Lawrence Kohlberg and the Six Levels of Moral Judgment

Snippet 1

Traditionally, psychology has avoided studying anything that is loaded with value judgments. There is a degree of difficulty involved in trying to be unbiased about things that involve terms like "good" and "bad!" So, one of the most significant aspects of human life—morality—has had to wait quite a while before anyone in psychology dared to touch it! But Lawrence Kohlberg wanted to study morality, and did so using a most interesting (if controversial) technique. Basically, he would ask children and adults to try to solve moral dilemmas contained in little stories, and to do so outloud so he could follow their reasoning. It wasn't the specific answers to the dilemmas that interested him, but rather how the person got to his or her answer.

Heinz's Dilemma

One of the most famous of these stories concerned a man named Heinz. His wife was dying of a disease that could be cured if he could get a certain medicine. When he asked the pharmacist, he was told that he could get the medicine, but only at a very high price—one that Heinz could not possibly afford. So the next evening, Heinz broke into the pharmacy and stole the drug to save his wife's life. Was Heinz right or wrong to steal the drug?

(Source: The above passages of both Kohlberg's work and the Heinz dilemma were taken from Dr. C. George Boeree's terriffic web site.)

Snippet 2

The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) didn't think moral behavior should be thought of as a grab bag of virtues, e.g. that being a moral person meant you were honest, upright, and direct, or it could also mean you were hard-working, generous, and fair. Instead, Kohlberg focused on different stages or levels of moral judgment and pinned each level to a particular way of morally evaluating behavior. Based on a series of interviews, Kohlberg developed six distinct levels of moral judgment or reasoning.

Pre-conventional Level
1. Actions are determined to be good or bad depending on how they are rewarded or punished. Example: It would be bad for me to take my friend's toy because the teacher will punish me.
2. The exchange principle enters the picture at this level, and we treat with fairness those who do the same with us or those who can help us . Example: If Katy is nice to me, I'll be nice to her, but if she is mean to me, I won't feel bad about being mean too.
Conventional Level
3. The morality of an action depends heavily on peer approval. Example: I better not drink and drive because my friends will think less of me and I, in turn, will think less of myself.
4. How moral an action is depends on how well it conforms to society's rules; the emphasis at this level is on maintaining social order. Example: I am personally against the war, but would never publicly protest it on campus without the administration's permission.
Post-Conventional Level
5. Moral behavior at this level might include arguing in favor of customs or laws being changed in order to preserve the health of the society; blind obedience is more forcefully questioned and cultural differences in what is considered to be ethical behavior are recognized. Example: It can't be right that huge corporations sometimes pay no taxes; that law needs to be changed, so that the burden of taxes falls more equally on everyone's shoulders.
6. At this level, people follow a moral code based on universal principles that grant all individuals certain basic rights. Society's rules take a back seat if they contradict those principles, as was the case with those who challenged slavery even when the law allowed it. Example: I refuse to obey a law which treats a large portion of the population as second-class citizens.

Snippet 3

This video will give you some good visual images to clarify the various stages or levels in Kohlberg's theory. But the real treat is watching a clip from the movie Edward Scissorhands. In the film, Johnny Depp, as the title character, puzzles over a moral dilemma posed for him by the great character actor Alan Arkin. Arkin tries to make Edward solve a moral dilemma using his head. But all Edward can do is respond with his heart. In short, Arkin talks Kohlberg while Depp speaks Carol Gilligan. Gilligan was Kohlberg's research assistant, and she criticized him for emphasizing what she considered a male-biased view of morality, one that emphasized rules and principles rather than relationships (More about her in another snippet). The other images in the video will be useful to help you remember the stages in Kohlberg's theory. But in any case, Depp pondering morality in a goofy-looking wig and white pancake make-up is not to be missed.

Last change made to this page, April 11, 2011