When confronted with a moral dilemma, one may rely upon one of the theories pertaining to ethics. One is the stages of moral development theory, which was devised by Lawrence Kohlberg beginning in 1958 and expanded upon for many years thereafter, basing it on how people tend to justify their actions when confronted with moral dilemmas. His underlying thesis was that people go through six developmental stages in their moral reasoning, with each successive stage being more usable for responding to moral dilemmas. In all stages, the primary basis for a developmental stage is justice. A person advances through the various stages based on their training and life experiences.
Kohlberg devised six stages of moral development, which are grouped into three levels of morality. These levels are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional morality. He held that moral behavior is more responsible, consistent and predictable for people in the higher levels of moral development. Further, once a person achieves a higher stage, it is quite rare for the person to regress, because each stage provides a more comprehensive and differentiated perspective than its predecessors.
The pre-conventional level of moral development is mostly found in children. Here, the judgment of a moral action is primarily based on the direct consequences that will be visited upon the individual – in other words, decisions are solely based on the impact on the person making the decision. The first stage of moral development is obedience and punishment driven, since the focus is on the direct consequences of an action to be taken. Thus, an action is considered to be morally wrong when the person is punished for doing it. For example, a child learns that he should not drink alcohol, because he is grounded for doing so. When the punishment associated with an action is more severe than usual, the action that triggered the punishment is considered to be unusually bad. This line of reasoning would keep a child from engaging in any activity that had direct negative consequences for him in the past.
The second stage of moral development is self-interest driven, where the decisions are based on whatever the person believes to be in his best interest, though without considering the impact on one’s reputation or relationships with others. At this point, a person is almost entirely self-centered in making decisions, where concern for others is not a consideration unless doing so will trigger an action that helps the person. For example, a teenager steals lunch money from another student at school. Doing so increases his cash balance, but at the expense of the child who can no longer eat lunch.
When an adult has not passed beyond the pre-conventional level of moral development, workplace rules need to be clearly stated and rigidly enforced in order to ensure their compliance. Also, the high level of self-centering at this stage makes an adult quite unsuitable for a management position.
The conventional level of moral development can be found in both children and adults. Here, moral reasoning includes a comparison of actions taken to society’s viewpoints on what is right or wrong, even when there are no consequences associated with following or not following those viewpoints. The main decision driver is a desire to please others. The third stage of moral development is driven by interpersonal accord and conformity, where the person is expected to conform to social standards. At this stage, the individual tries to live up to the expectations of others, because he has learned that being regarded as a good person provides him with benefits. A logical outcome is that the person begins to evaluate the consequences of an action in terms of the impact on his relationships with others. For example, a person might refrain from engaging in an illegal activity, because being caught would damage the reputation of his family.
The fourth stage of moral development is driven by maintenance of the social order; this means that the person is more concerned with obeying laws and social conventions, due to their importance in supporting a functioning society. At this stage, the person’s concerns expand beyond his immediate circle of friends and family, to encompass a broader group of people. This stage encompasses an additional concept, which is that there is a duty to uphold the law; breaking the law is therefore morally wrong. Most adults remain at this level.
The post-conventional level of moral development focuses on the development of personal principles that may differ from those of society. This viewpoint would allow a person to disobey rules that are consistent with his own principles. At this stage, a person views conventional morality as being useful for maintaining the social order, but which are also subject to change. The fifth stage of moral development is driven by an orientation toward the social contract, where the person understands that the laws reflect the consensus of a majority, but that one can formulate opinions about whether a law should be altered through democratic processes to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
The sixth stage of moral development focuses on universal ethical principles. At this stage, the person relies on his own moral reasoning, which is based on universal ethical principles, which are examined from the viewpoints of others. The individual considers laws to be valid only to the extent that they are based on justice; therefore, unjust laws should not be obeyed. Reasoning at this level could result in breaking the law, leaving the person subject to legal penalties that may include imprisonment. Given the personal risks associated with this final stage, few people advance their moral reasoning to encompass it. Two examples of people who routinely operated in this area were Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.