Moral Development

Moral Development

Kohlberg's Stages

Heinz Steals the Drug
“In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug.

The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1963).”

Lawrence Kohlberg is a psychologist that studied moral development. He based his studies off the “Heinz Steals the Drug” story. Participants reacted to the story and explained why what Heinz did was wrong or right. Kohlberg created different stages of moral development based on participant’s reasoning for Heinz’s actions being wrong or right. These stages help explain moral development from childhood to adolescence and beyond.

The first level of moral development according to Kohlberg is Pre-conventional Moral Reasoning. This stage is typically witnessed throughout childhood. Children that think Heinz’s actions were wrong usually justify their response by saying he should not have stolen the drug because he could have gotten caught and sent to jail. On the other hand, children that think Heinz’s actions were right usually justify their response by saying that people would have been angry with him if he had let his wife die.

In the larger scheme of things, during childhood, children deal with moral dilemmas by looking and the rewards and punishments associated with their actions. They refer to external or physical events, sitting in jail or people being angry, rather than acknowledging society’s standard and rules.

Kohlberg’s second stage of moral development is Conventional Moral Reasoning. From his studies, Kohlberg typically saw this stage develop in late childhood and early adolescence. People in this stage might think it was wrong for Heinz to steal the drug because it is against the law. Others would justify that Heinz was right for stealing the drug because that is what a good husband is supposed to do.

This is a shift away from the first stage when the emphasis was on the tangible rewards and punishments. During this stage people begin to focus on other’s judgment. They are concerned about people’s roles in society and “rules” that one is expected to follow. Conventional Moral Reasoning is the way the majority of adolescents and adults reason and evaluate moral decisions based on expectations and societal rules.

The third stage of Kohlberg’s moral development theory is called Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning and it is extremely rare. Someone in this stage would say Heinz should not have stolen the drug because in doing so he violated an implicit agreement among members of society. This “agreement” grants everyone the freedom to pursue their own livelihood. So the druggist had a right to pursue his livelihood by selling the drug. Then when someone in this stage says Heinz was right to steal the drug they justify his actions by saying that someone’s life was at stake and preserving human life is more important than respecting the “agreement” for individual freedom.

Grasping these abstract principles is very rare and people abandon following society’s standards when they don’t serve moral ends. Justice, individual freedom and human life take precedence over social norms.

Although Kohlberg’s research and the Heinz story does tell us how people think about a hypothetical dilemmas, it does not tell us much about the ways people reason day-to-day problems. Reasoning hypothetical dilemmas such as the Heinz story has been found to parallel real moral dilemmas and actual behavior.

This information is based on an advanced college adolescent development course and references the following textbook:

Steinberg, L.D. (2004). Adolescence. McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Leave a Comment