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The Three Stages of Morality: A Reconstruction

1. Introduction

What is morality? Morality entails the accepted codes of conduct, cultural values as well as social standards that define what is right culturally, and what is wrong. In other words, morality defines boundaries of proper human behavior both in private and public life. From a broader perspective, morality can be seen as a system that helps humans to coexist in society by providing guidelines that individuals should follow to maintain social order (Narvaez, 2017).

The development of morality is a process that begins in early childhood and continues throughout life. Morality is not static but rather develops and changes as a person grows and interacts with the world around them. There are different theories of moral development, but one of the most influential is the three-stage theory proposed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In this paper, I will first describe Kohlberg’s three stages of morality. Next, I will evaluate Kohlberg’s theory in light of criticisms levelled against it. Finally, I will offer my own reconstruction of the three stages of morality.

2. The Three Stages of Morality by Kohlberg

Kohlberg proposed a three-stage theory of moral development that is based on the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Kohlberg’s theory argues that moral development is a process that occurs in stages and that individuals move through these stages in a fixed order (Kohlberg, 1969). According to Kohlberg, there are three distinct levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level contains two sub-stages that represent increasing levels of moral reasoning within that stage.

Kohlberg’s theory has been influential in research on moral development and has been used to explain differences in how people reason about moral issues (Rest, 1986). However, the theory has also been criticized on several grounds. Firstly, some research has shown that people do not always reason according to the sequential order proposed by Kohlberg (Rest et al., 1999). Secondly, critics have argued that Kohlberg’s theory is culturally biased because it relies heavily on Western notions of individualism and autonomy (Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Finally, some have argued that Kohlberg’s theory does not adequately account for women’s moral reasoning (Gilligan, 1982).

3. Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is based on the work of Jean Piaget, who proposed that cognitive development occurs in stages (Piaget & Inhelder, 1966). Kohlberg extended Piaget’s work by proposing a three-stage theory of moral development (Kohlberg, 1969). According to Kohlberg, there are three distinct levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level contains two sub-stages that represent increasing levels of moral reasoning within that stage.

The pre-conventional level comprises the first two stages of moral development:Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
Stage 2: Self-Interest Orientation
The pre-conventional level is characterized by egocentric thinking and an egocentric view of morality. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as absolute and unquestionable.
The conventional level comprises the third and fourth stages of moral development:
Stage 3: Conformity to Social Expectations
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation
The conventional level is characterized by an increasing awareness of the perspectives of others and a concern for social order. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as legitimate and necessary for the maintenance of social order.

The post-conventional level comprises the fifth and sixth stages of moral development:
Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles Orientation
The post-conventional level is characterized by an understanding of the relativism of morality and a commitment to universal ethical principles. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as provisional and contingent upon the consent of those affected by them.

4. The Three Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s three stages of moral development are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. The pre-conventional stage is characterized by egocentric thinking and an egocentric view of morality. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as absolute and unquestionable. The conventional stage is characterized by an increasing awareness of the perspectives of others and a concern for social order. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as legitimate and necessary for the maintenance of social order. The post-conventional stage is characterized by an understanding of the relativism of morality and a commitment to universal ethical principles. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as provisional and contingent upon the consent of those affected by them.

5. Pre-Conventional Morality

Pre-conventional morality is characterized by egocentric thinking and an egocentric view of morality. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as absolute and unquestionable. The pre-conventional stage comprises the first two stages of moral development: Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation; Stage 2: Self-Interest Orientation.

At Stage 1, individuals obedience is motivated by a fear of punishment from authority figures such as parents or other adults. At Stage 2, individuals begin to consider their own self-interest when making moral decisions. They may, for example, lie or cheat in order to get what they want. Although Stage 2 represents an improvement over Stage 1 in terms of moral reasoning, it is still egocentric because it fails to take into account the perspective of others.

6. Conventional Morality

Conventional morality is characterized by an increasing awareness of the perspectives of others and a concern for social order. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as legitimate and necessary for the maintenance of social order. The conventional stage comprises the third and fourth stages of moral development: Stage 3: Conformity to Social Expectations; Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation.

At Stage 3, individuals begin to conform to social expectations in order to gain approval from others. They may, for example, tell their parents what they think they want to hear or follow the crowd even if they do not agree with what everyone else is doing. Conformity at this stage is often motivated by a fear of negative consequences such as disapproval or rejection from others.

At Stage 4, individuals develop a concern for law and order. They see rules and authority figures as legitimate and necessary for the maintenance of social order. They may, for example, obey the law even if they do not agree with it, or respect the authority of those in positions of power.

7. Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality is characterized by an understanding of the relativism of morality and a commitment to universal ethical principles. At this stage, individuals view rules and authority figures as provisional and contingent upon the consent of those affected by them. The post-conventional stage comprises the fifth and sixth stages of moral development: Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation; Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles Orientation.

At Stage 5, individuals develop a social contract orientation. They see rules and authority figures as provisional and contingent upon the consent of those affected by them. They may, for example, disobey the law if they believe it to be unjust, or question the authority of those in positions of power if they believe them to be abusing their power.

At Stage 6, individuals develop a commitment to universal ethical principles. They believe that there are certain ethical principles that are valid for all people at all times, regardless of culture or context. They may, for example, oppose discrimination on the basis of race or gender even if it is legal or culturally accepted in their society.

8. Reconstruction of the Three Stages of Morality

In this section, I will offer my own reconstruction of the three stages of morality proposed by Kohlberg. My reconstruction is based on the work of philosopher John Rawls (1971) and social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1974).

The first stage of my reconstruction is Rawls’s notion of the original position. This is a thought experiment in which individuals are asked to imagine themselves in a hypothetical situation in which they know nothing about themselves or their place in society. From this position of ignorance, they are then asked to choose what sort of society they would want to live in and what sort of principles would govern that society.

The second stage of my reconstruction is Milgram’s obedience experiment. In this famous experiment, Milgram found that individuals were willing to obey an authority figure even when doing so resulted in harm to another person. This finding suggests that individuals are more likely to follow orders from an authority figure than they are to reason independently about what is right or wrong.

The third stage of my reconstruction is Rawls’s notion of reflective equilibrium. This is the process by which individuals reflect on their beliefs about morality and revise those beliefs in light of new information or experiences. This process can lead to a greater understanding of the relativism of morality and a commitment to universal ethical principles.

9. Conclusion

In conclusion, Kohlberg’s three stages of morality have been influential in research on moral development but have also been criticized on several grounds. In this paper, I have offered my own reconstruction of the three stages of morality based on the work of philosopher John Rawls and social psychologist Stanley Milgram. My reconstruction suggests that morality develops through a process of reflection and revision in which individuals reflect on their beliefs about morality and revise those beliefs in light of new information or experiences.

FAQ

The three stages of morality according to Kohlberg are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

The stages progress from an egocentric focus on personal gratification to a concern for social rules and norms, and finally to a principled understanding of right and wrong. Individuals move from one stage to the next as they develop a more sophisticated understanding of morality.

Some critics argue that Kohlberg's theory is too Western-centric and does not adequately take into account the role of emotions in moral decision-making.

Kohlberg's theory can be reconstructed by taking into account different cultural perspectives and by including a more emotional component in the highest stage of moral development.

A society based on the highest stage of moral development would be characterized by empathy, compassion, and respect for others. It would be a just and peaceful society in which individuals freely choose to act in accordance with universal ethical principles.

It is possible for an individual to regress back down the stages if they experience a significant life event that causes them to question their previously held beliefs about right and wrong

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