Kohlberg’s Moral Stages

I just ran across a reference to
Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and was immediately intrigued enough to spend my attention span learning just enough to mistakenly be sure that I know something about the subject.

Kohlberg was a follower of Jean Piaget, and extended Piaget’s model of moral development in children from two to six stages:

  1. Obedience and punishment. Morality comes from authority: there are rules, and they have to be obeyed. Good and bad are viewed in terms of reward and punishment.
  2. Individualism and exchange. Children realize that different people have different points of view, so everyone should pursue their own interests. There is also the notion of fair exchange: if I break a rule for you today, you’ll do me a favor tomorrow.
  3. Good interpersonal relationships. Morality involves living up to the expectations of the family and community. Motivations matter in evaluating someone’s behavior.
  4. Maintaining the social order. Laws and rules are not an end in themselves, but a way to maintain order in society.
  5. Social contract and individual rights. Here, the person thinks about the sorts of laws that lead to a good society, not merely a stable one. People at this stage want democratic avenues for changing bad laws.
  6. Universal principles. Rights and democracy are not enough: society should also embody ideals like justice and individual dignity.

Thus, each stage extends the previous one. Lessons learned at each stage become special cases of more general principles embraced at the next stage.

Kohlberg stopped scoring people at stage 6 after a while, when he realized that people weren’t consistently working on that level. Still, I guess it remains an ideal to aspire to.

The article linked to above has an interesting approach to solving moral problems and designing a good society: in a given situation, pretend that you will become one of the characters in that scenario, but you don’t know which one. This helps to come up with a solution that everyone can live with. This approach harnesses empathy and self-interest to try to maximize everyone’s happiness.

Interestingly, these stages appear to be entirely learned, and not simply part of biological development. Furthermore, a person advances through these stages not by simple learning, but by thinking about moral problems, especially ones that don’t comfortably fit in the current model, e.g., if the child is at the “the law is the law” stage: “John’s son was hurt, so John drove him to the hospital. The speed limit was 40mph, but John drove 60mph to get his son help more quickly. Was it okay for John to break the law? Why or why not?”

People in different circumstances plateau at different levels. According to the article, in many small villages, people never go beyond stage 3. A model of morality based on interpersonal relationships works when there are few people involved, but breaks down once the community reaches a certain size, and you have to start thinking of a more abstract entity called “society”. Living in a big city forces one to deal with the fact that one will never even meet most of the people in the community, and therefore some more scalable model is needed.

I see a parallel here to US politics. In the 2004 election, we saw that the opposing camps were not coasts and heartland, or red and blue states, but primarily urban and rural: the higher the population density in a district, the bluer it was, and vice-versa.

In Confessions of a Former Dittohead, the author says that he had to reconsider his opinion of gays when his best friend and college roommate turned out to be gay: it was easy to hate “the gay agenda”, but not to hate Scott. This seems to be a good examle of the sort of moral conundrum that can push people to a higher moral stage. And people in cities are, I suspect, more likely to personally know someone who’s gay (or Muslim, or a pot smoker, or whatever) and have to consider these sorts of issues.

Likewise college, where one traditionally is thrust into a new environment without parental guidance and has to work a lot of things out on one’s own; plus, there are instructors whose job it is to make one think of things one had never considered before.

I think this model also explains the sorts of people who think that morality comes from the Bible, and can’t understand how an atheist can be moral, or think that without God, we’d all go around robbing and stealing: they’re just thinking about morality at the “rules” or “individualism” stage, and haven’t progressed to the “social order” stage. The letter asking Dr. Laura about advice on selling one’s daughter into slavery might be a good starting point, since it demonstrates that just because something is in the Bible, that doesn’t mean that it’s good.

I’m also pretty sure that people at different moral stages have different theologies: Ray Comfort and Fred Phelps appear to be at the “obey the law or be punished” stage, whereas those who have progressed to asking “how can we have a stable society?” and “how can we have a good society?” are more likely to concentrate on the “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” parts of the Bible.

Fortunately, it appears that even if people can’t really be taught to progress along these stages, they can at least be encouraged, with some amount of success. Personally, I’d start by requiring High School students to take a course in ethics, but maybe that’s just me.

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