Have you ever considered what has set the foundation for you as to what is right and wrong?  What drives your ethical decision making?  Although not without some controversy and detractors, a man named Lawrence Kohlberg set out to define and describe moral learning in people in the world.  He tested hundreds of men with a dilemma called Heinz’s dilemma. 

Kohlberg’s Three Levels of Morality

This week’s lecture focused on moral development and ethical reasoning. As part of your readings for the week, Kohlberg’s three levels of morality were discussed. How would you have answered Heinz’s dilemma? (See readings for the week for the full dilemma). Which of Kohlberg’s three levels of morality do you feel you are in? Do you feel you are in a different level of morality in different settings (i.e. work vs. personal life?) How has your morality (if it has) progressed from your adolescence?

Your work should be at least 500 words, but mostly draw from your own personal experience. This should be written in first person and give examples from your life. Be sure if you are using information from the readings that you properly cite your readings in this, and in all assignments


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Moral Reasoning

Have you ever considered what has set the foundation for you as to what is right and wrong?  What drives your ethical decision making?  Although not without some controversy and detractors, a man named Lawrence Kohlberg set out to define and describe moral learning in people in the world.  He tested hundreds of men with a dilemma called Heinz’s dilemma.

The dilemma went something like this:

Imagine living 1000 years ago – and there was a guy named Heinz and his wife.  Heinz’s wife had a very rare form of cancer.  A doctor in a town down the road has come up with a new medication that could treat Heinz’s wife’s cancer and give her a shot at life.  He charges 2,000 dollars for this – 10 times what it cost him to make.  Heinz did everything he could to come up with the money and he could only come up with 1000 dollars.  He begged and pleaded for the pharmacist to take $1000 dollars as a down payment and let him pay the rest back in payments.  The pharmacist declined.  Desperate, Heinz broke into the pharmacy and stole the medication.  Should Heinz have done this – and why?

Kohlberg was not interested in whether or not you said yes or no to this dilemma.  He was more curious as to WHY you agreed or disagreed.  Through his research, he gave people thorny moral dilemmas, and broke up their answers into three different types of moral reasoning.

  • Preconventional thought
  • Conventional thought
  • Postconventional thought

It is easy to keep up with the three stages – since the first one is “pre”, the last one is “post” and the middle one is normal.  If you take a future psychology course here at Grantham, you’ll learn more about Kohlberg and how each level is broken up into two stages – but for the purposes of this course, we want you to understand that Kohlberg had three levels of thought – which are stated above.

Preconventional thought occurs primarily in children, but it can occur in adults.  This is when you participate in a behavior because you get a reward or to avoid a punishment.  Why did you donate to that charity?  Well, I got entered into a million dollar raffle to do it – and I wanted to get a chance!  Why did you volunteer at the homeless shelter?  My coach said I would have to run 20 laps if I didn’t volunteer.  These are examples of preconventional thought.  The method and reasoning why you do something is to get a reward or avoid a punishment.  In Heinz’s dilemma, the example answers might be – well, of course you steal it – you get a free 2000 dollar drug!  Or – no, if you steal, you go to jail – and you don’t want to get in trouble, do you?  If those were your thoughts about the dilemma, you are in preconventional thought.  Most adults are not in preconventional thought, but some still are.

Conventional thought is more advanced than preconventional thought, and it is a progression children make as they get older and get more thoughtful.  They start to consider – what would a good person do?  They haven’t internalized themselves that they are a good person – but they really focus on trying to be good – and that is their justification for a behavior.  Also – their justifications come into understanding that laws are there to protect society – and one should honor laws.  So the type of answers someone might give to the previous dilemma in conventional thought would be – a good husband would protect his wife at all costs; subsequently, stealing the drug is an appropriate behavior.  Or someone might also say that the law is the law – and it is wrong to steal – not because you are going to be punished – but what type of society would we have if we do not obey the rules?

Finally, we advance to postconventional thought.  Postconventional thought comes in when you consider laws and rules, and you have your own belief system – and your belief system may actually go outside the laws and rules – and you understand and respect them – but you are willing to fight for your belief system at all costs.  It is the highest level of thinking.  The belief system may be the same as the law – or it may be different.  So examples of post-conventional thought to Heinz’s dilemma might be things like Life is more important than property – and when deciding whether or not to do something – you have to consider the value of each – and valuing life is a way more lofty endeavor.  Or something like – laws are grounded in justice, and there is no justice in allowing someone to die to make a 100% profit with no consideration for a payment plan – so it is absolutely justified.

Part of critical thinking and understanding critical thinking is to learn how to become a stronger ethical and moral thinker.  Understanding the levels of thought help you to consider how you’re thinking.  It’s unlikely that we will always answer questions with post conventional thought.  For instance, there may not be some universal principal as to why you change your oil and rotate your tires – it may sometimes be just to avoid having to pay costly car repairs down the road – but in life and death situations – or thorny situations dealing with complex levels of thought – always keeping your own values and principles in mind can help you become a more critical thinker.  As part of your assignments and work this week – consider these levels of thought – and if you’re not quite there yet – that’s absolutely okay.  Even thinking about higher levels of thought can assist you in achieving your critical thinking goals.  One final thought about critical thinking.  As soldiers, you are taught to obey orders.  But as thorny situations in movies like Born on the Fourth of July teach us – “just obeying orders” does not stand up in court as an affirmative defense to a criminal action – so understanding critical thinking always pays dividends.


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