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Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19

Chapter 6: Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981)

While not a specific ethical system, the work of a cognitive psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, can shed light on why people make different ethical judgements. Kohlberg suggests that as people mature, so does their understanding of ethical issues. At different stages, people have different sources of motivation, and thus may make different ethical judgements. The following material identifies the six stages of moral development proposed by Kohlberg and the accompanying motivational factors.

Stage One: The "obedience and punishment" stage. We all begin our lives at this stage, by obeying those in authority, or, more precisely, to those with the power to punish.

Primary motivation: to avoid punishment; motivation and the actual act itself are both irrelevant to the ethical decision-making.

Stage Two: The "individualism and reciprocity" stage. Right or wrong decisions are made on the basis of what is best for the person making the decision, though some negotiation with others may be necessary to attain what I want.

Primary motivation: my self-interest; meeting one's own needs is the primary concern, not the rightness or wrongness of the act or its consequences (except for me).

Stage Three: The "interpersonal conformity" stage or the "good boy/nice girl" stage. Right or wrong is determined by what others close to us expect of us. The expectations of others are our guidelines.

Primary motivation: to be a good team player; thus actions are judged by the type of motive or the type of person likely to perform the action. Did the person "mean well"; was the person doing the act basically a "good person"?

Stage Four: The "social system" or "law-and-order" stage. An individual has a part to play in a society which is to do one's duty and to obey the rules and laws. There are fixed rules and duties that one must honor. Kohlberg thought that most adult Americans were "stuck" at this stage of moral development.

Primary motivation: to keep society as a whole going (or to keep some institution going); motives and consequences are irrelevant in judging an action; an act is always right or wrong depending on the laws and duties.

Stage Five: The "social contract" stage. Here the individual moves beyond the fixed rules, duties, and laws to think about wider values and responsibilities: life, liberty, etc. The utilitarian appeal of "greatest good for the greatest number" often is invoked in this stage. Thus, one believes that there are moral values/rights that may be independent of society's laws.

Primary motivation: "what could all of us in principle agree to?"; generally, means do not justify the ends, though the circumstances and/or one's motives might modify this judgment.

Stage Six: The stage of "universal ethical principles." Now, instead of thinking what is best for the greatest number, higher ethical laws are invoked. Concerns such as respect for the dignity of each person, basic equality for all, and treating people as ends not means are prevalent concepts in this stage--which Kohlberg thought that few attained (like Maslow's self-actualization).

Primary motivation: following these higher ethical principles; good motives do not make an act right (or not wrong). However, if someone acts based on a higher ethical principle, then the act is not wrong. Hence, deviation from the rules may be "right."

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