Friday, June 3, 2011

Moral Development Part 1:

Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that moral development has six identifiable developmental stages.  Each stage makes it easier for a person to respond to moral dilemmas than the previous stage.  Kohlberg expanded upon Piaget’s theories and ideas.  There are criticisms of the theory based on its idea that justice being emphasized more than other moral values.  Even though with the criticism it reshaped psychology and the theory is well known and taught today.

This scale is not intended to be used to rank how moral someone’s behavior is but rather how a person justifies that behavior. The higher a person is on the moral scale their behavior should reflect this by being more responsible, consistent and predictable. There is a moral judgment interview created by Kohlberg which help an interviewer to determine where a person is on the scale. It is about 45 minutes long and are made up of fictional short stories that describe situations in which a person must make a moral decision. The answer to the stories is not as important as the why.

Here is a sample question:

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 produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 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, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

Once again it is not what but why here are some answers that show the different stages. Later we will discuss the stages in greater detail.
Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would consequently be put in prison, which would mean he is a bad person. Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200, 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 probably experience anguish over a jail cell more than 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 tried to do everything he could 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.

Think about how these stages can be used with our characters and once again how they can move between the stages. What level are your characters in?
Information gathered from Wikipedia and verified from my own studies J


  1. As always, lots to think about here!

  2. Heinz should not place his wife's life in the hands of a man who says, 'No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.'

  3. wow, that is a complicated dilemma. If I had an opportunity to save a loved one from cancer, it'd be a very tough decision to make.

  4. I remember discussing this in High School and I was as torn then about this as I am now. I don't think I have the right to say what Heinz should do, but I know I would do practically anything to get a cure for someone I love especially a spouse or child and would accept the consequences of my actions. My characters fall all throughout the spectrum. I hope to write the scenarios realistically. Thanks for another great post.

  5. nice...thanks again for enriching our writing lives...given the circumstances sometimes even the most moral character will go to the, "Extraordinary Measures" or "My sisters keeper" are two good examples

  6. What I like about your arguments is that at each stage, they give the kind of dilemma that makes for great character conflict in a story; all the pushing and pulling. I personally don't know what he should do. Depending on how much time his wife had before a dose would be too late, I think he should go to the newspapers and focus attention on the problem.

  7. I think several of my characters are at Stage Three; others are more like Stage Five, in particular, one of my MCs.

    Very interesting post!

  8. hmm....its really very hard to find the answer....

    Sometimes...people don't think what the cosequences could be....they just want to get the thing they want....

    Nice article...

  9. Wow, lots of good conflicts in that. It's really interesting to think about.

  10. Looking forward to your game picks for Monday's blogfest!

  11. This is one of the most resourceful blogs I have ever read.

  12. Great post, Josh. Moral development is one of my favorite areas of psychology. It's interesting to think about applying that to writing novels.

  13. Oh, what an interesting exercise. I hit 4 and thought 'that's close' but then 6 was right on (and I could see both sides there). When I write adults, I tend to have my MC good at that expansive thought, but have villians a little less capable of seeing the big picture. (though some portion of that may be writing in my MCs view point so they just don't KNOW the other side). It think this is a useful tool though, and can see getting sucked into applying this to every fictional character I've ever run across-HA!


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