Role of Reasoning

Kohlberg expanded Piaget's theory by investigating how people reasoned the rightness or wrongness of an act and not how people actually behaved. For example, Kohlberg proposed the following moral dilemma. A man named Heinz had a wife who was dying from a disease that could be cured with a drug manufactured by a local pharmacist. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times the amount it cost. Heinz could not afford the drug and pleaded with the man to discount the drug or let him pay a little at a time. The druggist refused, so Heinz broke into the pharmacy and stole the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have stolen the drug?

By listening to people's reasoning concerning Heinz's actions, Kohlberg proposed that there are three levels (of two stages each) of moral reasoning. The first level is called the preconventional level; in this stage, a person's feelings of right and wrong are based on an external set of rules that have been handed down by an authority figure such as a parent, teacher, or religious figure. These rules are obeyed in order to avoid punishment or to gain rewards. In other words, people at this stage of moral reasoning would not steal the drug—not because they believed that stealing was wrong but rather because they had been told not to and would fear being caught and punished for their action.

The second level of moral reasoning is the conventional level, at which judgments of right and wrong are based on other people's expectations. For example, at this level there are two substages. One is known as the "good boy/nice girl" orientation, in which morality is based on winning approval and avoiding disapproval by one's immediate group. In other words, people may or may not steal the drug based on what they believe their peers would think of them. The second substage is called the "law and order" orientation, under which moral behavior is thought of in terms of obedience to the authority figure and the established social order. Social order refers to the way in which a society or culture functions, based on the rules, regulation, and standards that are held and taught by each member of the society. The "laws" are usually obeyed without question, regardless of the circumstances, and are seen as the mechanism for the maintenance of social order. A person operating from this stage would say that Heinz should not steal the drug because it was against the law—and if he did steal the drug, he should go to jail for his crime.

The third level of moral reasoning is called the postconventional orientation. At this stage, the person is more concerned with a personal commitment to higher principles than with behavior dictated by society's rules. Disobeying the law would be in some instances far less immoral than obeying a law that is believed to be wrong, and being punished for the legal disobedience would be easier than the guilt and self-condemnation of disobeying the personal ethical principles held by that person. For example, many civil rights workers and Vietnam War conscientious objectors were jailed, beaten, and outcast from mainstream society, but those consequences were far less damaging to them than transgressing their own convictions would have been.

According to Kohlberg, the preconventional stage is characteristic of young children, while the conventional stage is more indicative of the general population. It has been estimated that only about 20 percent of the adult population reach the postconventional stage. Thus, the course of moral development is not the same for everyone. Even some adults operate at the preconventional level of moral reasoning. Education, parental affection, observation and imitation, and explanations of the consequences of behavior are factors in determining the course of moral development in a child.

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