Lawrence Kohlberg’s research addressed questions about how we form attitudes about moral issues and how we act on them. Moral issues themselves always relate to the consequences of one’s actions and decisions as they help or hurt other people. An action or decision that helps other people is generally moral or ethical; an action or decision that needlessly hurts other people is generally immoral or unethical. In terms of moral, ethical, or even legal responsibility, the justification for a decision is often more revealing than the actual decision itself. Kohlberg actually identified six stages; for the sake of simplicity, they are boiled down here to just three.
Level 1: Preconventional Morality. (Early childhood – what’s good is what’s good for me) At this level, moral decisions are based on rewards and punishments. What is right is perceived to be what the decision maker (often a child) is rewarded for; what is wrong is what the decision maker is punished for. Thus the preconventional level of moral reasoning is not really moral reasoning at all, but merely conditioned responses to promises of reward or threats of punishment from parents or other authority figures and power wielders. This level of reasoning, however, is often necessary with young children who lack the experience and cognitive ability to decide on any other basis. In our major religious traditions, this orientation is represented in images of heaven, the ultimate eternal reward for good behavior, and hell, the ultimate eternal punishment for bad behavior.
Level 2: Conventional Morality. (Late childhood and adolescence – what’s good is what’s good for us – people close to me or a lot like me) At this level, the child recognizes what is morally good or bad in relation to what other people think. In large groups, the sense of right and wrong eventually becomes codified in customs, traditions, and laws. Conventional moral reasoning, however, is still not really about morality, but simply about public opinion and group norms. At this level, people sometimes confuse moral issues with social customs as if, for example, it were morally wrong to wear a hat in church or to burn a flag. Human history provides many cases of immoral behavior masquerading as moral behavior sanctioned by law: e.g. the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin and several centuries of slavery and racial discrimination in the US. The conventional stage in our religious traditions is represented by the appearance of religious law – e.g. the Ten Commandments – which is also bolstered by punishments for disobedience (though the only reward for good behavior is generally the tacit approval of the community). Preindustrial societies and individual adolescents often pass through stages of compulsive devotion to a multitude of laws, rituals, and rules bolstered by peer pressure. Kohlberg found that most people never progress beyond this level, which means that most people make moral decisions based on their perceptions of what other people think is right or wrong, or upon laws, customs, and traditions which codify social conventions and beliefs. Many people believe it is always wrong to break the law or to disobey established authority, even when they recognize that the law itself and the established authorities may be flawed or downright wrong.
Level 3: Postconventional Morality. (Adulthood – what’s good is what’s good for everybody) This level of moral reasoning is driven by empathy for other people and by the recognition that one’s behavior regarding other people should be consistent and justifiable according to universal moral principles. At this level, moral decisions and actions are truly moral, since they do not depend on the welfare of the decision maker or on the opinions of others in one’s own social or ethnic community. At this level, moral decisions relate entirely to the welfare of the other people who are helped or hurt by the decision. This is the level of moral reasoning achieved by the great moral teachers and prophets in all times and places. It is also the basis of the Golden Rule (see below), which is expressed in all of the world’s religions. Paradoxically, though the Golden Rule may be the most reliable guide to moral behavior, it does not provide specific rules or solutions to specific moral dilemmas; it merely suggests a method for making decisions by first imagining ourselves in the shoes of others. Another strategy that is essentially postconventional involves the notion of lifting any specific decision or behavior to the level of universal principle. In other words, it suggests that we ask the question “what would be the result if everyone did this as a matter of routine?” Genuinely immoral behaviors tend to result in chaos if widely practiced, while genuinely moral behaviors tend to generate trust and cooperation.
In our Western religious tradition, the moral teachings of Jesus in the New Testament are the essence of postconventional reasoning, while the focus on the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament is quintessential conventional reasoning. As noted above, research indicates that only a minority of any population ever gets beyond the conventional stage. Postconventional reasoning requires emotional maturity, intellectual sophistication, and empathic imagination that are difficult to achieve. Those who practice postconventional moral reasoning are also subject to ridicule and even physical harm from the majority who can not see beyond conventional habits and laws. The prevalence of assassination and execution for many of the world’s greatest leaders (e.g. Socrates, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.) indicates that acting on true moral principle can be dangerous. Thus postconventional behavior often requires courage.
Progress through Kohlberg's stages happens as a result of the individual's increasing competence, both psychologically and in balancing conflicting social-value claims. The process of resolving conflicting claims to reach an equilibrium is called "justice operation". Kohlberg identifies two of these justice operations: "equality" which involves an impartial regard for persons; and "reciprocity", which means a regard for the role of personal merit. For Kohlberg, the most adequate result of both operations is "reversibility", in which a moral or dutiful act within a particular situation is evaluated in terms of whether or not the act would be satisfactory even if particular persons were to switch roles within that situation (also known colloquially as "moral musical chairs")
Knowledge and learning contribute to moral development. Specifically important are the individual's "view of persons" and their "social perspective level", each of which becomes more complex and mature with each advancing stage. The "view of persons" can be understood as the individual's grasp of the psychology of other persons; it may be pictured as a spectrum, with stage one having no view of other persons at all, and stage six being entirely sociocentric. Similarly, the social perspective level involves the understanding of the social universe, differing from the view of persons in that it involves an appreciation of social norms.
The Golden Rules
All the world's wisdom traditions express the essence of posconventional moral reasoning in some version of what is often called the Golden Rule. Though some would argue that morality is driven by religion, the universality of religious Golden Rules more likely indicates that morality is driven by the univesal moral dilemmas of the human condition, and that all religions address these dilemmas.
Brahmanism: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.
Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Christianity: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.
Confucianism: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.
Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.
Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.