Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Understanding

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Kohlberg began studying moral understanding in the 1950s when there were 2 other theories: behaviourist approach (reward and punishment) and Piaget (1932) (maturation).

Kohlberg (1958) collected date using 9 hypothetical moral dilemmas. 84 boys aged 10, 13, or 16 were interviewed on three of the dilemmas. They were asked 10 open ended questions into their thinking behind the decision they would make. For example the HEINZ DILEMMA included a man who stole overpriced prescription drugs for his dying wife, and whether he should be punished.

From this he devised a stage based theory - 

  • The stages are inariants and universal
  • Each stage represents a more equillibriated form of understanding
  • Each stage forms an organised whole
  • Moral maturity is achieved through biological maturation, disequillibirum, and gains in percpective taking
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Stages of Moral Development

THE PRE-CONVENTIONAL LEVEL - judge actions by concequences

CONVENTIONAL LEVEL - conformity to social rules is desirable but not out of self-interest

POST-CONVENTIONAL LEVEL - define morality in terms of abstract moral principles

Stage 1 - punishment and obedience orientation (ignores intentions and focuses on rules)

Stage 6 - Universal ethical principles orientation (self-chosen abstract principles)

"Heinz shouldnt steal the drug because he might get caught and go to prison" - Stage 1

"It doesn't make sense to put respect for property above respect for life itself" - Stage 6

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Moral Behaviour - One critisim is that this theroy focuses on thinking not behaviour (why people commit crimes). However, Kohlberg (1975) found when students were given the oppertunity to cheat on a exam only 15% at the post-conventional stage cheated, whereas 70% at the pre-conventional stage did. This suggests that maturation reduces likelihood of unmoral behaviour, however this could be due to the situation. It's also difficult to tell what stage someone is in.

Moral Consistancy - Krebs and Denton (2005) suggestsed changes (e.g. stage 1 then 3) might be due to other factors, e.g. financial gains. 

Gender Bias - Gilligan (1982) found women focus more on relationships (caring) than justice when making moral decisions. Therefore these stages only consider one type of morality.

Real-World Application - Kohlberg found being involved in a democratic group helped moral development. He therefore set up a number of 'cluster schools' where members could be involved in decisions and develop morally.

Hyperthetical - Gilligan (1982) also said because the dilemmas lacked realism the answers may not be true. Gilligans own research interviewed ps on their own dilemmas e.g. abortion.

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