This entry is going to be an informational one. I want to talk about the concept of morality, and how we learn it as human beings. This is one of those topics that I really enjoyed when I was studying for my board exams.
I plan to talk about different theories about stages of development on this blog. They’re really important in understanding why people do what they do, whether it’s other people or ourselves. I want to make something really clear here: When we talk about stages of development, it is completely unreasonable to expect a person to do things at a stage they have not yet achieved. Also, in order to get to the next stage, the person has to complete the one before it. A young child might be able to count from 1 to 10. This doesn’t mean we sign them up for algebra next. It doesn’t mean the kiddo will never do algebra, it’s just not the next logical step. Stages of development cannot be skipped. Each stage, no matter the model, builds upon the one before it. If you get nothing else from this entry, STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT CANNOT BE SKIPPED. It is my hope that by explaining various stages of development theories, we can keep expectations reasonable.
So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the stages of moral development! (Everybody play nice, no matter what stage applies to you.)
The stages of moral development were developed (I know, groan) by Lawrence Kohlberg, a graduate student at University of Chicago in 1958. Kohlberg’s theory explains how people make decisions involving morality.
Kohlberg’s 6 stages are broken down into 3 levels: Pre-Conventional, Conventional, and Post-Conventional.
The Pre-Conventional level is comprised of the stages of 1) Obedience and Punishment Orientation, and 2) Self-Interest Orientation. In the Obedience and Punishment Orientation stage, our morality is guided by the consequence of the action, rather than the action or the goodness or the action. Another way to say this is that we’re avoiding punishment. A child may think, “I got spanked last time I hit my sister, so I won’t hit her again.” This has nothing to do with the fact that hitting is wrong, or that the subject cares about his or her sister and doesn’t want to harm her. At this stage, the person is only trying to avoid punishment. This may sound selfish, but this is where we all start. Remember, children are self-absorbed, but they’re supposed to be. They’re children! Self-Interest Orientation comes next. Think of this one as, “what’s in it for me?” Again, the subject isn’t yet able to think about the effects of their decisions on others. Remember when we talked about reinforcing desired behaviors? Here’s where that starts working well. If I do X, I get Y. When we ask a child in the Pre-Conventional level, “How would you like it if she did that to you?” they don’t have the skills yet to make that connection. It doesn’t mean that they’re a bad kid. In fact, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing: Developing.
A person typically moves into the Conventional Level sometime during adolescence. Stage three of moral development is Interpersonal Accord and Authority. At this stage, a person is morally motivated by obedience to social norms, and being seen by others as good. A person at this stage may not like a rule, but will not question the need for the rule. Their focus is on following the rule in order to be accepted. The second stage in the Conventional Level is Authority and Social-Order Maintaining Orientation. That’s a wordy way to say doing the right thing because it’s good for society. I don’t speed down a city street and run red lights. I don’t just not do it to avoid being arrested or because I’ll get a reward for driving well, like lower insurance rates. I don’t even drive slower just because there’s a sign with the speed limit. Now I do it because it’s part of my responsibility in maintaining social order. I am contributing to the society in which I live. Morality is still dictated by an outside force, but I am able to see why, and adhere to the rule. Many of us never get past stage four, but it’s okay. Developing to this stage is enough to keep us productive members of society who basically function well in relation to other people.
At the Post-Conventional Level, a person may enter the fifth stage, which is Social Contract Driven. At this stage, the person sees the world as being comprised of different people with values, rights, and opinions. At this stage, the person will think critically about societal laws and norms. What’s right and what’s wrong will be seen through the lens of what promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people? This is a central theory of democracy. The sixth and final stage is Universal Ethics and Principles Driven. At this stage, altruism and universal principles of ethics drive behavior, even if they supersede the law. Decisions are absolute. For a person to reach this stage is rare. Think Ghandi.
Whenever I hear a parent shout at a child, “Don’t you know any better?” I often think to myself, “Nope, not yet.” We grow by being held accountable, and I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t be raising children, or expecting each other, to be good people who make good choices. It is important though to have reasonable expectations that set people up for success. It can also be really exciting to see someone coming into a new understanding as they grow. Children are not miniature adults. Everyone only gets one childhood. Now that we know that a person can’t skip stages, we can work on helping them achieve each stage as successfully as possible. Assisting a kid to be good at being a child is how we get them to be good at being adults.