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The Development of Moral Reasoning: Kohlberg’s Stages (Part 2 of 4)

This essay is the second in a series of four essays on moral psychology and development.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development has its roots primarily in Jean Piaget’s two-phase theory of moral judgment in children and secondarily in John Dewey’s three-stage theory of moral development. Piaget’s first phase is that of young children who see rules as fixed and absolute and handed down from an authority; and who also base moral judgments more on consequences than intention. By contrast, older children in Piaget’s second phase see rules as more relative and changeable, somewhat like a malleable social construct; and base moral judgments more on intention than consequences. John Dewey’s three-stage theory consisting of impulsive, group-conforming, and reflective stages is what led Kohlberg to the three levels of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

Kohlberg’s Research Method

Kohlberg, over at least 20 years, interviewed or had other qualified researchers interview several dozens of people ranging from childhood to adulthood and across cultures. The questions were based on a series of moral dilemmas, with follow up questions for various types of responses. Kohlberg was interested in the reasoning behind the moral judgment, not the conclusion itself. To check the reliability of the scoring of responses, Kohlberg would have multiple researchers score the same responses. Kohlberg found the consistency of the score determination to be high among the researchers.

The Six Stages

Level I: Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience

Stage 1 is the morality of young children. An act is wrong because you’ll get punished. Punishment is what makes it wrong. Rules are handed down from an all-powerful authority and are to be unquestionably obeyed. At this stage, there is no realistic concept of morality.

Stage 2: Self-Interest and Fair Deals

Stage 2 is the morality of older children and unfortunately, many adults, especially in highly competitive occupations (certain corporate executives, most career politicians, and certain professionals) at least while they’re engaging in their occupations (they may move up to Stage 3 in family matters). At this stage, morality is relative to the self-interest of the deal maker and punishment is just a risk we want to avoid. We may exchange or return favors, but only if the continued relationship is worth carrying on from a self-interested point of view. There is no sense of community or even any substantial sense of morality, just self-interest and deal making.

Level II: Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Relationships

At Stage 3, people become genuinely concerned about good intentions and the well-being of their family and friends. The circle of concern, however, does not go much beyond kin selection. The moral community is small at this stage and is made up of those we know and trust. This stage is common in small, isolated villages and among tribal people. This stage is also common in many nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and dogs.

Stage 4: Social Order

Stage 4 is about law and order, respecting authority, and maintaining the coherence of society as a whole. A typical Stage 4 comment is, “If everyone acted in self-interest and broke the law, we’d have chaos.” At this stage, what is moral is what society (including most religious groups, e.g. the Bible or the law) says is moral. As we shall see more clearly after covering stages 5 and 6, this is the level at which many adults in our current industrial societies eventually arrive and stay, especially if they are not in the more aggressive careers mentioned in Stage 2.

“Stage 4.5”: Moral Skepticism

Kohlberg noted in his longitudinal subjects (people he was testing more than once at various ages to look for stage progression) that some of them stated “principled-sounding” (i.e. stage 5 or 6) reasons in high school, but seemed to regress back to moral relativity (Stage 2) in college. Upon further questioning, these subjects seemed to be exploring meta-ethics and challenging the ultimate basis of morality, asking questions such as “Why be moral?” This moral skepticism often led them to adopt moral relativity as a solution to the problem.

What they hadn’t yet arrived at was the fact that moral relativity is inherently unstable through self-contradiction and an inherent moral degeneration into might-makes-right. Moral relativity is self-contradictory in the sense that if one person or society’s morals are as good as another, then moral absolutism is as good as moral relativity: an obvious contradiction. Also, if morals are relative, then we shouldn’t judge others’ morals; but then the morals which do judge other morals shouldn’t be judged either: another contradiction. Moral relativity degenerates into might-makes-right because it allows arbitrary judgments. If plainly arbitrary judgments are permitted at all, on what basis can we draw lines on how much arbitrariness is permitted? Certainly not consistent reason. Stage 2 might-makes-right (i.e. moral nihilism or universal amorality) is the logical conclusion.

The reasoning process of “Stage 4.5” is a prerequisite to advance to the “post-skeptical rationalism” of Stages 5 and 6. Otherwise, the “principled-sounding” reasons are likely little more than Stage 4 “received opinion” from Stage 5 or 6 mentors (e.g. parents or teachers) in high school. We need not spend any significant time at “Stage 4.5”, but we must genuinely think through “4.5” and reject it on rational grounds to prevent severe moral retardation at Stage 2.

Level III: Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality, particularly Stage 6, is the engine of all moral progress in civilization. By definition, post-conventional morality evaluates and challenges conventional morality from a higher and more impartial point of view. This level is the reason that the Church lost its “authority” to burn people alive for heresy, that we stopped burning “witches” alive, that liberal democracies formed, that chattel slavery was abolished, that women gained the right to vote, that federal civil rights laws were passed, and hopefully someday, that our society will eventually become vegan and give nonhuman animals the right to life and to be left alone. To most people, a vegan society sounds unrealistic now, but many of today’s realities sounded just as unrealistic 50 to 350 years ago.

Stage 5: Social and Individual Improvement and Individual Rights

Stage 5 is where people start to ask what makes for right action, a good individual, and a good society, without referring to their own society as a standard. People at Stage 5 think in terms of rights for individuals and democratic procedures in government for the improvement of laws.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

At Stage 6, universal principles of justice are the moral standard by which actions, individuals, and societies are judged. The philosophers Immanuel Kant [1] and John Rawls provide the theoretical framework of impartial, universal justice of Stage 6. Great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King provide the spirit of Stage 6.

An example of the impartiality of Stage 6 is described by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. An even better example and more impartial and universal description of Stage 6, since it avoids Rawls’s speciesism [2], is provided in Animals Like Us (an easy read written for the general reader) and Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence (written for the philosopher), both by Mark Rowlands. Briefly, the description goes like this: we are asked to take an impartial perspective by assuming a “veil of ignorance” of what role we will have in the society or situation which we are evaluating. We are then asked to prescribe the policies or acts which would be most fair to all roles involved, knowing we could end up in any of those roles (including birth as a chicken, pig, etc). If the prescriptive policies or acts given are irrational under the veil of ignorance, then they are immoral in the real world.

Two principles are salient in Stage 6: the principle of equal consideration and the principle of desert. The principle of equal consideration requires us to give equal moral consideration to others to the extent that others have interests which are crucial or important to them, regardless of whether those interests are important to anyone else. The principle of desert, inherent in the idea of justice as fairness, is that we (including nonhuman animals) should get what we deserve. In considering what we deserve, we must consider what we are responsible for, or what is within our control, versus what we are not responsible for, or what is beyond our control. Circumstances of birth, such as mental capacity, capacity for moral agency, place of birth, race, sex, and species are clearly beyond our control; therefore we don’t have responsibility for those circumstances; therefore we don’t deserve to have our important interests (e.g. life, liberty, bodily integrity) ignored because of those circumstances; therefore we have basic moral rights protecting those important interests.

The Six Stages and Speciesism

Speciesism can exist and even thrive at Stages 1 – 4, thriving best at the lowest stages and starting to be slightly threatened at Stage 4. At Stage 5, speciesism is significantly more threatened because of the willingness to question society, but there is nothing at Stage 5 which is inherently antithetical to speciesism because universal principles of justice are not yet considered important or even necessary. Speciesism is inherently antithetical to Stage 6 moral reasoning due to Stage 6’s impartiality and universality in the application of justice. If we engage in genuine and careful Stage 6 reasoning, we cannot avoid landing in the middle of a strong animal rights paradigm.

The most significant reason that animal rights is currently “on the fringe” of current society is that a vast majority of people, perhaps around 99% of the population, are dwelling in Stages 2 through 5, at least in behavior, if not also in reasoning. Even when animal rights advocates reason with non-vegans at Stage 6, there are other factors, such as cultural and psychological influences (primarily habits), which cause non-vegans’ behavior to remain largely unchanged. Still, Stage 6 is the primary moral reasoning under which all previous social justice movements succeeded. Stage 6 thought also entails animal rights, and at this point, the best animal rights advocates can do is to continue to repeat Stage 6 principles to non-vegans until these principles penetrate the social barrier of conventional-level morality as they have in the past for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from witch trials, freedom from chattel slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.


[1] For an excellent analysis on why Kant’s universality entails moral consideration of animals while Kant failed to live up to his own idea of universality in this regard and other ways, see Tom Regan’s classic 1983 work, The Case for Animal Rights, pages 174 to 185. For 18th century cultural prejudices and ignorance Kant was likely a victim of, see the September 2007 essay in this blog entitled, “Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals.” Kant’s universality is a Stage 6 concept, but Kant was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his universality.

[2] We might reasonably ask, if John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice provides a Stage 6 framework for impartiality, and Stage 6 entails animal rights, then why didn’t John Rawls argue for animal rights? Tom Regan examines this contradiction in Rawls’s thought in The Case for Animal Rights in significant detail.

Rawls is considerably ambiguous and equivocal not only on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to nonhuman animals, but even on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to moral patients (i.e. those incapable of moral reasoning, but capable of benefiting from the moral behavior of moral agents). In an essay written prior to A Theory of Justice, Rawls claims, in so many words, that moral agency (e.g. the ability to have a sense of justice) is required to qualify as an object of direct duties of justice. In other words, we have no direct duties of justice to moral patients (e.g. very young children, the mentally ill or disabled, the senile or nonhuman animals). Rawls backs off of this position in A Theory of Justice, but is still ambiguous and equivocal about direct duties to sentient nonhumans. Regan, from pages 163 to 174 in The Case for Animal Rights, analyzes Rawls’s position quite carefully and charitably, and in the process, shows how Rawls grossly misapplies and contradicts his own theory when it comes to nonhuman animals. Essentially, Regan shows in detail how setting up Rawls’s “original position” so as to exclude nonhuman animals is no different (i.e. no less arbitrary) than setting up the original position so as to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups or to exclude everyone except white, propertied males. Rawls’s theory of justice is a Stage 6 framework, but Rawls was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his theory.

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Moral Psychology and Development: An Introduction (Part 1 of 4)

This essay is the first in a series of four essays concerning moral psychology and development. Moral psychology is an important area of knowledge for understanding various attitudes and beliefs regarding morality and, more importantly, for effecting moral progress. A society’s collective attitudes and beliefs toward social justice issues like animal rights are ultimately the collection of individual attitudes toward those issues. If we can better understand individuals at the psychological level, it will help us to better understand our society. In this series of essays, we will primarily look at moral psychology as it has developed during the 20th century up to the present. We will not consider evolutionary psychology or anthropology in this series of essays. Evolutionary psychology and anthropology are interesting for exploring the limits of our collective violence and altruism, as well as where we fit in an aggressive-altruistic continuum and how we arrived there, but compared to contemporary moral psychology, they don’t contribute much in the way of explaining how we behave and why in our modern industrial and informational societies.

Two Dominating Theoretical Groups of Moral Philosophy

There are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy which have been with us since the Enlightenment. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I am going to discuss just the two groups of theories, rather than the specific theories under each group. One of the dominating groups in moral philosophy concerns actions and “the right” (often referred to as non-consequential or deontological theories). The other group concerns consequences and “the good” (often referred to as consequential theories). Theories other than the two dominating theories include virtue ethics, social contract theory, and various moral doctrines and precepts of religions. Again, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, we will not consider these other theories in this series of essays.

A theory of the “right” is primarily (and in, e.g. Immanuel Kant’s case entirely) cognitive, logical, and philosophical; and heavily emphasizes the intention of the actor and justice in determining “right action” while diminishing the consequences of actions in determining “right action.” Examples of theories in this philosophical group are Kantian morality, contemporary deontology, and rights-based theories. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “right” is that they generally consist of prohibitive restrictions on behavior rather than a normative claim on all behavior. In other words, the moral agent is generally free to do whatever he or she wants, as long as he or she does not violate certain moral principles, such as justice, in his or her actions.

A theory of the “good” is primarily affective, empirical, and psychological; and heavily emphasizes the consequences and preference satisfaction of all sentient beings having an interest in the consequences in determining “right action” while diminishing the intention of the moral agent in determining “right action.” British sentimentalism and utilitarianism are examples of theories in this psychological group. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “good” is that they generally attempt to maximize “the good” for all parties potentially having an interest in the consequences in all choices of action (e.g. utilitarianism), rather than merely prohibiting certain action which violates justice or a similar moral principle. Depending on how seriously the consequentialist takes the obligation of maximizing the “good” for everyone involved, the theory can significantly restrict freedom of action in everyday life, because most, of not all, actions should probably be subject to moral evaluation and only certain actions will maximize consequences, assuming we can calculate a maximum good in any specific choice. Most consequentialists, however, don’t take the theory that far, and look at consequentialism as a theory of justification in specific choices or conflicts rather than a theory of deliberation on all actions.

Two Dominating Theories of Moral Psychology

Just as there are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy, there are two dominating theories of moral psychology which correspond to the theories of philosophy.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of action, justice, and “the right” is Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. It emphasizes logic and cognitive reasoning in moral development and is primarily philosophical in nature.

Kohlberg was a brilliant psychologist who performed significant research in moral psychology and taught at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University. He was influenced by the great child psychologist Jean Piaget. His research consisted of in-depth interviews of many people of various ages (children and adults), from various socio-economic groups and from different cultures. In his interviews, which consisted of narrative moral problems and follow up questions, Kohlberg was not so much interested in the content or conclusions of his subjects, but the cognitive reasoning behind the content or conclusions. A subject could arrive at the same conclusion, but the cognitive reasoning could be at drastically different stages of development.

Kohlberg came up with six stages of moral development with two stages in each of three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. The stages are based on cognitive reasoning in arriving at moral decisions, with the highest stage being based in universal principles of justice and/or fairness. We will look at Kohlberg’s stages in more detail in the second essay of this series.

Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of consequences, feelings, and “the good” is Martin Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development. It emphasizes empiricism and emotion and is primarily psychological in nature.

Martin Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at New York University who has engaged in three decades of study and research on moral development. Whereas Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes cognitive reasoning in moral development, Hoffman’s theory emphasizes affective/emotive response in moral development, including guilt and compassion, but particularly empathy and empathic distress.

While Hoffman has stages in his theory, he downplays the stage aspect of it compared to Kohlberg. Hoffman has two levels of empathy development, immature and mature, and two stages within each level. The highest stage in Hoffman’s theory is one where empathic distress extends “beyond the situation” into areas removed from the here and now. In this higher stage, people will respond with empathic distress to individuals and groups far removed from their geographical location, or removed temporally, such as slaves long ago. One might also say that “beyond the situation” implies a response of empathic distress removed from one by kin, such as overcoming racism, speciesism, or some other cultural prejudice. We will look at Hoffman’s theory in more detail in the third essay of this series.

Philosophy and Reason versus Psychology and Passion

At the core of these different perspectives of moral philosophy and psychology, cognitive and affective, is a dichotomy as old as philosophy itself: the struggle between reason and passion.

Immanuel Kant saw the degree of morality inherent in a given act as proportionate to the degree that one does it in accordance with obedience to the moral law that reason dictates as opposed to one’s passions or desires. For Kant, a moral philosopher who sought to define morality, only the good will is inherently good, and the good will is at its greatest when it triumphs over a base passion to do other than what reason and the “moral law” (i.e. morality defined) dictate one ought to do.

David Hume, on the other hand, believed that “reason is, and ought only to be, a slave of the passions.” For Hume, a moral psychologist who sought to explain why we behave morally, our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation determine what, for us, is moral or immoral. Reason only helps us determine what is most likely to be pleasing to our sentiments and beneficial to social utility (assuming our passions are directed toward social utility, and Hume thought our “calm passions” were in that direction, in the same way we have a “calm passion” for natural beauty). Interestingly, Hume believed that only social utility supports our calm passion for justice, and that without utility, we have no use for justice. For Hume, this explained the unjust treatment of women and Native Americans, and moral progress meant widening the circle of the moral community.

It is important to emphasize that Kant was offering us a rational definition of morality and a prescriptive code, while Hume was offering us his empirical observation of why we do what we do. Many people misinterpret Kant and Hume by conflating moral philosophy and psychology. Arthur Schopenhauer ridiculed Kant severely for postulating reason instead of compassion as a “basis of morality” (i.e. the motivating factor behind moral behavior), but what Schopenhauer failed to realize was that Kant was attempting to rationally define morality, not attempting to offer empirical observations on motivations for it. Hume, on the other hand, has been misinterpreted by many of today’s moral relativists as offering a moral philosophy or definition dependent on our feelings, and thus what is “moral” for me might be “legitimately” different from what is “moral” for you. What today’s moral relativists fail to realize is that Hume was silent on moral philosophy and definition; Hume was discussing only his empirical observation of moral motivation and psychology.

In morality, both philosophy and psychology can be broken down into primarily cognitive and primarily affective schools of thought. Also, moral philosophy is a primarily cognitive enterprise, while moral psychology is a primarily affective enterprise. Words like “primarily” are important here, because while there are major differences in these areas of thought which are irreducible and irreconcilable, they sometimes interrelate and sometimes have each other’s primary considerations as secondary considerations. Hume may be correct, in a certain sense, that our passions ultimately dictate our behavior, but it is also true that reason, impartiality, and justice can be our passion. In fact, through reason, we can intentionally cultivate virtuous passions and let our baser passions atrophy, thereby cultivating our character into a noble one providing us with a more fulfilling existence.

We will explore Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theory in the next two essays in the series, respectively, and wrap it up with a fourth and concluding essay, which will address practical considerations for advocates.

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