Is it ever right to cheat on an exam? To mislead consumers through false advertising? To claim exaggerated deductions on your income taxes? As adults we often ponder such moral questions—issues concerning what is right and what is wrong in a given context. And as adults, we realize that such matters are often complex. Whether a given action is acceptable or unacceptable may depend on many factors, including the specific circumstances involved, legal considerations, and our own personal code of ethics.
But how do children deal with such issues? They, too, must make moral judgments. Is their reasoning about such matters similar to that of adults? This is the key question addressed in research on moral development—changes in the ability to reason about what is right and what is wrong in a given situation. While many different views of moral development have been proposed, the most famous is a theory offered by Lawrence Kohlberg (1984).
Kohlberg studied boys and men and suggested that human beings move through three distinct levels of moral reasoning, each divided into two separate phases. In order to determine the stage of moral development participants had reached, Kohlberg asked them to consider imaginary situations that raised moral dilemmas for the persons involved.
Participants then indicated the course of action they would choose, and explained why. According to Kohlberg, it is the explanations, not the decisions themselves, that are crucial, for it is the reasoning displayed in these explanations that reveals individuals’ stage of moral development.
One such dilemma is- A man’s wife is ill with a special kind of cancer. There is a drug that may save her but it is very expensive. The pharmacist who discovered this medicine will sell it for $2,000, but the man has only $1,000. He asks the pharmacist to let him pay part of the cost now and the rest later, but the pharmacist refuses. Being desperate, the man steals the drug. Should he have done so? Why?
Let’s consider the kinds of reasoning that would reflect several of the major stages of moral reasoning described by Kohlberg; see Table 8.3 for an overview of all the stages he described.
At the first level of moral development, the pre-conventional level, children judge morality largely in terms of consequences. Actions that lead to rewards are perceived as good or acceptable; ones that lead to punishments are seen as bad or unacceptable. For example, a child at this stage might say, “The man should not steal the drug, because if he does, he’ll be punished.”
As children’s cognitive abilities increase, Kohlberg suggests, they enter a second level of moral development, the conventional level. Now they are aware of some of the complexities of the social order and judge morality in terms of what supports and preserves the laws and rules of their society. Thus, a child at this stage might reason: “It’s OK to steal the drug, because no one will think you are bad if you do. If you don’t, and let your wife die, you’ll never be able to look anyone in the eye again.”
Finally, in adolescence or early adulthood many, though by no means all, individuals enter a third level known as the post-conventional level, or principled level. At this stage, people judge morality in terms of abstract principles and values rather than in terms of existing laws or rules of society. Persons who attain this stage often believe that certain obligations and values transcend the laws of society.
The rules they follow are abstract and ethical, not concrete like the Ten Commandments, and are based on inner conscience rather than on external sources of authority. For example, a person at this stage of moral development might argue for stealing the drug as follows- “If the man doesn’t steal the drug, he is putting property above human life; this makes no sense. People could live together without private property, but a respect for human life is essential.”
In contrast, if they argue for not stealing the drug, they might reason- “If the man stole the drug he wouldn’t be blamed by others, but he would probably blame himself, since he has violated his own standards of honesty and hurt another person for his own gain.”
Do we really pass through the series of stages described by Kohlberg, becoming increasingly sophisticated in our judgments of morality? Some findings are consistent with this view, at least in its broad outlines. As suggested by Kohlberg, individuals do generally seem to progress through the stages of moral reasoning he described, moving from less sophisticated to increasingly sophisticated modes of thought. Other findings, however, suggest that Kohlberg’s theory, while providing important insights, requires major revisions in several respects.
Soon after Kohlberg presented his theory, one psychologist Carol Gilligan, criticized it strongly on the grounds that it was biased against women. She noted that many women do not base moral judgments on the principles of justice emphasized by Kohlberg; rather, they base them on what she termed care-based principles concerns over relationships, caring, and the promotion of others’ welfare. Because moral reasoning based on such considerations is scored as relatively immature in Kohlberg’s theory, Gilligan charged that Kohlberg’s approach undervalued the moral maturity of females.
Are such charges accurate? Evidence on this issue is mixed but, overall, fails to provide clear support for Gilligan’s suggestions. Several studies comparing the moral development of males and females have failed to uncover the differences predicted by Gilligan; indeed, if anything, females have tended to score higher, not lower, than males. Further, it appears that contrary to Gilligan’s suggestions, females do not seem to base their moral reasoning solely, or even primarily, on care-based concerns.
While females do show a tendency to make more care-based judgments than males, this occurs primarily for personal moral dilemmas they have experienced themselves, and does not appear for other types of questions, including the ones used originally by Kohlberg.
So, overall, there is little evidence for important differences between males and females with respect to moral development or moral reasoning. Instead, it appears that if such differences exist, they are quite subtle and restricted in scope, occurring only with respect to specific kinds of moral dilemmas.
Kohlberg’s theory, like other stage theories, suggests that as people grow older, they move through a series of successive discrete stages. If that were true, then it would be predicted that individuals’ moral reasoning across a wide range of moral dilemmas should be consistent, it should reflect the stage they have reached. Do people show such consistency? The answer appears to be no.
For example, in one revealing study on this issue, Wark and Krebs (1996) asked college students to respond to the moral dilemmas developed by Kohlberg and also to describe real-life dilemmas they had experienced or witnessed dilemmas that affected them personally and dilemmas they knew about but which had not affected them personally. For these real-life dilemmas, the students also described their moral reasoning their thoughts about the issues, what they felt were the right course of action, and so on.
Results indicated that contrary to Kohlberg’s theory, participants showed little consistency across the various types of moral dilemmas. In fact, only 24 percent obtained the same global stage score (e.g., Stage 3, Stage 4) across all three types of dilemmas. A large majority, fully 85 percent, made judgments that ranged across three different stages. So, contrary to what Kohlberg’s theory suggests, people do not show a high degree of consistency reflecting a specific stage of moral reasoning.
Finally, it’s important to note that the stages described by Kohlberg, and steady movement through them, do not appear in all cultures. In cross-cultural studies carried out in many countries (Taiwan, Turkey, Mexico), it has sometimes been found that persons from tribal or rural village backgrounds are less likely to reach Stage 5 reasoning than persons from more advantaged backgrounds.
These findings suggest that Kohlberg’s work may, to an extent, be “culture bound”. It may be biased against persons from ethnic groups and populations different from the ones he originally studied. Whether and to what degree this is true remains uncertain, but it is clear that cultural factors play an important role in shaping moral development and should be taken fully into account in our efforts to understand this important topic.
Shweder, Mahapatra, and Miller (1987) argue that Kohlberg’s conception of morality is limited to the person and the justice paradigm as his work is rooted in an individualistic framework. Shweder and Much (1991) noted that “second-order” cultural meanings often make the application of the Kohlberg manual problematic. This shows the importance of placing the moral judgment within a cultural context. Edwards’ (1987) study of Kenyan and American children emphasizes the role of culture in creating and distinguishing moral from non-moral domains.
Using Indian and American samples Joan Miller and her colleagues have reported that the Indian subjects prioritized beneficence prescriptions ahead of justice prescriptions compared to the Americans.
Along with justice concerns, the Indians used role oriented obligations and contextual information as important factors to judge social issues. These studies indicate that cultural orientations of people (interpersonal obligations and contextual reasoning in Indian samples not found in American samples) do shape social judgments.
In the Indian context the concepts of dharma and karma are prominent. The Hindu worldview holds the notion of dharma (duty) and a belief in an inherent order of the universe. The principle of karma also emerges as an important moral category for different groups of people. Bhangaokar and Kapadia (2009) found that both the concepts were used by the Indians in the context of individual’s life stage, gender, and socioeconomic status.
Like karma, the concept of dharma also mainly comprised of fulfilling role-related responsibilities and duties. Integrating both these concepts, it seems that dharma is the larger framework within which individual karma functions. The twin concepts of karma and dharma seem to offer a broad template for untangling right and wrong behavior/conduct in the Indian context.