Applied History of Psychology/Moral Development

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Lawrence Kohlberg[edit]

Lawrence Kohlberg (October 25, 1927 - January 19, 1987) was an American psychologist born in Bronxville, New York. Famous for his work in moral education and reasoning, Kohlberg proposed a stage theory of moral development that is thought to extend the work of Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.

Kohlberg focused on the development of moral judgments in children rather than on their actions. He saw the child as a "moral philosopher." Like Piaget, Kohlberg gathered his data by asking subjects questions about hypothetical stories. One of these stories has become famous as a classical ethical dilemma:

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 ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200.00 for the radium and charged $2000.00 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 about $1,000.00 (which was half of what it cost). Heinz told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it to him cheaper or let him pay later. The druggist said, "no, I discovered the drug and I am going to make money from it." Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that?

Based on his analysis of the answers that children provided to this ethical dilemma, Kohlberg developed his stage model of moral development.

Kohlberg's Stages in the Development of Moral Judgment

Level 1 - Preconventional

  • Stage 1 - Obedience-and-Punishment Orientation
The child obeys rules to avoid punishment and there is no internalization of moral standards. The child finds it difficult to consider two points of view in a moral dilemma and instead they focus on fear of authority and avoidance of punishment as reasons for behaving morally (Berk, 2000).
Pro: Theft is justified because the drug did not cost much to provide.
Con: Theft is condemned because Heinz will be caught and go to jail.
  • Stage 2 - Naive Hedonistic and Instrumental Orientation
The child becomes aware that people can have different perspectives in a moral dilemma; however, the child's behaviour is motivated by a selfish desire to obtain rewards and benefits. Although reciprocity occurs, it is self-serving, manipulative, and based on a market-place outlook. For example, "You can play with my blocks if you let me play with your cars" would be a common type of statement for children within this stage.
Pro: Theft is justified because his wife needs the drug. Heinz needs his wife's companionship and help in life.
Con: Theft is condemned because his wife will probably die before Heinz gets out of jail, so it will not do him much good.

Level 2 - Conventional

  • Stage 3 - "Good Boy" - "Nice Girl" Morality
The child is concerned with winning the approval and avoiding disapproval of others. In judging the goodness or badness of behavior, the child considers a person's intentions. The child holds the conception of a morally good person as one who possesses a set of virtues and as a result, the child places much emphasis on being "nice."
Pro: Theft is justified because Heinz is unselfish in looking after the needs of his wife.
Con: Theft is condemned because Heinz will feel bad thinking of how he brought dishonour to his family and his family will be ashamed of his act.
  • Stage 4 - "Law-and-order" Orientation
The individual blindly accepts social convention and rules. Emphasis is on "doing one's duty," showing respect to authority, and maintaining a given social order for its own sake. Moral choices no longer depend on close ties to others at this stage and instead, rules are seen as needing to be enforced in the same manner for everyone.
Pro: Theft is justified because Heinz would otherwise have been responsible for his wife's death.
Con: Theft is condemned because Heinz is a lawbreaker.

Level 3 - Postconventional

  • Stage 5 - Social Contract Orientation
The individual believes that the purpose of the law is to preserve human rights and that unjust laws should be changed. Morality is seen as based on an agreement among individuals to conform to laws that are necessary for the community welfare. Since it is a social contract, it can be modified as long as basic rights like life and liberty are not impaired.
  • Stage 6 - Universal Ethical Principal Orientation
Conduct is controlled by an internalized set of ideas, which, if violated, results in self-condemnation and guilt. The individual follows self-chosen ethical principals based on abstract concepts (e.g., the equality of human rights, the Golden Rule, respect for the dignity of each human being) rather than concrete rules (e.g., the Ten Commandments). Unjust laws may be broken because they conflict with broad moral principals.
Pro: Theft is justified because Heinz would not have lived up to the standards of his conscience if he had allowed his wife to die.
Con: Theft is condemned because Heinz did not live up to the standards of his conscience when he engaged in stealing.

Criticisms of Kohlberg's Theory

Carol Gilligan questioned the influence of gender on Kohlberg's work on moral development because Kohlberg's theory was developed based on interviews that Kohlberg had conducted exclusively with male participants. Gilligan noted that Kohlberg's theory devalued qualities most encouraged in females, specifically an "ethic of care," and stressed those qualities most encouraged in males, that is "justice, or an abstract, rational commitment to moral ideals" (Berk, 2000).

In addition to being questioned about the influence of gender, others have suggested that Kohlberg's theory of moral development is culturally-biased. Specifically, researchers have posited that the highest stages of his theory reflect a westernized ideal of justice based on individualistic thought and that it is biased against those that live in non-Western societies that do not value individualism as much (Shaffer, Wood, & Willoughby, 2002).

Finally, Shaffer and colleagues (2002) have criticized Kohlberg's theory of moral development for several important reasons. First, they argue that Kohlberg neglects to take into account the central role that emotion plays in morality. Given that emotions play a critical role in influencing our thoughts and motivating our actions, it seems critical that emotion be part of the model. Second, they criticize Kohlberg's model because it underestimates the moral sophistication of elementary school children. By focusing so heavily on legalistic concepts perhaps this model underestimates the moral sophistication of even very young children. Lastly, Shaffer and colleagues (2002) state that Kohlberg's model is deficient because he fails to consider that moral reasoning is not a good predictor of moral behaviour. If someone's self report of how they would act is not a good predictor of how they will actually act then perhaps Kohlberg's theory lacks generalizability and utility.

Carol Gilligan[edit]

Feminist, ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan was born in New York on November 28, 1936. Before turning to psychology, she studied English literature at Swarthmore College. She received her MA in clinical psychology from Radcliff College and her Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University.

After graduating, she worked as a lecturer at the University of Chicago for one year (1965-1966). She was subsequently hired by Harvard University and she received tenure as a full professor in 1986. During her tenure, Gilligan also spent two years teaching at the University of Cambridge in England as a Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions (1992-1994). In 1997, Harvard University School of Education appointed Gilligan to the endowed Patricia Albjerg Graham Chair in Gender Studies. This was the first Harvard University position in gender studies.

As part of her position at the School of Education, Gilligan initiated the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. She also worked with the Strengthening Healthy Resistance and Courage in Girls program.

Gilligan's early research career was influenced by her work with Lawrence Kohlberg. She began to develop an interest and primary focus on girls' moral development as a result of her observation that Kohlberg theory was based on his interview with privileged white men and boys. She felt that Kohlberg theory was biased and she developed a model of moral development based on her research with women.

Carol Gilligan's Stages of Moral Development

  • Pre-conventional - Goal is individual survival
  • Conventional - Self-sacrifice is goodness
  • Post-conventional - Principle of nonviolence: do not hurt others or self

Some of Gilligan's major contributions:

Psychological theory and women’s development (1982)
Mapping the moral domain (1988)
Making Connection (1990)
Women, girls and psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance (1991)
Meeting at the crossroads: Women’s psychology and girls’ development (1992)
Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationships (1995)
Birth of Pleasure (2002)