A Look Behind Our Choices of Right or Wrong

The psychologist Jean Piaget described moral development (how we determine what is right or wrong) as being a two-stage process. Later, Lawrence Kohlberg studied moral development and expanded the development process to six stages that are constantly evolving throughout an individual’s lifetime.

The six stages are based on the different ways people justify (reason through) their solution to dilemmas involving right or wrong choices.

Level 1: Pre-conventional Morality

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment

This earliest stage is usually found in young children but also some adolescents and adults. Rules are thought to be set in stone and must be obeyed to avoid punishment.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange

At this stage, children make ethical decisions according to how an individual’s needs are best served or met. The shift to stage two happens naturally as children develop a separate sense of self with unique personal needs.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Interpersonal Relationships

In stage three people recognize that their decisions affect the quality of their relationships. The goal is on “being good,” fulfilling roles, and meeting social expectations. There is a strong sense of duty and respect for authority in stage three.

Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order

As in stage three, there is conformity to the rules in stage four; however, individuals consider not just their own relationships when making choices. The focus is on supporting society by maintaining order and following authority.

Level 3: Post-conventional Morality

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

As people start to understand that others have different opinions and beliefs than their own, it begins to make sense that the members of a society should uphold rules they have together agreed on and can collectively change.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

When an individual can reason objectively and bases their decisions on principles of ethics that are universal, they have reached stage six. The universal moral values come from within the individual; they may choose to follow inner values even when they conflict with current rules or laws.

There are naturally some criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory.

Some psychologists say Kohlberg’s stages are steeped in Western philosophy so may not pertain to Eastern cultures. Other critics point out that Kohlberg’s research centered around justice and does not account for emotional factors such as compassion. There is also a question in some minds whether an individual who thinks at a certain stage will also act accordingly.

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