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Theories of Moral Development

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Created: September 2, 2002
Latest Update: September 2, 2002

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jeanne's self-portrait of rage when women are told they're stupid Kohlberg Now!
As a Performative Illucutionary Act!

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, September 2002.
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Study Notes on Moral Development

I jumped this material on moral development up because one of you came to me last Thursday asking if I knew about Kohlberg's theory of moral development. When I said yes, the young woman told me that she had taken a test in some other class, hopefully not in sociology, in which she was asked to make a moral choice. Somehow in the later discussion of the answer she had chosen, she concluded that Kohlberg's theory showed that her answer was stupid. "I'm not stupid, am I?" she asked. This was after class, and there were many of you who needed my attention. But my heart cried out to her, and anger raged in me. This teaching essay is my story to demand recognition for the harm to that student's self and soul, and the rage in my soul. (And this is the point at which I stopped to do this week's painting.)

Once upon a time Kohlberg at Harvard investigated moral development just as Piaget had investigated the development of language and thought in children. He concluded from his experiments that moral development, like thought development, could be explained by a stage theory. A Summary of Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development By Robert N. Barger, Ph.D. Backup.

Kohlberg's experiment is often illustrated by telling a story to a class of students. The story is about a woman who is mortally ill and will die if she cannot have a specific medication. The husband tries to buy the medication, but the pharmacist demands more money than the man can manage. (The amount I recall from the 70's was $2000.) The husband pleads with the pharmacist, but the pharmacists will not negotiate the price. The man, desperate, and unwilling to see his wife die for lack of this medicine, breaks into the pharmacy and steals the medicine. His wife lives. The class is then asked whether what the husband did was morally right?

When this little charade was conducted at USC in the seventies in a graduate social psychology class, it was done, as is often the case, with no clinical or experimental controls. It was just for fun. SOME FUN! More than half our class of graduate students felt that the man had done something morally wrong, because it is wrong to steal. Some of us considered the theft minor in comparison to saving his wife's life, and so considered his actions moral. Today that's called moral relativity, not nearly as hot an issue then as it is today. Check out Prof. Barger's summary of the stage theory to see how Kohlberg handled this data.

The main social issue that grew out of this was the debate of which was the higher stage of moral development: that of insistence that one moral wrong didn't justify another? or the insistence that one moral wrong was justified when it was a lesser wrong than the alternative? In postmodernism, and in feminism this issue of moral relativity has gained increasing importance. Some postmodernists, not all, claim that all morality is relative, and therefore no one moral judgment is superior to any other. Habermas disagrees with this, insisting that we need some overall criteria by which to make judgments, which, incidentally, we make everyday anyway. This is one of Habermas' critiques of Lyotard, who defines postmodernism as that philosophy which rejects all metatheory. But a theory on criteria for judgment, in order to be meaningful for a whole society and/or culture, must, of necessity, be a metatheory. And on and on and on.

The issue became crucial to feminists when males scored "higher" on the Kohlberg stages of moral development research than females. Carol Gilligan insisted that Kohlberg's conclusions were wrong, and that women were not lower on the scale of moral development than men. They were just different, taking into consideration the greater importance of interpersonal relationships. (Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, M.A. Thesis: Harvard University Press. 1982.) And so we came up with the theory that women speak in a different "voice," the voice of interpersonal relationships. I, and many other women, are disturbed by this insistence upon a different "voice." No one, in my personal acquaintance with the Kohlberg studies ever asked about the morality of the pharmacist. But the male graduate students in our class were quick to voice their superiority in accordance with this research.

I consider the actions of the pharmacist immoral on any scale or stage theory. But, as a critical theorist, I recognize that in a capitalist society, where the market is the primary determinant of success, that one should look behind the morality of this individual to the morality of the society in which he is situated. How can life and death be allowed to hang on the issue of whether a person is able to pull together the "cost" of a medicine. Yet, that is precisely the issue today in country's like China, where AIDS patients are unable to get drugs because of US patents, which refuse to provide affordable prices to the ill. This is also a major issue in South Africa. At this point, I need to redefine and reinterpret what constitutes theft. As Quinney would tell us, crime is socially defined. But then, Quinney's a critical theorist, too.

From what my student told me, another class somewhere went through the Kohlberg story, and analyzed the class responses. What I find deplorable is that whoever conducted this callous game didn't take the time to disabuse my student of the validity of the results on these staged experiments. And so she came to me believing somehow that a lower score on the Kohlberg moral development scale might indicate that she was stupid. Now, that couldn't have happened if she hadn't already been harmed; if she hadn't already been called stupid for not conforming to standards based on a male hegemony. But it should not have happened in an institution of higher learning in the United States. To speak of these studies without explaining them qualitatively, beyond the mere quantitative measures, which may mean nothing in a world that knows very little, is morally lacking in itself. It speaks of a positivistic arrogance that is way past its real dominance, and now quickens itself on the uninitiated undergraduates. For shame!

With respect to this issue I will also cover Belenski, et al., Women's Ways of Knowing, and Phyllis Chesler's Women's Inhumanity to Woman. Now, don't get all excited. Chesler considers both men and women inhumane. It's about Maria Pia Lara's theory on the need for respect and dignity, and the need to bring to awareness our culture's lack of such respect and dignity. I just couldn't cover all these at once. Enough for today. jeanne