Kohlberg’s theory of morality
- Word count: 691
- Category: Morality
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A) Kohlberg’s (1976) theory of morality argues that moral development is guided by cognitive needs and a wish to understand the reality of the world, in which there is a strong compulsion to conform. This theory, which suggests that we learn and construct our moral beliefs through social interaction, was introduced by Piaget, and expanded by Kohlberg using empirical evidence. Piaget felt that children will initially accept adult rules, since they appear to be unalterable, but will eventually see that society’s rules can be discussed and changed. Kohlberg used this theory, and proposed three levels of moral reasoning, each of which has two stages. He argues that everyone proceeds through these stages in the same order, and also that progression is reliant on suitable levels of cognitive development, and for this reason not everyone reaches level 3. The levels are briefly outlined below:
* Level 1- Preconventional- acceptance of adult standards due to lack of personal moral code, although the consequences of rules-breaking is accepted.
* Level 2- Conventional- Morality can be judged from the point of view of the group or society to which one belongs.
* Level 3- Postconventional- Rules are understood in terms of higher moral principles and the need for democratically agreed rules. However, Kohlberg also suggests that at the very highest point of level 3, individuals may feel more compelled to follow their conscience, even if it means breaking the rules.
Kohlberg continues his theory by saying that the only way to measure and explain moral reasoning is to look at the reasoning of why a subject has chosen a specific moral position. Kohlberg’s theory stresses the fact that it is not the answer that you give but the reason why you give that answer – as this determines your moral reasoning.
In Kohlberg’s study, male subjects were issued with a set of nine dilemmas. Each dilemma involved moral conflict, in which participants had to respond as they felt they would in a real situation. This is how the underlying concept is involved because two participants may give totally contradicting answers but maybe judged to have the same moral reasoning because they have a similar reason for their response. There are, of course methodological issues with Kohlberg’s work, since his only participants were men, and the study was also ethnocentric.
B) Kohlberg’s research can be contrasted to the psychoanalytical views of Sigmund Freud, who believed that as humans are essentially asocial, our natural instinct is not to conform to society’s rules, but to avoid the pain and suffering that comes with breaking them, and to be accepted, we adopt these rules against our will. We learn right and wrong, because our ego provides an internal reward when we do something (morally) right. This differs greatly to Kohlberg’s view that we form our morality as a result of interaction. Freud’s theories however, are hard to test, and all of his theory is based purely on theory, unlike Kohlberg’s research.
Social learning theory is also a theory of morality, proposed and experimented by Bandura (1977), it states that we learn our behaviour and what is acceptable (and therefore our morals) from our childhood role models. This theory can be compared to Kohlberg’s since they both accept that we learn what is appropriate by the social interaction we experience as children. In this experiment, children witnessed an adult being aggressive towards objects- the child therefore may have deemed it not immoral to be aggressive and would have therefore imitated the action. This may have repercussions in later life as it could be transferred onto being aggressive to other people and it not being viewed as immoral, as a result it is not being processed in the persons mind as a criminal activity. The study also concluded that children were more likely to follow role models of the same sex, a possible explanation as to why more criminals are male.
Kohlberg’s theory can be compared and contrasted to many individual pieces of research which can be applied to moral reasoning and crime. Kohlberg’s theory is the still the strongest theory as it allows for the idea that we can have a better society of we educate children correctly.