An Overview of Laurence Kohlbergs Contribution to Psychology

Lawrence Kohlberg is best known for his study of the stages of moral development and psychology. Kohlberg fashioned his views after Piaget’s stages of moral judgment but attempted to take the research a step further. He developed a set of stages based on the moral development of a person instead of their judgment. He pointed out during the research that the higher a person scored in the stages, did not necessarily make them right or better, but morally developed at a higher level.

Kohlberg used the scenario of “Heinz Steals the Drug” to rate a person’s decision making process. To Kohlberg there was not necessarily a right or wrong answer. His intention with the experiment was to find out why a person answered the way they did. He had little use for the person’s actual answer.

The scenario is described that Heinz’s wife was critically ill with a terrible cancer. A local pharmacist had found the remedy that would save her life and had decided to sell it for twice what it was worth. Heinz worked and saved, but could only raise half of the amount needed. He approached the druggist with the amount he had collected but the businessman would not sell the drug without the full amount, ensuring his profit. Heinz left, only to return later that evening. He broke into the store and stole the remedy for his wife.

Kohlberg chose to rate each person’s answer within a category of stages. The first stage was Obedience and Punishment Orientation. For a child, the belief in a strict set of rules that must be obeyed is predominant. If a rule is broken there is sure to be some sort of punishment. In their thought, Heinz broke the law and would be punished because what he did was wrong. As a child, further elaboration was difficult. 

Stage 2 became Individualism and Exchange. At this stage, older children realize there are certain events that influence Heinz’ actions. While the druggist would believe Heinz was wrong, Heinz would argue that he was right in stealing the drug. Each person’s action would involve a trade off of sorts. Heinz would still have to answer for his actions.

Stage 3 deals with Good Interpersonal Relationships. Teens normally fall into this stage. Most feel that people should act with “good behavior” and do what is right. Person’s that are in this stage of moral development are more apt to believe that stealing the drug is right, because no one should have to watch another person suffer. The druggist’s expectations were unfair and he should be treated accordingly.

Stage 4 involves Maintaining Social Order. The person who reacts at a stage 4 level is primarily concerned with the impact on society. Social order takes precedence over what one person may need or want. Breaking a law could lead to civil unrest or riots. Even though this stage is similar to stage 1 or 2, the difference lies in the fact that a young child only knows that their will be repercussions, while the person at stage 4 understands what they will be and how the punishment was decided upon.

Stage 5 deals with Social Contracts and Individual Rights. People who respond at the stage 5 level comprehend the fact that obeying laws are a type of social contract. Laws are upheld and when they are broken a punishment is decided upon. Social contracts are weighed against an individual’s right to have what they need to survive. 

The sixth stage concerned Universal Principles. Kohlberg believed that Stage 6 existed, but had issues trying to rate and categorize the respondents’ answers. This soon became known as the theoretical or hypothetical stage. All responses that were higher than those found in stage 5 were scored at this level.

Kohlberg declares that the development of his moral stages occur through thinking about a situation’s moral value. Examining specific views and the opinions of other’s can influence where a person is on the scale of those stages.