctors prescribed one special drug that could cure her. This was a form of radium recently discovered by a druggist in that very town. This drug was very expensive to make. However, the druggist charged ten times what it cost him to make the drug, i.e., he bought the radium at $200, but charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. Heinz’s wife was very sick. He tried borrowing the money from friends and family but only managed to raise half of it $1,000. He went to the druggist to convince him to sell him the drug at a cheaper cost, because his wife was dying or let him pay later. The druggist refused claiming he had to make fortunes from his discovery. Heinz broke into the store out of desperation to steal the drug for his dying wife. The big question is was Heinz right or wrong in doing so. Kohlberg was more interested in each participant’s reasoning before reaching at a decision. Using this, he classified their responses into various reasoning stages in his moral development theory.
There were three levels and six stages. The first level was the pre-conventional morality. This level states that very young children have a primitive kind of morality, unlike infants who were essentially amoral. The first stage is the punishment and reward stage. It shows that bad or good depends on physical consequences. In addition, this stage outlined whether the action led to a reward or a punishment. The focus of this stage is one’s own pleasure or pain, excluding other people from the equation. The second stage is the exchange stage, where the interests of others are taken into account. People then understand their interests in a concrete fashion, e.g., you scratch my back – I will scratch yours. The children concern themselves with what is fair and not real justice.
The second level is the conventional morality. Children in this stage attend elementary school and can use conventional morality. Most adults find themselves in this level, thus it a very important level in moral development. Stage 3 found in this level is the good girl/good boy stage. The child in this stage tries to live up to other’s expectations just to get their approval. They become interested with and understand intentions, motives, and concepts like gratitude, trust and loyalty. They usually adhere to the Golden Rule’s concrete version. However, this only applies to people whom they deal with on a daily basis. The fourth stage is the law and order stage. The children adapt the social system point of view as a whole. They realize that a wrong or a right are based on the rules of the society. They also learn that it is important to perform one’s duty and to show respect for authority.
The third level is the post-conventional morality level. Some adults and adolescents rise above moralities based on one’s authority or one’s reasons. The fifth stage is the social contract stage. This means that one is aware of the degree to which morality is relative to an individual and to the social group in which he belongs. Very few fundamental values are universal. People at this level view morality as an action of entering into a contract with other human beings to respect authority and be kind to each other. They also have to follow the laws to an extent that they promote and respect universal values. These social morality contracts usually involve a utilitarian approach, i.e., where the greatest good for the greatest number determines the relative value of an act. The sixth and final stage refers to the universal principles. A person at this stage makes personal commitments to the universal principles of respect and equal rights. Social contracts take a clear back seat at this stage. The universal principles take precedence in a case of conflicting interests between custom, social law, and universal principles.
Another psychologist to take on the morality issue was Urie Bronfenbrenner of the Bronfenbrenner’s Theory. He studied schools and children in different cultures and outlined a five-tier moral orientation. The first was the self-oriented morality. It is analogous to the pre-conventional morality theory developed by Kohlberg. The children only interest themselves with self-gratification. They will consider others only to an extent the latter will help them acquire what they want, or hinder from acquiring it. The second stage is the authority-oriented morality. The adults and children in this case accept decrees from figures of authority as defining bad or good, starting with their parents, and going all the way up to the heads of religion and state. The third stage is the peer-oriented morality, which is a conformity morality, where the peers, unlike the authorities, determine the right or wrong, usually among adolescents and adults. The fourth stage is the collective-oriented morality, where she standing goals of a group an adult or a child belongs to override their individual interests. Duty is paramount to one’s society or group. The fifth and final stage is the objectively oriented morality.
These studies led to the development of various theories of morality that determined the moral thinking versus the moral acting or moral behavior. One of these theories was moral subjectivism. The individual determines wrong or right through their feelings or thoughts. Thus, moral subjectivism will amount to denial of moral principles and the possibility of moral argumentation and criticism. Cultural relativism is the other one, where a particular set of rules or principles that a culture holds at that time determines a right or a wrong. Ethical egoism assumes that self-interest of a person determines the right or wrong. Immorality cases appear where one goes contrary to one’s own self-interest. The divine command theory shows the interconnection between religion and morality. In some cases, there is no morality, i.e., a right or a wrong without God.
Virtue ethics determine a right or a wrong in terms of action in accordance with traditional virtues. This makes the person good. Feminist ethics use the responses of women to relationships of caring to determine a right or a wrong. Utilitarianism determines a right or a wrong by using the overall utility or goodness of the action’s consequences. The Kantian theory determines a right or a wrong basing on the rationality and issuing of universal duties. The rights-based theory dictates that people act according to set moral rights possessed by all human beings. Finally, the cotractarianism determines the principles of wrong and right basing on what everyone in the society agrees to when forming a social contract.