Speaking on moral development
by Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Jun 22, 2014 | 638 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Consider the following moral dilemma contrived by Lawrence Kohlberg: “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 10 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 $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 am going to make money from it.’ So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.”

Was Heinz right or wrong in what he did? What would you have done? According to Kohlberg, your response to such a moral dilemma depends on which of six stages of moral reasoning you operate from.

Consider how the following stages of moral development influence decisions about right and wrong:

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation: “What will happen to me?” This stage is typical of individuals who obey the rules of others in order to avoid punishment. Like children who won’t steal a cookie for fear of being spanked, they ignore the rightness or wrongness of an act and focus on the consequence. Most criminals operate from this stage of moral reasoning, ultimately deciding whether or not to commit a crime based on the risk of being caught and punished. Operating from this stage, deciding not to steal the drug would be based on the risk of being caught and punished.

Stage 2: Naive Instrumental Orientation: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Individuals conform to rules out of self-interest and consideration of what others can do for them in return. Many politicians operate from this stage of moral reasoning. Exchanging favors “(I’ll vote for your bill if you vote for mine.”) outweighs voting born out of conviction. Operating from this stage, Heinz would not steal the drug unless he felt this act would somehow benefit him personally.

Stage 3: Good-boy, Nice-girl Orientation: Seeking approval of others, individuals at this level of moral reasoning want to be seen as good persons. Looking socially appropriate is even more important than doing what is right or wrong. Operating from this stage, Heinz would not steal the drug as it would cast him in an unfavorable public light.

Stage 4: Law-and-order Orientation: At this stage, individuals are concerned with doing their duty, showing respect for higher authority, and maintaining the social order. If an action breaks the law, it is always wrong, regardless of motive or circumstances. Operating from this stage, Heinz would not steal the drug as stealing is against the law.

Stage 5: Social-contract Orientation: At this stage individuals seek to understand their actions and the resulting consequences that affect the social order. They generally see the benefit of supporting and obeying the laws of the land. However, there are times the laws protect an injustice and therefore, can morally be violated. Operating from this stage, Heinz would view the druggist as unethical and therefore, would openly steal the drug and face the resulting consequences believing that his actions to save his wife are justified.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation: Individuals do what they as individuals think is right, regardless of legal restrictions or the opinions of others. They act in accordance with internalized standards, knowing that they would condemn themselves if they did not. Guided by love, they seek to do what is morally right, believing their action will bring about a better world. Such individuals often become martyrs. At this stage, Heinz would work toward making the lifesaving drugs readily available to those in need.

Understanding that individuals are at different stages of development helps us understand that people look at right and wrong differently and would therefore behave differently, while genuinely believing they are doing what is morally right.