I have alluded to Kohlberg’s stage theory of Moral Development a few times in this blog, but never devoted an entire post exclusively to that; time to rectify that. For those not familiar with the Kohlberg model, I suggest that they read up an excellent description here.

Morality Play (novel)

Morality Play (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, Kohlberg argues, that we go through three levels (and two stages within each level) as we advance on our path of moral development. He arrived to this conclusion, among other things, based on a long-term study of 58 young men over a span of two decades. The stage of moral development was assessed by analyzing answers to moral dilemmas like the famous Heinz dilemma. (in which a not-so-well-off person steals from a druggist a drug to save his dying wife).

After presenting people with various moral dilemmas, Kohlberg reviewed people’s responses and placed them in different stages of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, an individual progresses from the capacity for pre-conventional morality (before age 9) to the capacity for conventional morality (early adolescence), and toward attaining post-conventional morality (once Piaget’s idea of formal operational thought is attained), which only a few fully achieve. Each level of morality contains two stages, which provide the basis for moral development in various contexts.

The standard stages, as deciphered from say the below responses to Heinz dilemma, are as follows:

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison which will mean he is a bad person.
Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband.
Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal.
Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person.

Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

From the above it should be amply clear what is salient for each stage and level.

Today I came across an old article by William Damon in Scientific American (PDF here) and he does a pretty good job of describing the stages, and levels, using terminology that is easy-to-understand and correlate.

Level 1: SELF-INTEREST

 

Stage 1:PUNISHMENT “I won’t do it, because I don’t want to get punished.”
Stage 2: REWARD “I won’t do it, because I want the reward.”

 

Level 2: SOCIAL APPROVAL

 

 

Stage 3: INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS “I won’t do it, because I want people to like me.”
Stage 4: SOCIAL ORDER “I won’t do it, because it would break the law.”

 

Level 3: ABSTRACT IDEALS

 

 

Stage 5: SOCIAL CONTRACT “I won’t do it, because I’m obliged not to.”
Stage 6: UNIVERSAL RIGHTS “I won’t do it, because it’s not right, no matter what others say.”

Now, long time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology and the eight stage model of development. To recap, the four dimensions important for any psychological model are Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Dynamic (motivational/social) – the right order of development is A->B->D->C. There exist two polarities relevant at each dimension. For Affect, it is the polarity of Pain-Pleasure; for Behavior, the polarity of Active (approach/reward)-Passive(avoidance/ punishment) , for dynamics (or social) it is Self vs Others and finally for Cognition, it is Narrow vs Broad. This model is based on the pioneering work of Theodore Millon and combines various other theoretical frameworks.

If one were to see the Kohlberg’s levels/stages from an ABCD lens, it is clear that SELF-INTEREST is a Behavioral level, with the people moving from a passive (punishment avoidance perspective) to an active (reward approaching perspective) way of reasoning and acting as they function and evolve at that level; SOCIAL APPROVAL is a Dynamic /Social level where people move from a primarily Self focus (avoiding social disapproval) to a primarily Others focus (keeping the glue of society intact); and finally The ABSTRACT IDEALS is a Cognitive level with people moving from a narrow view of morality as utilitarian/ social contract based to more broader conceptions like based on universal human rights.

All the above is fine, but what about A or Affect based level/stages in our model? Are there moral reactions and behaviors of children (less than 9 or say even 5 years of age) that cannot be explained solely as a matter of rewards and punishments? Did Kohlberg miss on an important moral foundation on which many of our initial moral acts are based? My contention is yes, Kohlberg did leave out an important moral foundation. I will call that Affect based moral level Level 0.

The Level 0, of moral action and reasoning, is before an infant/ toddler/ child start thinking of, and justifying, their moral actions in terms of self-interests or rewards and punishment. This Level 0 is the Level of EMPATHY. Research in infant and toddler development has shown that the first moral or pro social behaviors develop out of an ability to empathize with others; if an infant or toddler will witness another person crying they will try to soothe the other person even if their means of helping may be inadequate; similarly toddlers, given an opportunity to help another person by saying opening a cabinet, when a stranger has his hands filled with books, will help the stranger, without any regards to any rewards or punishments, but because of the sheer joy of seeing the other person become happy as a result of their actions.

It’s unfortunate that infants cannot speak and many toddlers haven’t developed a good vocabulary, so the verbal responses to dilemma approach cannot be applied as is to them; but clever researchers have developed ingenious protocols to observe and ascertain moral behavior in children of that age group, and probably can develop new techniques to figure out their moral reasoning too. For example, in one of such experiments, children are shown animated clips of figures like squares and triangles that are either helpful or hurtful (pushing around a loved object ) and based on which figures the child prefers, one determines that indeed children like helpful figure/ animation characters over hurtful/ bullying characters; one could modify this paradigm by varying the distress felt by a loved object, that is being pushed around, by increasing the squeaking noise that object makes, to find whether more squeaking leads to more empathy and thus more moral/ pro social action.

The point I am making is that the prediction that there is an earlier moral reasoning/action stage characterized by empathy, is an empirically testable fact and I do hope someone conducts appropriate experiments to modify and add to Kohlberg’s theory.

To reiterate, there does exist a Level 0 of morality based on EMPATHY and the stages here are that based on Avoiding Pain and Enhancing Pleasure; the Avoiding Pain reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, because it will cause the druggist to become sad (as the druggist has lost something dear to him)” ; the Enhancing Pleasure reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, so that the druggist can live happily based on profits he earns” .

So the bottom-line, we all start with EMPATHY on our paths to moral development and that provides a solid foundation on which higher stages like those based on abstract ideals are achieved.