Classification and Treatment by Moral Development Level

Murder, She Wrote, continued

Classification and Treatment by Moral Development Level, by Dr. G. Harry McLaughlin, continued


Lawrence Kohlberg [1927-1987] is a Harvard psychologist who has studied moral behaviour in various cultures for more than fifteen years. He finds that moral judgement always develops in a fixed series of operationally definable stages, just as Jean Piaget has amply demonstrated that intellectual development proceeds stage by stage. The stages differ mainly in degree, but may none the less be classified into three levels. As explained in the notes at the end of this paper, the description of the stages given below is a synthesis from several sources, most of the names given to the levels and the stages being this writer’s.

  1. Level of Selfish Values

This level of behaviour is characteristic of children under 10 years old and of most adolescent and young adult offenders.

Stage 1. Punishment Orientation. The individual is motivated simply to avoid punishment. He respects people in authority only insofar as he has been conditioned to associate them with punishment. His own ideal is to have the power to control or dominate his environment so that he administers rather than received punishment. As a means to this end, he is prepared when necessary to obey more powerful persons. He can make certain simple distinctions such as weak-strong, good-bad, but does not clearly differentiate ends from means, cause from effect, or future from present. Therefore, his thinking is often magically wish-fulfilling. To the extent that he believes that he has a charmed life and is omnipotent, he may have difficulty even in understanding that certain impulsive acts may lead to punishment. Such naivete may make him appear quite charming at times, though he may seem mindlessly brutal at others.

Stage 2. Self-Interest Orientation. The individual is motivated to gain rewards or benefits, his ideal being simple enjoyment. Although he can weigh the immediate utility of alternative actions, his thinking is concrete, he mistakes part of a situation for the whole, and he has little sense of long-term purpose. As a result, his ideal is to be like mature people whom he sees mainly as those with access to such sophisticated fun objects as fast cars and fast women. He therefore imitates the external behaviour of successful people, insisting on being independent, having fun, and possibly even working hard. He sees moral rules as serving people’s sef-interest. He will stick to the rules if they match his own interest but not otherwise.

2.  Level of Conventional Values

This is the level of the average adolescent and adult who conforms more or less to the rules of his society.

Stage 3. Friendship Orientation. The individual is motivated to gain approval from people in his immediate environment. To please them, he will be helpful and may work towards a goal specified by his group. Because he wants to be liked by others, he strives to be like others. Because he strives to conform to a stereotype his thinking tends to be stereotyped. His concept of morality is based on fairness: I will help you if you will help me. To the extent that the principle of give-and-take is embodied in moral and legal rules, he respects them, but where such rules conflict with the expectations of his friends, he usually sets them aside.

Stage 4. Law and Order Orientation. The individual has internalized a coherent set of values and beliefs. He tries to make his personal beliefs square with those of the subculture or society in which he lives. Having thus made his own interest congruent with the duties and responsibilities demanded of him by his society, he becomes very resistant to any deviation from the established order. He feels that the network or rules must be maintained at all costs, because if they are not enforced, society will break down and chaos result. The rigidity manifested in this attitude is also apparent in his thinking.

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