Free Will: Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Essay

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Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning

Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, developed a well-known theory about how people make decisions about right and wrong – that is, moral behavior.

At the preconventional level, decisions about right and wrong are made based upon a “what’s in it for me” mentality – that is, people make moral judgments to advance their personal interests or advantage, with no regard for the consequences of those decisions for other people.

At the conventional level, moral decisions are made with consideration for the fact that people are embedded in social systems. That is, a person brings their relations with their loved ones, associates, and the formal and informal rules of their societies to mind when deciding the appropriate course of action to take in a morally-ambiguous situation.

At the postconventional level, people come to understand that formal and informal rules are generated through the living activities of societies, and of their members. Therefore (since people and societies are imperfect and impacted by forces such as history, resources, power, and goals) the standing rules of a society may or may not be designed to respect the appropriate balance between individual rights and freedom of choice, and collective experience and opportunity to pursue a fulfilling life. People make moral decisions based upon a deeply held personal conscience, but that conscience represents an internalized idea about the proper functioning of society.

To teach this (and before explaining these stages), I had students consider what they might do in the following situation:

I assign a paper on Erik Erikson’s socioemotional stages (another theory I taught today). You, the student, Google the topic, and a website pops up where you can purchase a prewritten paper that perfectly fits my paper requirements. It even allows you to purchase a paper at your expected level of performance (A, B, C, etc.) to help conceal your cheating. It costs $40 to download. Do you purchase the paper or not, and why?

I had students discuss their reactions to this situation with each other, assuring them that their answers would have no consequences whatsoever for my personal opinion of them (since it’s just a hypothetical class exercise). They played along, and came up with some really fun answers:

“I would definitely not buy the paper, because I know I’d get caught, and I don’t want to be expelled!”

“I wouldn’t buy the paper, because I can do a lot better things with $40.”

“I wouldn’t buy the paper, because I wouldn’t get to learn from the exercise, and then what would happen on my test?”

“I would consider it, depending on how busy I was that week – and if my grade depended on it, I might!”

The conversation could have gone on for quite a while – the students really jumped in on this one. Then I told them that it really didn’t matter whether they said they would or wouldn’t buy the paper – what psychologists are interested in is how they made their decision. That is, how do they justify one course of action or another? I then explained Kohlberg’s theory, and had to inform them (with a smile, because it always comes out this way) that most of their reasoning was at a preconventional level – in Kohlberg’s view, a very immature and self-centered way to decide what is right and wrong.

Are some kinds of moral judgments inherently “better” than others, like Kohlberg would seem to say? What pushes (some of) us to make decisions at a “higher” level than others do? Unfortunately, this theory alone is merely descriptive, and can’t help us pick out who will make decisions in any particular way in a given situation. However, my own view is that moral reasoning connects directly to our individual concern for either fair