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Moral dilemma – What to do when your child is faced with it

An overview (Kohlberg’s theory)

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York and then attended the University of Chicago. In his thesis, he expanded upon Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. Kohlberg focused on Piaget’s theory of moral development. While Piaget’s original aim was to explain the levels of cognitive functioning, Kohlberg’s aim was to explain the complexity of moral reasoning.

The Heinz dilemma

The most well-known example is the “Heinz Dilemma.” This animated video details a European man (Heinz)’s dilemma in 1958. Heinz’s wife was suffering from a specific form of cancer. Doctors recommended a new drug, discovered by a local chemist. Unfortunately, this new drug was very expensive. The chemist was charging ten times the amount of the money it cost to produce the drug. Heinz couldn’t afford the medicine and pleaded with the chemist. He explained that his wife was dying. He requested a concession and even proposed to pay half the amount later. The chemist refused to grant him either option.

Heinz then broke into the chemist and stole the drug. He was desperate to save his wife. Kohlberg asked multiple questions such as:

  1. Should Heinz have stolen the drug at all?
  2. Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?
  3. If the person who was dying was a stranger, would it change Heinz’s decision?
  4. Should the police arrest the chemist if the wife died?

Kohlberg’s aim

Kohlberg’s aim was to understand how and why moral reasoning develops with age. He found that the reasons changed as children grew older. His theory was tested on several boys in Chicago who were then followed (over a 20 year period) until they grew older. He identified three stages of moral reasoning:

  1. Preconventional moral reasoning: This stage is common in young children (under 10). At this stage, children don’t have their own moral code. Children’s sense of morality is driven by following or defying rules. They look to the adults in their lives. Children see obeying rules as absolute, a means of avoiding punishment. They account for an individual’s’ perspective instead of the consequences beyond self-serving interests.

E.g. When children were asked about the Heinz dilemma, they responded with “He shouldn’t have stolen because stealing is wrong” or “He can go to jail because he stole.”

  1. Conventional moral reasoning: This stage of morality lives up to societal expectations. It emphasises conformity. Children begin to understand that their actions influence others. This stage considers law and order. It takes into account the role of choice and its influence on relationships. The respect for authority and society on a whole is unquestionable at this stage. 

E.g. Children responded with “It would have been kinder for the chemist to let him buy the drug for less money” or “He didn’t have the money, so he couldn’t buy it… so he stole.” In regards to how society functions on a whole, some children even said “He was wrong to steal because there are laws against it.”

  1. Postconventional moral reasoning: Individual judgement begins to develop further. Moral reasoning is now based on an individual’s worldview and personal understanding of societal norms. These factors are influenced by factors such as their childhood, education and life experiences. This stage is based on the law, universal ethics and abstract reasoning.

E.g. Most adults fall into this category because their thought-patterns are more developed, and thus more complex. 

To learn more about childrens’ responses to moral reasoning and how adults process moral reasoning, watch this video here.

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