Mid-20th Century American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a now famous theory of six stages that persons go through in progressing in moral (or ethical) development. While the idea is that each stage must be passed through in order to move on to the next, different persons’ developments are arrested at different stages. Also note that in any given situation, a person can fail to operate at his/her highest level of ethical capability.
Kohlberg was highly influenced by French psychologist Jean Piaget and his theory of cognitive development. For more on this, please see the second link under the “Resources” section of this article.
Level I: Pre-Conventional Morality (Selfishness)
Stage One: Obedience Out of Fear of Punishment
Conduct is based upon saving one’s own hide, without regard for consequences to others. This is a form of “might makes right”. It is consequentialist in that no overarching principles apply–only the likely results (consequences) are weighed. They’re only weighed based upon impact to the individual rather than based upon consequences for all.
Stage Two: Quid Pro Quo, or “You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours”
This can perhaps be looked upon as a primitive version of the famous phrase informing the Founding (of the American Republic), “enlightened self-interest”. So one might take some liberties and call this the “unenlightened self-interest” stage.
The needs of others are considered, but only insofar as said consideration is viewed as means to selfish results. If I do x as x involves another person (or refrain from doing x), what do I get out of it? Sound familiar in Washington? Remember, this is a very early stage of development.
Level II: Conventional Morality (Other-directed)
Stage Three: Good Boy/Good Girl (Bad Boy/Bad Girl)
Progression to the consideration of the approval or disapproval of others not merely as means for getting one’s own way but for its own sake. Another key development in this stage is that the intentions (rather than only the consequences) of self and others are considered. It’s now possible, at least in a rudimentary way, to assess actions based upon whether good was intended, regardless of the outcome. Meaning well and meaning ill come into play.
Stage Four: Law and Order (What I Call “the Fascist Stage”)
It’s rather frightening that many people never progress past this stage that involves obedience to laws solely because “society says so”; but there you have it. An advance is made in terms of looking at society at-large instead of just at the self of Level I or the approval by others of self in Stage Three. However, the “blind obedience”, black-or-white orientation, and sense that rules are inflexible (and it’s always one’s duty to obey them simply because they “are”) make this stage, to me, one of the more dangerous at which fixation can occur.
Level III: Post-Conventional Morality (Principles Higher Than Rules)
Stage Five: Social Contract
The main leap made here is that of seeing current rules as subordinate to the needs of society rather than as instructing them. Laws are viewed as responsive and flexible; as such, persons are active creators of rules instead of merely passive recipients. As such, rules are based upon dynamic discourse between persons in a society (social contract) and may be altered along the way. Unlike Stage Four, rules are not viewed as the “be-all, end-all,” but are only responsive to current societal needs for well-being.
This stage introduces what I would call engaging in dynamic “ethics” as opposed to simply adhering to “morality.” Please see my article “Ethics Versus Morality” (third link under “Resources”).
Stage Six: Universal Ethical Principles
Here, overarching abstract principles exceed current rules and laws in terms of importance. In Stage Five we had attention to communication of social needs by all, we now have the primacy of personal conscience (as opposed to the personal desires of Level I).
This stage is only rarely attained, but that might be a good thing, as I think it’s one of the more problematic stages. It may not be all it’s cracked up to be. In a sense, to me this stage is similar to the rule-following of Stage Four. The advance is that conformity isn’t set up as the summum bonum (highest good), but adherence to one’s personal conscience is. While it’s certainly laudable to question conformity and blind obedience by using one’s own judgment, the danger here is that one become dogmatic about one’s own ideas and principles that one regards as universal. This strikes me as bordering on hubris (arrogance) in that it replaces the social give-and-take of Stage Five with the appeal to personal conscience. Taken to extremes, this could lead, ironically enough, to the imposition by one of allegedly absolute principles to be followed by those in Stage Four. In other words, these supposedly advanced principles that a person derives here in Stage Six could be viewed by those in Stage Four as laws to be blindly followed, but the person in Stage Six might be wrong!
I’m all for “conscientious objection”, and appeal to personal scruples, but problems arise when such personal views are deemed universals, absolutes.
Tips & Caution
- If you have children, try applying Kohlberg’s theory to them and see how much you think it rings true or doesn’t ring true
- If you don’t have children (like me), or even if you do, look at adults (public figures, acquaintances or oneself) and try to determine at which stage(s) they may be operating during any particular occasion
- As always, understand that this is the theory of a particular person (Kohlberg). While it’s become highly influential, it’s not to be accepted uncritically