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June 6, 2022

The 3 Levels of Moral Reasoning (Based on the Theory of Moral Development).

Last week I finished my first year of studying psychology. It’s been a bit challenging but interesting learning about how we humans grow.

I learned a sh*t load about myself—some good, some bad.

I was also able to confirm how lazy and disorganised I am. I really am. All of my assignments were delivered with a matter of minutes to spare. One of my tutors asked me if this was because I was a perfectionist; he then marked one of my papers, and I doubt he’ll be asking that question again. 

Anyway, as you can see, I digress, so a friend asked me what was the most significant thing I had learned in my time studying.

And as I pondered this question, I recalled one topic that had really excited me, and it felt weird at the time. I couldn’t understand why the chart I was looking at was having such an effect on me. It was like a teenage crush; I was flustered, blushing, and it felt like my soul was dancing as my heart filled with hope.

And that chart was Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Morality, a six-stage theory that charts our moral development. His specific focus was on the changes that happen during adolescence. His work was an addition to another theory on cognitive development, which looks at changes in brain structure during adolescence, like the increase of neutrons and in the complexity of the neural pathways.

Quite dry, right? As I read though the stages which measure our motivations when faced with moral questions, a shift happened, and I briefly experienced a completely different lens to view people, society, and myself with. A benchmark that resonated deeply with me, and in that moment, I felt I knew where we were all headed.

His six stages measure our motivations when faced with moral questions, and these stages are broken into three levels: pre-conventual, conventual, and post-conventual.  

At level one, our motivations in moral reasoning are driven by fear and self-interest—we focus on direct consequences. Typically, this level is associated with children under the ages of 11. However, as I write this, I am reminded of some of my own motivations 30 years after the supposed cutoff, so perhaps we go back and forth.

Level two can be linked back to the physical changes that occur in our brain (typically within the growth spurt from 11 to 16 years old), and at this point, we are driven by what society says is right and wrong. And this is the level that most of us will be operating from, where we do things that look on face value like the right thing. A sound reasoning that supplies a good fallback poison for most occasions.

I have always thought that some people (most of whom are very successful at life) have mastered working with such optics. As I studied, I couldn’t help but think that within this level there was a lot of room for us to be manipulated as well as to grow our own propensity for hypocrisy.

And then there’s level three—and this is the f*ck it level. Where rules are ignored if they fall out of our own moral viewpoint.

This theory reminds me of the wonderful quote by Martin Luther King:

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” 

But more than just having rules being based in justice, this is the level where the main currency is compassion and the motivation is to understand people, to deploy abstract thinking, to recognise all points of view, and to find solutions rather than place blame.

It recognises that not every person will reach level three, but if we apply the principal theory of growth from stage one and two to stage three, then the vast majority of people have the potential. And although I know it’s just a theory, it’s that possibility that has really impacted me.

 

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