Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Moral Development

In this article the Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is discussed. Kohlberg’s theory is a direct continuation of the Piaget’s work on the same issues. Kohlberg's methodology, and why he considers structure more important than content are discussed. The key aspects of the typical reasoning in the moral judgments of each level are discussed. The developmental issues and the criticisms of the theory are presented in the later sections. Also the various aspects of morality being context, culture and time dependent are discussed.

The very word ‘moral’ colloquially means of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior. Moral behavior as understood in a everyday notion, relates to the behavior of an individual which is acceptable in the contemporary society. One thing is for sure that the moral development is not innate, it comes through our own thinking about the moral problems, with inputs from the interactions that we have with the society. There are three major components of morality, viz. the emotional component, cognitive component, behavioral component. The emotional component reflects the fact that we can relate to the harm that we cause to other person. The cognitive component emphasizes the fact that
thinking about the social understanding helps us to make more elaborate judgment’s about actions. Finally the behavioral component relates to the fact that exposure to morally relevant thoughts and feelings can only increase the chances that we will act accordingly but does not guarantee the same.

The biological and the psychoanalytic theories focus on emotional aspect of the morality, cognitive developmental theories on the moral thought, whereas the social learning theory has focused on the behavioral aspects. These theories disagree with what is the primary cause, but the trend that is seen
in the moral development is that a person starts from “externally controlled responses” and goes on to “behavior that is based on inner standards.” In the following sections we mainly consider the theories of moral development of Piaget and Kohlberg which elaborate the cognitive developmental aspect of

 Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development 

From this perspective the maturity in cognition and social experience lead to the development in the moral understanding of the child as a whole. Piaget’s work on the aspect of the moral development in children is the pioneering work in the cognitive development aspect of morality. For studying the
children’s ideas about morality Piaget depended upon open ended clinical interviews. By clinical interviews it is meant that a child is asked some questions and probed futher in the reasoning behind a particular response given. Piaget in particular asked about the rules in game of marbles. The children were also given stories in which the character’s intentions [ either wrong or right ] and the consequences of such a action were varied. The best kno twn such example is that of John and Henry. In these stories each of the boy breaks different number of cups, one with ‘wrong’ intention and other with no intention. The children are asked the question that which one of them is naughtier and why. The two
stories are like this [1]:

Story A: A little boy who is called John is in his room. He is called to dinner. He goes into the dining room. But behind the door there was a chair, and on the chair there was a tray with fifteen cups on it. John couldn’t have known that there was all this behind the door. He goes in, the door knocks against the tray, bang go the fifteen cups and they all get broken!

Story B: Once there was a little boy whose name was Henry. One day when his mother was out he tried to get some jam out of the cupboard. He climbed up on to a chair and stretched out his arm. But the jam was too high up and he couldn’t reach it and have any. But while he was trying to get it he knocked over a cup. The cup fell down and broke.

The responses that Piaget got from children between ages 5 and 13 he could identify two general stages of the moral understanding viz. heteronomous and autonomous morality.

 Heteronomous Morality [ ∼ 5 - 10 years]

Before the beginning of this stage the children show little understanding that rules govern the social behavior. At about 5 years of age the children enter the period of heteronomous morality and begin to show concern for the rules. The word heteronomous means under the authority of other, the children view the rules as handed down by the authorities. The rules are unvarying and require strict obedience. The factors that limit the child’s understanding according to Piaget are:

1. The unquestioned respect for rules and those enforce them.
2. Egocentrism.

As young children think that view of all the people about the rules are same, their moral understanding is characterized by realism, which means that they regard the rules as “external features of reality, rather than as subjective, internal principles that can be modified at will.” The presence of realism and egocentrism leads to young children focussing on the objective consequences rather than the intent. In the stories about John and Henry, John is considered more naughty because he broke more cups, even if he did not wrong intent in doing so. Another thing that the children having heteronomous morality believe in is the concept of immanent justice i.e. they believe that wrong doing always leads to punishment. The punishment thus received is inescapable and can be through a variety of events.

Autonomous Morality [ ∼ 10 years and above]

The autonomous morality is the next stage in Piaget’s theory of moral development. Through the interactions with peers children become aware that people have different views than their own. They realize that intentions are more important than the objective consequences in moral judgments. Thus
in the two stories mentioned, they do not consider John as naughty, even if he broke more cups because he simply did not intend to do so. On the other hand Henry is considered naughty as he has intent to steal the jam, even in the process he broke less cups. The conflicts with peers are settled in mutually beneficial ways. The concept of reciprocity is developed in children. By reciprocity it is meant that, “they express the same concern for the welfare of  others as they do for themselves.” The most familiar expression of reciprocity is the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Reciprocity is the main driving force in the understanding of children in autonomous morality. Children realize that, “rules are flexible, socially agreed on principles that can be revised to suit the will of the majority.” The children can question the logic of the rules and just do not blindly follow them, they can realize that at times there may be good reasons to break a rule. Punishment are also seen in the light of principle of reciprocity. The punishment should be meted in an even-handed way to everyone responsible for the offense, thus guaranteeing justice for all.

Evaluation of Piaget’s Theory

Piaget’s two stage theory gives a general account of the development of the moral understanding in children. The essential aspects of the theory relate with Piaget’s view that child’s development in general goes through a stagewise manner dependent on the age. The followup studies indicate the conclusions of Piaget that “moral understanding is supported by cognitive maturity, release from adult authority, and peer interaction. We now consider some aspects of this theory that have been questioned.

Intentions and Moral Judgments

Considering the stories of John and Henry, they present a biased view of child’s reasoning as more damage is coupled with good intentions and vice versa. If the same scenario is presented on the same grounds of damage, even the younger children can judge the ill intentioned person as naughtier. Also by the age of 4 years children are able to recognize the difference between lying and truthfulness, two morally relevant intentional behaviors. Thus the capacity to consider intentions appears in children much earlier than Piaget believed a deeper understanding does not arise till they reach autonomous morality.

Reasoning About Authority

Piaget assumed that heteronomous children assume the authority of adults with unquestioned respect, but studies have revealed the contrary. The preschoolers judge stealing, hitting as wrong regardless of the opinions of authority. Also peers can be regarded as authorities, e.g. a class captain. Thus “young children’s concepts of authority do not focus solely on status and power.” Contrary to
this many factors are responsible at an earlier age than assumed by Piaget, these factors include, “the attributes of the individual, the type of behavior to be controlled, and the context in which it occurs.

Stagewise Progression

Another aspect of Piaget’s theory is that characterstics associated with each stage do not correlate very highly, as would be expected if each stage represented a “general unifying organization of moral
judgments.” Thus child’s moral thought appears as “patchwork of diverse parts.” But to this Piaget recommended that, “the two moralities be viewed as fluid, overlapping ‘phases’ rather than as tightly knit stages.” Also studies indicate that the moral development goes beyond the two stages of Piaget. Kohlberg’s work presented in the later sections is a direct continuation of the Piaget’s work on moral development.

 Kohlberg’s Extension of Piaget’s Theory

Lawrence Kohlberg [1927 - 1987] following Piaget’s work on the aspect of moral development in children began on similar lines the search for stages of moral development and study of how moral understanding is intimately tied to the cognitive growth. The methodology that Kohlberg adopted for the study of moral was same of Piaget viz. the clinical interviews, but instead of asking children to
judge the naughtiness of a character of a story Kohlberg presented children with moral dilemmas. A moral dilemma is “a conflict situation presented to subjects, who are asked to decide both what the main actor should do and why.” In a moral dilemma two moral values are pitched against each other. The conflict in the mind of sub ject with regard to these two moral values, and its subsequent
resolution serves as an index of the moral development. This enables the experimenter to get a better picture of the reasoning behind the moral decisions. The best known moral dilemma is the the ‘Heinz dilemma,’ in which the subject is presented with conflict between two moral values viz. obeying the law [not stealing] and value of human life [saving a dying person] [2]:

Heinz Steals The Drug
In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make.
He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband
have done that?
In the response received from the sub jects [72 boys of ages 10, 13 and 16 in the core sample] to the moral dilemma presented above Kohlberg was more interested in the structure than the content of the response. So just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response to the question presented above will not provide us with the reasoning behind this moral judgment. In fact for the first four stages that Kohlberg identified, both the responses are found with different reasoning at each stage. To find out this reasoning the ‘why’ questions are asked and the sub ject is further probed with other related dilemmas. Based on the different response he got from the children Kohlberg was able to classify them into various stages.
Kolhberg was able to identify three general levels and six stages in all for the moral development in children.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Level I Preconventional Morality
At this level the morality of the person is externally controlled and can be identified with the main features of the Piaget’s heteronomous stage. The children accept the rules of the authority and the actions are judged by the consequences and not the intent. The moral understanding is based on
rewards and punishments.

Stage 1 Obedience and Punishment Orientation
This stage is similar to Piaget’s heteronomous stage of moral thought. The child regards the rules as fixed, handed down by adults which must be obeyed at all costs. The child is unable to take two points of view for the moral dilemma.
The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows [Taken verbatim from [1]]:

Pro-Stealing: “If you let your wife die, you will get in trouble. You’ll be blamed for not spending money to help her, and there’ll be an investigation of you and the druggist for your wife’s death.”

Anti-Stealing: “You shouldn’t steal the drug because you’ll be caught and send to jail if you do. If you do get away, your conscience would bother you thinking how the police will catch up with you any minute.”

Stage 2 Individualism and Exchange
At this stage the children become aware that different people have different perspectives in a moral dilemma, but this awareness is very concrete. The right action is considered that satisfies ones personal needs. Reciprocity is considered as equal exchange of favors. The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:

Pro-Stealing: “The druggist can do what he wants and Heinz can do what he wants to do . . . But if Heinz decides to risk jail to save his wife, it’s his life he’s risking; he can do what he wants with it. And the same goes for the druggist; it’s up to him to decide what he want to do.”

Anti-Stealing: “[Heinz] is running more risk than it’s worth unless he’s so crazy about her he can’t live without her. Neither of them will enjoy life if she’s an invalid.”

Both the stages in the first level talk about punishment, but the perception in each stage is different. Whereas in the first stage punishment is linked with [proves] wrongness of disobedience, in the second stage on the other hand punishment is regarded as “simply a risk that one naturally wants to avoids.”
The stage 2 children are considered to reason at the preconventional level as they think “as isolated individuals rather than as members of society.” Also “they see individuals exchanging favors, but there is still no identification with the values of the family or community.”
Level II Conventional Morality

In this level as the name suggests the individuals continue to regard the conformity to social rules as important, but the reason not being self-interest but rather maintaining the “positive human relationships and the societal order.”

Stage 3 Good Interpersonal Relationships
The desire to obey rules in stage 3 is in the context of close inter-personal feelings such as love, trust and concern for others. The main belief is that “people should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in ‘good’ ways.” The stage 3 person has a capacity“ to view
a two-person relationship from the vantage point of an impartial, outside observer,” which supports this new approach to morality. The motives are considered to be important than the consequences. As in Piaget’s two stages similarly in Kohlberg’s stages, “there is a shift from unquestioning obedience
to a relativistic outlook and to a concern for good motives. For Kohlberg, however, these shifts occur in three stages rather than two.”
The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:

Pro-Stealing: “No one will think you’re bad if you steal the drug, but your family will think you’re an inhuman husband if you don’t. If you let you wife die, you’ll be never be able to look anyone in the face again.”

Anti-Stealing: “It isn’t just the druggist who will think you’re a criminal, everyone else will too. After you steal it, you’ll feel bad thinking how you brought dishonor on your family and yourself; you won’t be able to face anyone again.”

Stage 4 Maintaining the Social Order

In stage 4 person has a intent for the benefit of the society as a whole. The moral judgment and behavior is in the context of maintaining social order and no longer depend on the close ties to others. As the stage 4, “subjects take the moral decisions from the perspective of society as a whole, they think from a full-fledged member-of-society perspective.” The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:

Pro-Stealing: “He should steal it. Heinz has a duty to protect his wife’s life; it’s a vow he took in marriage. But it’s wrong to steal, so he would have to take the drug with the idea of paying the druggist for it and accept the penalty for breaking the law later.”

Anti-Stealing: “It’s a natural thing for Heinz to want to save his wife, but it’s still always wrong to steal. You have to follow the rules regardless of how you feel or regardless of the special circumstances. Even if his wife is dying, it’s still his duty as a citizen to obey the law. No one else is allowed to steal, why should he be? If everyone starts breaking the law in a jam, there’d be no civilization, just crime and violence.”

It might at the first glance seem that stage 1 and stage 4 sub jects are giving the similar responses, but the reasoning that the stage 4 is quite elaborative. Stage 1 children cannot elaborate the reasons, except that stealing will lead to jail, stage 4 respondents, on the other hand have a broader conception of the function of societal laws as a whole, which exceeds the capacity of the stage 1 child.

Level III Postconventional Morality

Individuals in this level move beyond the unquestioning support for the rules and the laws of their own society, hence the name. The morality for such individuals is “in terms of abstract principles and values that apply to all situations and societies.” The individuals in this level of moral reasoning with
a pro-stealing answer to the Heinz dilemma, the reasoning being of course different from the previous levels.

Stage 5 Social Contract and Individual Rights

The stage 5 individuals consider the rules as “flexible instruments for furthering human purposes.” They can argue for a change in the societal laws [considered to be unchangeable by the previous stages] when a good enough reason is pressent. At stage 5, people begin to ask, “What makes for a good society?” They begin to think about “rights and values that a society ought to uphold,” and
then see the society from these perspectives.
The typical pro-stealing response is as follows:

Pro-Stealing: “Although there is a law against stealing, the law wasn’t meant to violate a person’s right to life. Taking the drug does violate the law, but Heinz is justified in stealing in this instance. If Heinz is prosecuted in stealing, the law needs to be reinterpreted to take into account situations in which it goes against people’s natural right to keep on living.”
The stage 5 people regard society is “best conceived as a social contract into which people freely enter to work toward the benefit of all.” Even with some differences in the society the stage 5 people believe that rational people in the society would agree on some basic points. “First they would all want certain basic rights, such as liberty and life, to be protected, and second they would want some democratic procedures for changing unfair law and for improving society.

Stage 6 Universal Principles

The stage 5 respondents are strong believers in the democratic process. But during a democratic process he outcomes are not always just for the minority group. Hence Kohlberg believed “that there must be a higher stage–stage 6–which defines the principles by which we achieve justice.” At this highest stage the right action is defined by the self-chosen ethical principles which are valid for the humanity as a whole regardless of societal laws. Most of the social reformers and the moral leaders will fall in the stage 6. The claims of all individuals need to be looked at in an impartial manner respecting basic dignity of all people.

The typical pro-stealing response is as follows:

Pro-Stealing: “If Heinz does not do everything he can to save his wife, then he is putting some value higher that the value of life. It doesn’t make sense to put respect for property above the respect for life itself. [People] could live together without private property at all. Respect for human life and personality is absolute and accordingly [people] have a mutual duty to save one another from dying.”

The stage 6 is called as a theoretical stage as not many individuals are consistently able to respond at this stage. The fact that the moral dilemma presented is not very convincingly able to distinguish between stage 5 and 6 makes this more clear. One issue that can tell the difference between stage 5
from stage 6 is of civil disobedience. Stage 5 believe more in the democratic process so will be less willing to go in for a civil disobedience. The violation of the law is justified only when a right is at stake. In stage 6, in contrast, “a commitment to justice makes the rationale for civil disobedience
stronger and broader.”

 Theoretical Issues

In this section we briefly consider the main theoretical issues regarding the theory. They include the developmental aspects of the theory, the Piagetian stage concept in the context of Kohlberg’s theory.

How Development Occurs

Kohlberg’s views are strongly influenced by the Piagetian framework of child development. The stages of moral development are not seen as a product of maturation i.e. there is no “genetic blueprint” for the stages to occur. The socializing agents do not directly teach new forms of thinking. The stages
that are externally seen are a manifestation of one’s own thinking about moral problems.

Social experiences promote the development of moral thinking, by stimulating our mental processes. When we discuss with others, our view are challenged due to which we are force to think about ‘better’ positions that we can take. The stages of moral development reflect these broader viewpoints. Thus our interactions with the society and our own thought process combined gives us the ability to advance from one stage to the next.

The Stage Concept

As already mentioned Kohlberg being a close follower of Piaget, has taken the stage concept of Piagetian framework criteria very seriously. The following aspects of his theory are shown to be related to the Piagetian framework.

Qualitative Differences

The qualitative differences in the different stages is evident from the different response that is given by the individuals in different stages. Quantitatively the stages do not seem to have much differences.

Structured Wholes

The stages are not just isolated responses present given by the individual, but are a more general patterns of response that are found across many domains. Thus the stages are structured wholes in the sense that they truly depict the whole moral development of the individual which is valid across domains.

Invariant Sequence

The stages according to Kohlberg form an invariant sequence. The stages are skipped or moved in a random order. Mostly the cross-sectional data in which children of various age group were interviewed supports this claim of the invariant stage sequence. But the data from the cross-sectional studies are
not conclusive, as a child at higher age could have possibly skipped some previous stage. To resolve this issue longitudinal studies were undertaken. In longitudinal studies the same children are tested regularly after a period of 3 - 4 years. Almost all children in one of the longitudinal study moved through stages without skipping. Another aspect of moral development is that it is very slow and gradual process.

Hierarchic Integration

The knowledge that is learned at the earlier stages is not lost when the individual advances to the next stage, but is very well present in the individual. The higher stage persons are able to understand the arguments of the lower stage but consider it to be naive. When Kohlberg says that his stages are
hierarchically integrated, he means that people do not lose the insights gained at earlier stages, but integrate them into new, broader frameworks. Thia is a very important concept for Kohlberg because it explains the directional nature of the stage sequence. Since the stage sequence does not have a genetic blueprint, the previous stages must form a ‘platform’ for the next stages to emerge. Thus each new stage provides a broader framework for dealing with moral issues and is thus more cognitively adequate than the prior stage.

The stages of moral development also represent increasingly differentiated structures. The stage 5 people have abstracted the value of life, for example, has become differentiated from other considerations and say that “we ought to value life for its own sake, regardless of its value to authorities (stage
1), its usefulness to oneself (stage 2), the affection it arouses in us (stage 3), or its value within a particular social order (stage 4). Stage 5 sub jects have abstracted this value from other considerations and now treat it as a purely moral ideal.”

Universal Sequence

The sequence for the stages of moral development should be universal according to Kohlberg. By the term universal it is meant that it should be same across all cultures. Since different cultures bring up their children differently this [the universality of the stage sequence] is not naturally expected. Kohlberg’s response is that “different cultures do teach different beliefs, but that his stages refer not
to specific beliefs but to underlying modes of reasoning.”

Cross-cultural research shows that individuals in ‘technologically advanced’ societies move rapidly through the stages of moral development that from the societies which are not. Also in isolated communities nobody goes beyond stage 3. These studies indicate two possibilities, first that societal factors
that help the advancement of the stages are prevalent in the ‘technologically advanced’ societies, second that the method of evaluation is not suited for all cultures. This point is more elaborated upon later.

The number of years an individual completes in a school is an important and deterministic parameter in the moral development of individuals. Studies clearly indicate that the children who are educated higher levels show a better trend of moral development. The reasons for this particular finding could
be the social diversity that is encountered in the college campuses, introduces the people to the issues involving political and cultural groups.

 Moral Thought and Moral Behavior

The moral stages of Kohlberg’s theory do indicate the moral thinking of the persons, but whether this thinking actually translates into a moral behavior remains a question. We can actually be quite advanced in our moral thinking, but when it comes to moral behavior we do not actually are on the same level, this maybe due to practical reasons involved. Infact this is one of the criticisms of the theory. Hence a perfect correlation between moral judgment and moral action is not possible. But Kohlberg has given a particular relation regarding the moral thinking and behavior: “The two should come closer together as individuals move towards higher stages of moral understanding.” The
advancement in moral reasoning is related with many aspects of social behavior, particularly being more prosocial, this is consistent with Kohlberg’s prediction.

Moral Thought and Other Forms Of Cognition

Kohlberg states that moral development depends on cognition and perspective taking in a very specific way. Each moral stage requires certain cognitive and perspective taking abilities but these abilities alone do not guarantee that moral development will occur. Thus these cognitive and perspective taking abilities are deemed to be necessary but not sufficient for the moral development of the individual.


In this section we consider some criticisms about the Kohlberg’s theory. The two main criticisms that the theory faces are of gender bias and of cross-cultural differences. The other include the facts that are already mentioned viz. that moral thought and behavior are different. Also people tend to respond differently in real life and hypothetical situations [this particular aspect was seen during the presentation when asked about the moral dilemma regarding the help in exam]. The theory does not talk about moral development of very young children, where the methodology of moral dilemmas might not work very well. Also many researchers have questioned the very concept of a post conventional morality in Kohlberg’s formulation.

Gender Bias

Females tend to score not very well on the Kohlberg’s scale of moral development, very few females actually went above stage 3 in terms of their scores. The fact that Kohlberg’s stages were obtained from interviews with males, and hence reflect a decidedly male orientation was pointed out by Carol
Gilligan a co-author and associate of Kohlberg. According to Gilligan the advance moral thought for males and females has different ideals. For males the moral thought revolves around rules, rights and abstract principles, whereas for the females the moral thought revolves around interpersonal relations and the ethics of compassion and care. Thus the ‘scale’ of moral development has been ‘calibrated’ from a male perspective and it is improper to judge the moral development of females by this scale. In fact it has been found that the advanced moral thought revolves around rules, rights, and abstract principles.

The ideal for males the ideal of moral reasoning is impersonal justice, in contrast to female ideal of more affiliative ways of living. Women’s morality is more contextualized, it is tied to real, ongoing relationships rather than abstract solutions to hypothetical dilemmas. If these things are taken into account maybe females will score differently on the moral development. This difference is most
apparent when real life situations are given instead of hypothetical dilemmas. Although the current evidence “indicates that justice and caring are not gender specific moralities, Gilligan’s work has had the effect of broadening conceptions of the highly moral person.”

Cross-Cultural Differences

What Kohlberg has essentially done is that he has created a ‘moral yardstick’ with which he intends to measure the morality all the individuals in all cultures. Perhaps it might be the case that the aspects of morality that are rated very highly on Kohlberg’s scale are not considered to be significant in some other cultures. And it might be the case that the moral dilemmas presented for evaluation altogether fail to capture the post-conventional morality present in different cultures. The Kohlberg’s scale is highly Eurocentric [Western] and might fail to consider the aspects of morality that are alien to the European thought. For studying different cultures this ‘moral yardstick’ needs to be ‘re-calibrated’ keeping in mind the particular culture to be studied. Also presenting the same moral dilemma setup in a totally European background might not be a useful idea, the dilemma also needs to be contextualized taking into account the particular culture under study.


The moral behavior and thinking in a society represent give us an insight into the philosophy and the culture of a society. The major influences that are responsible for the moral development of the individual according to Kohlberg are the parents, peers, education and the own thought process of the individual. The influence of religion is not at all considered in the Kohlberg’s developmental theory, whereas religion plays a significant role in the development of children at least in the young age. In fact most of the moral judgments that the individuals make are deeply influenced by the religion they follow. In this regard the position of some religion will be different than the other, so a follower of a particular religion will respond to the situation differently.

Let us take an example of clinical death. If asked with a moral dilemma that involves a person opting for clinical death [hence in a sense committing suicide], the responses that we receive are more likely to vary with respect to the religion of the respondents. Another controversial issue that would raise similar concerns is that of abortion [in a sense considered murder]. Another example on similar lines that could be taken is that of a hunter following a wounded prey, and a response can save or end the prey’s life. The responses in this case will depend on the sort of society the individual has been bought up in [vegetarian vs. meat eating].

The responses that we will get for these real life situations, which also touch upon the religious aspect of the moral judgments will be worth noting. For most of the people religion has the topmost priority in the decisions that are taken in their everyday life. Mostly the religious scriptures and hence religious values guide the moral values and hence moral judgments. A striking example in this regard in the Indian context is that of charity. The religion demands that people do daan [alms], and most people do it not because they feel for the poor, but because the religion demands so. Thus the religious values are conclusive many times in making moral judgments. The religious moral values are passed to the
young children through stories and epics [mostly of Level I Morality according to Kohlberg’s scale ] and also through their social interactions. These interactions form the basis of the moral judgment that a child makes in the future, and removing these influences can be very hard, as they can be even found in adults. But these age old morality which religion practices might be in many cases totally out of context and in the comtemporary society not of much value. Even then these cannot be overcome even by adults. A very good example of this the ‘moral police’ that are abound in India and elsewhere. ‘What is moral,’ is interpreted from some twisted interpretation of the so called
‘cultural values.’ Most of these ‘moral police’ don’t seem to put any thought of their own to the issues they consider as ‘immoral,’ instead what somebody says is blindly followed without any remorse. On Kohlberg’s scale the so called ‘moral police’ will be at stage 1.

So by asking morally relevant questions that are in direct conflicting with one’s outdated religious beliefs can really lead to one’s moral development in this regard.

We cannot really compare the moral values of the contemporary society with that of a society in the past. The rights and the principles that were the ‘guiding lights’ for people in the past might not be even considered in the todays society as relevant. Hence to compare the moral judgments of the people in the past with our own contemporary society does not help. Similarly to compare the moral judgments of two different cultures does not provide the index of moral development of a particular culture.

Even in the same culture when the socio-economic differences are vast the things that are ‘morally right’ for some of the individuals will not be considered as same by everybody. In the Indian context a particular example in this regard can be considered is that of the zamindaari system, the feudal system in India. Whereas the zamindaars considered their ‘moral right’ to own and cultivate large lands, this was not considered as right by the laborers. Or in the larger economic context the ‘moral right’ of the capitalists and the ‘moral right’ of workers do not coincide. In the recent past America’s ‘moral right’ for war was
executed by George Bush to wage a war with Iraq, and ma jority of the American public ‘morally’ supported the war without putting their own thought to it. They would also score for stage 1 in Kohlberg’s stages. So the issues which really matter in one’s perception of the different aspect needs to be taken into account when considering the moral stage of the individual. A person in the lower strata of the society might consider stealing from the society as morally justified [because it is due to society that he poor].

Another aspect that needs to be touched in this regard is that of level 6 of the Kohlberg’s stages of development. The trend that Kolhberg presents for a level 6 behavior is seen in many great spiritual leaders of the past. Infact most of the great leaders did regard their own abstract principles above the
societal laws.

When the world colonization began and the European Empires extended beyond the boundaries of Europe, another example of twisted morality can be seen. Many British authors including Rudyard Kipling regarded the Anglo-Saxon race as a race which was destined to rule, thus ‘morally justifying’ their atrocities against others. Thus it was a ‘moral responsibility’ of the British to rule India. We can hence see that the concept of being ‘morally right’ can be entirely context and time dependent.

The moral dilemmas do come in an individuals life very frequently. According to Kohlberg in the resolution of these dilemmas in the most broader sense result in the moral development in this regard. A very nice example of presenting a moral dilemma and bringing up moral development can be seen in the context of Indian independence. Gandhi’s non-violence principle is an example of moral dilemma that brought about the moral development of an entire Empire. On one hand with the non-violent crowds just marching through the country, the British were not ‘morally justified’ in attacking them, on the other hand that people can defy their ‘moral right’ to rule was unbearable for them. The British
became so frustrated by this ‘moral dilemma’ that even with all such military might they could not but defeat a non-violent revolt. The resolution of this ‘moral dilemma’ resulted in the ‘moral development’ of the British Empire, which thereafter lost its ‘moral right’ to rule the world.

As per Kohlberg’s three level, six stage theory, morality changes from concrete towards abstract, principled justifications for moral choices. Each moral stage en-corporates the previous ones and has certain cognitive prerequisites that are necessary for the development to occur. The moral development does not occur until there is a support present at various levels like family, peers, schooling and society at large. Although justice is given a emphasis more than that of care it does not underestimate the moral maturity of females. As the individuals advance through the stages the moral thinking becomes better related to moral behavior.

The index of moral development that is presented by Kohlberg by presenting the subjects with a moral dilemma needs to be taken with respect to the broader social and cultural context that the particular individual represents so that any bias that is present can be effectively eliminated.

[1] Laura Berk: Child Development 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall of India 1999
[2] W. C. Crain: Theories of Development Prentice Hall 1985
[3] Wikipedia


Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is a great overview and critique.

Damitr Mazanov said...

You are welcome...

Cristobal said...

Thank you very much Damitr, this helped me a lot! Very interesting topic.

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis! Found it very useful! Thanks