Theories of Moral Development
10 Developmental Psychology
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Moral development refers to growth in the ability to tell right from wrong, control impulses, and act ethically. Lawrence Kohlberg, like Piaget, thought that moral thinking develops sequentially in stages as cognitive abilities develop. Kohlberg examined moral development by asking boys, male adolescents, and men how they would solve hypothetical moral problems, the most famous one dealing with Heinz, who must decide whether or not to steal a scarce drug he is unable to pay for in order to possibly save his wife’s life. Kohlberg analyzed the reasoning subjects used to arrive at their answers. Kohlberg concluded that our moral reasoning develops from simple and concrete to more abstract and principled. He suggested three basic levels of moral development consisting of two stages each:
• When at the preoperational stage of cognitive development, children tend to be at the preconventional level of morality, in which they do the right thing to avoid punishment (stage 1) or to further their self-interests (stage 2).
• When at the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, people tend to move on to the conventional level of morality, in which they follow rules to live up to the expectations of others, “good boy/nice girl” (stage 3), or to maintain “law and order” and do their duty (stage 4). Most teenagers and adults think morally at the conventional level.
• Some people who are in the formal operational stage of cognitive development progress to Kohlberg’s third or postconventional level of morality, in which they evidence a social contract orientation that promotes the society’s welfare (stage 5) or evidence an ethical principle orientation that promotes justice and avoids self-condemnation (stage 6).
Studies by other researchers show the same sequence of stages in moral development for stages 1 through 4. According to cross-cultural studies, people in individualistic societies, such as North Americans and Europeans, are more likely to show Kohlberg’s postconventional morality than those in collectivistic societies who value community standards over personal standards.
Applying Kohlberg’s scale to women, Carol Gilligan found that women rarely reach the highest stages of morality, because they think more about the caring thing to do or following an ethic of care, rather than what the rules allow or following an ethic of justice. She asserted that women are not morally inferior, just different. Subsequent studies by other researchers have found that both men and women use both justice and care dimensions in their moral reasoning. Other critics point out that people are often inconsistent in their moral reasoning, even when dealing with their own moral dilemmas. They also suggest that since both cultural factors and cognitive factors influence moral development, moral ideals are not universal.