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Mon Jan 7, 2013, 10:27 PM

Can Kohlberg’s theory of moral development shed any light on discussions

involving religion?

Here are Kohlberg's stages:

STAGE 1: PUNISHMENT AND OBEDIENCE: The agent defers to authority based on fear

This is typically the moral level of the young child

STAGE 2: INSTRUMENTAL EXCHANGE: The agent calculates the trade-off between the personal advantage obtained by ignoring authority and the cost of punishment if detected

This is often the moral level of the school-age child

STAGE 3: INTERPERSONAL CONFORMITY: The agent follows group expectations

STAGE 4: LAW AND ORDER: The agent respects institutions and authorities for their own sake

This is typically the moral level of the older child

STAGE 4.5: TRANSITIONAL: The agent ceases to respect in institutions and authorities for their own sake and instead believes in the relative, arbitrary, and ultimately personal basis of moral judgments

This stage is often seen in teenagers or college-age adults

STAGE 5: PRIOR RIGHTS AND SOCIAL CONTRACT: The agent attributes rights to individuals and accepts that individual behavior can be restricted only insofar as the restrictions are needed to protect the rights of other individuals

STAGE 6: UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES: The agent loses interest in concrete behavioral rules, relying instead that universal principles (such as “Treat others as you would want to be treated”)

See e.g. http://www83.homepage.villanova.edu/richard.jacobs/MPA%208300/theories/kohlberg.html

Since every stage of development is built on prior stages, one expects persons at every stage to retain some lessons learned at earlier stages. Thus, for example, no one completely escapes the Stage 2 notion that one has a moral duty to oneself or the Stage 3 notion that one should perhaps take into account the expectations of others when deciding what constitutes moral behavior

The theory seems useful because, for example, it provides a way of conceptualizing certain forms of moral reasoning. Thus, the typical criminal argument that an action is not wrong, unless one is caught, reflects Stage 2 thinking, whereas the similarly common argument of teenagers that a certain conduct is not wrong, because everyone else engages in it, reflects Stage 3 thinking

Certain religious views and attitudes towards religion might also be understood as illustrating this hierarchy. For example, “If you do that, you will go to hell” is a Stage 1 argument, whereas “I should do what my pastor tells me” is a Stage 4 argument. “Religion is OK if it works for you,” on the other hand, is a Stage 4.5 view



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Reply Can Kohlberg’s theory of moral development shed any light on discussions (Original post)
struggle4progress Jan 2013 OP
Fumesucker Jan 2013 #1
struggle4progress Jan 2013 #2
Jim__ Jan 2013 #3

Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Mon Jan 7, 2013, 10:32 PM

1. I don't remember really ever doing 3-5

Pretty much went straight from 2 to 6.

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Response to Fumesucker (Reply #1)

Mon Jan 7, 2013, 10:37 PM

2. I don't much remember 3 or 4 but I do remember lots of 4.5 and 5

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Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Tue Jan 8, 2013, 06:47 AM

3. I don't think the theory reflects the moral development of religion as an institution.

My understanding is that religion probably developed through communal dance and the strong social bonds that builds. These bonds lead to a respect for the community and a natural tendency to strive for the good of the community. So I don't believe that the Stage 1 development of religious morality was fear of punishment.

I also have some problems with this description of Kohlberg's ideas:


Kohlberg believed that individuals could only progress through these stages one stage at a time. This view contrasted with Maslow’s (1943, 1968, 1972) hierarchy of prepotent needs because human beings, according to Kohlberg, could neither skip stages nor return to any previous stage. Human beings could not, for example, move from an orientation of punishment and obedience to an orientation toward law and order without first passing through the stages of instrumental exchange and interpersonal conformity. Neither would human beings return to an orientation of punishment and obedience from an orientation toward law and order. Hence, human beings come to a comprehension of a moral rationale one stage superior to their own. But, once human beings achieved a superior stage, they also no longer will be motivated to utilize an inferior stage of moral reasoning.


The last sentence does not ring true to me. I believe that fear of punishment is always a part of morality. A person in a post-industrial society, such as the US, has moral obligations to different groups. A person may reach a high level of social success and a concomitant higher stage of moral reasoning, say Stage 5. Yet family obligations, say an expensive chronic illness, could put extreme financial pressures on her and she may only resist opportunities to steal due to fear of punishment.

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