Lifespan Theories: Moral Development

THEORY OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

A major task beginning in childhood and continuing into adolescence is discerning right from wrong. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) extended upon the foundation that Piaget built regarding cognitive development. Kohlberg believed that moral development, like cognitive development, follows a series of stages. To develop this theory, Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas to people of all ages, and then he analyzed their answers to find evidence of their particular stage of moral development. Before reading about the stages, take a minute to consider how you would answer one of Kohlberg’s best-known moral dilemmas, commonly known as the Heinz dilemma:

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1969, p. 379)

How would you answer this dilemma? Kohlberg was not interested in whether you answer yes or no to the dilemma: Instead, he was interested in the reasoning behind your answer.

After presenting people with this and various other moral dilemmas, Kohlberg reviewed people’s responses and placed them in different stages of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, an individual progresses from the capacity for pre-conventional morality (before age 9) to the capacity for conventional morality (early adolescence), and toward attaining post-conventional morality (once formal operational thought is attained), which only a few fully achieve. Kohlberg placed in the highest stage responses that reflected the reasoning that Heinz should steal the drug because his wife’s life is more important than the pharmacist making money. The value of a human life overrides the pharmacist’s greed.

Nine boxes are arranged in rows and columns of three. The top left box contains “Level 1, Pre-conventional Morality.” A line connects this box with another box to the right containing “Stage 1, Obedience and punishment: behavior driven by avoiding punishment.” To the right is another box connected by a line containing “Stage 2, Individual interest: behavior driven by self-interest and rewards.” The middle left box contains “Level 2, Conventional Morality.” A line connects this box with another box to the right containing “Stage 3, Interpersonal: behavior driven by social approval.” To the right is another box connected by a line containing “Stage 4, Authority: behavior driven by obeying authority and conforming to social order.” The lower left box contains “Level 3, Post-conventional Morality.” A line connects this box with another box to the right containing “Stage 5, Social contract: behavior driven by balance of social order and individual rights.” To the right is another box connected by a line containing “Stage 6, Universal ethics: behavior driven by internal moral principles.”

Kohlberg identified three levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional: Each level is associated with increasingly complex stages of moral development.

It is important to realize that even those people who have the most sophisticated, post-conventional reasons for some choices may make other choices for the simplest of pre-conventional reasons. Many psychologists agree with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development but point out that moral reasoning is very different from moral behavior. Sometimes what we say we would do in a situation is not what we actually do in that situation. In other words, we might “talk the talk,” but not “walk the walk.”

How does this theory apply to males and females? Kohlberg (1969) felt that more males than females move past stage four in their moral development. He went on to note that women seem to be deficient in their moral reasoning abilities. These ideas were not well received by Carol Gilligan, a research assistant of Kohlberg, who consequently developed her own ideas of moral development. In her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Gilligan (1982) criticized her former mentor’s theory because it was based only on upper class White men and boys. She argued that women are not deficient in their moral reasoning—she proposed that males and females reason differently. Girls and women focus more on staying connected and the importance of interpersonal relationships. Therefore, in the Heinz dilemma, many girls and women respond that Heinz should not steal the medicine. Their reasoning is that if he steals the medicine, is arrested, and is put in jail, then he and his wife will be separated, and she could die while he is still in prison.

Summary

There are many theories regarding how babies and children grow and develop into happy, healthy adults. Sigmund Freud suggested that we pass through a series of psychosexual stages in which our energy is focused on certain erogenous zones on the body. Eric Erikson modified Freud’s ideas and suggested a theory of psychosocial development. Erikson said that our social interactions and successful completion of social tasks shape our sense of self. Jean Piaget proposed a theory of cognitive development that explains how children think and reason as they move through various stages. Finally, Lawrence Kohlberg turned his attention to moral development. He said that we pass through three levels of moral thinking that build on our cognitive development.

Self Check Questions

Critical Thinking Questions

1. What is the difference between assimilation and accommodation? Provide examples of each.

2. Why was Carol Gilligan critical of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development?

3. What is egocentrism? Provide an original example.

Personal Application Questions

4. Explain how you would use your understanding of one of the major developmental theories to deal with each of the difficulties listed below:

  1. Your infant daughter puts everything in her mouth, including the dog’s food.
  2. Your eight-year-old son is failing math; all he cares about is baseball.
  3. Your two-year-old daughter refuses to wear the clothes you pick for her every morning, which makes getting dressed a twenty-minute battle.
  4. Your sixty-eight-year-old neighbor is chronically depressed and feels she has wasted her life.
  5. Your 18-year-old daughter has decided not to go to college. Instead she’s moving to Colorado to become a ski instructor.
  6. Your 11-year-old son is the class bully.

Answers

1. Assimilation is when we take in information that is comparable to what we already know. Accommodation is when we change our schemata based on new information. An example of assimilation is a child’s schema of “dog” based on the family’s golden retriever being expanded to include two newly adopted golden retrievers. An example of accommodation is that same child’s schema of “dog” being adjusted to exclude other four-legged furry animals such as sheep and foxes.

2. Gilligan criticized Kohlberg because his theory was based on the responses of upper class White men and boys, arguing that it was biased against women. While Kohlberg concluded that women must be deficient in their moral reasoning abilities, Gilligan disagreed, suggesting that female moral reasoning is not deficient, just different.

3. Egocentrism is the inability to take the perspective of another person. This type of thinking is common in young children in the preoperational stage of cognitive development. An example might be that upon seeing his mother crying, a young child gives her his favorite stuffed animal to make her feel better.

Glossary

assimilation  adjustment of a schema by adding information similar to what is already known
accommodation  adjustment of a schema by changing a scheme to accommodate new information different from what was already known
concrete operational stage  third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from about 7 to 11 years old, children can think logically about real (concrete) events
conservation idea that even if you change the appearance of something, it is still equal in size, volume, or number as long as nothing is added or removed
egocentrism  preoperational child’s difficulty in taking the perspective of others
formal operational stage  final stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from age 11 and up, children are able to deal with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations
object permanence  idea that even if something is out of sight, it still exists

preoperational stage

second stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from ages 2 to 7, children learn to use symbols and language but do not understand mental operations and often think illogically
psychosexual development  process proposed by Freud in which pleasure-seeking urges focus on different erogenous zones of the body as humans move through five stages of life
psychosocial development  process proposed by Erikson in which social tasks are mastered as humans move through eight stages of life from infancy to adulthood
reversibility  principle that objects can be changed, but then returned back to their original form or condition
schema  (plural = schemata) concept (mental model) that is used to help us categorize and interpret information
sensorimotor stage  first stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from birth through age 2, a child learns about the world through senses and motor behavior
stage of moral reasoning  process proposed by Kohlberg; humans move through three stages of moral development