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Kohlberg’s Compelling Theory on Moral Development

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Morality may or may not be an inherently human occupation, but it seems that we generally seem to think so. Not only is the question at the heart of the great civilisations of the world but it also appears in some form or other in every society across the globe.  Human engagement with the matter has had its benefits as for example it is difficult to say how envision a society that can thrive without. But it has also had its drawbacks as it has also been used to justify the oppression of certain people and even obliterate others. Hitler, at least, certainly did not think his persecution of the Jews was immoral, for instance. So if morality is such an important part of societies across the world its nature becomes an important topic for consideration, especially whether morality is a static thing or something that change and develop with age and effort.  Lawrence Kohlberg one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century provided just such a thing. He proposed that morality was a development which could be observed in a similar way in which the development of a child into an adult can. He proposed that this development can be recognised through six stages which can evenly divided into 3 levels: Pre-conventional, Conventional, Post-conventional. His study of moral development is more anthropological than it normative, for it more an observation of human moral development, than a guide to moral development. But think this outlining of these stages can have a didactic function, in the same way that a similar way to how a path gives direction. What makes his observation particularly appealing is that: while he does propose a correlation between age and moral development , this is not absolute and it helps to explain variations of moral development in people and not least of all, why some adults have an infantile system of morality.

Level 1: Pre-conventional Morality

The first stage can already be somewhat understood by its name Pre-conventional. As the name suggests, the first stage is concerned with the morality of the individual before he or she has become assimilated into a society and its conventions. The two things that particularly stand out about this level are that morality is very egocentric and very associative. The individual is only concerned with direct consequences of actions (hence they learn right or wrong from whether they get smacked or not because they associate a bad action with a smack), and largely how those consequences will affect the self, not really anyone else.  This egocentric morality of direct consequences, comes together to create the first and second stage of moral development in Kohlberg’s theory and while this stage is primarily associated with children, it is not exclusive to them and most people can agree that they have met adults who fits this stage description perfectly.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

At this level the individual comes to accept social conventions on morality and it is these conventions that determine his moral understanding. So if he has been smacked numerously for stealing, it is at this stage that he learns that stealing is wrong. It is conformity and obedience which are the most notable properties of this stage and which mark the third and fourth stages of moral development, respectively.  It is at this level that society plays its most important role in the moral development of the individual. Not only does he believe that the right thing to do is always what is in line with social conventions, but he it is also at this level that the individual’s obedience of the laws of society and its social hierarchies reaches its peak. This level is also apparently where most people’s moral progression stops, so it is interesting to see what the morality of the crème de la crème gets to.

Level 3: Post-Conventional Morality

The enlightened beings of post-conventional morality have a complex understanding of the relationship between the self and society. They recognise the distinction between themselves and their society and thus they may not always see the need to follow the conventions of society. In fact these people are likely to go against social conventions if these conventions are not in line with their own principles. This level is especially marked by the realisation of the role of social contracts in society, and a realisation of universal ethical principles which create the 5th and 6th stages of moral development. These individuals perceive society as fundamentally based on social contracts which should change in light of changing views of that society and of the people involved in it. People who belong to this level of morality also do away with hypothetical morality, which is limited to particular contexts, in favour of a more categorical or universal ethical principles which are applicable to all.
Kohlberg also suggested that there were further levels of development, though he did not manage to develop them as much as he had developed the ones outlined above. Kohlberg also noted that it was as much possible for an individual to progress along the stages as much as it was for him to regress. He even proposed some ways in which individuals could remedy themselves from their regression.  But even excluding potential further developments, Kohlberg theory above is evidently ample in its scope of human moral development. It is a theory that will hopefully provoke further study of a matter that literally sits at the heart of all human activity.

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