Moral development is a perennial challenge for any self-improvement effort or empowering intervention (coaching or otherwise) at the individual and organizational level. The challenge lies in the fact that, unlike other types of development, moral development occurs throughout our lives. And it is possible that older people may be at lower levels than younger people or even children. Read on to learn how we develop morally and what the distinct stages of this process are.
Moral development takes place thanks to the various moral challenges that a person faces in terms of experience and behaviour throughout their life and involves a person’s developing sense of what constitutes right and wrong. It is subject to external influences, it is based on the construction of the concept of justice and is about moral judgement (rather than the ‘automatic’ and/ or conditional adoption of certain values prevailing in the individual’s environment).
Moral development depends on adapting one’s thinking and behaviour as one experiences increasingly complex moral challenges and dilemmas. However, other psychological factors such as emotion, will and ego strength intervene between moral judgement and moral behaviour.
Our level of moral development has directly impacts how others are perceived (through the development of empathy, the ability to experience guilt and the broadening of our perspective from egocentricity to “I – You – Us”).
Briefly outlined below are the six stages of moral development observed and identified by the American cognitive psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg based on how people deal with moral challenges and dilemmas:
This level is characterized by response to cultural norms on the basis of a hedonistic interpretation of right and wrong, power and authority. Moral challenges are perceived as individual needs in conflict and either the strongest prevails (stage 1), or justice is applied on the basis of give-and-take conditions and utilitarian individual perspective (stage 2):
- Stage 1: Punishment and obedience orientation: The natural consequences of an act on the individual determine what is right and wrong. It is translated to avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to the strongest (not obedience to authority based on moral values).
- Stage 2: Performative – relativistic orientation: What is right is defined by what serves the individual’s needs, occasionally the collective needs as well, but always on a practical level and under conditions of reciprocity and fairness similar to the give-and-take process without the intervention of loyalty, gratitude or substantial justice.
It is characterized by compliance with the rules and expectations of the group (family, class, nation) to which the individual belongs and their justification through the identification of the individual with the other members of the group, regardless of consequences. The moral challenges now presented are resolved on the basis of maintaining interpersonal relations between individuals (stage 3) or group/community members (stage 4). It is the authority that decides what is right and wrong by taking its legitimacy from the group (“what is legal is also moral”).
- Stage 3: The orientation of interpersonal harmony: What is interpreted as right is what satisfies Others on the basis of stereotypical standards of good behaviour. For the first time in the moral development journey the act is also evaluated on the basis of the subject’s intention (“he had good intentions, so it’s not really his fault…”).
- Stage 4: The “law and order” orientation: Good behaviour is defined as performance of duty and obedience to authority and prescribed rules in the name of maintaining law and order.
Postconventional/ Autonomous Morality
At this level individuals begin to identify moral principles and values with validity and application independent of themselves, the groups to which they belong and the authorities they acknowledge. It often begins with an adolescent-like moral nihilism, when the individual begins to perceive the relativity of individual social principles and laws – before realizing that these values and laws (ought to) obey broader, universal moral values.
- Stage 5: The legalistic orientation of the social contract: Under the utilitarian social perspective of democratic processes for achieving a social contract based on universal individual rights and collectively acknowledged facts, individuals begin to realize the subjectivity of individual opinion and values and the adaptive function of the social contract in favour of society as a whole.”Law and order” is no more.
- Stage 6: The orientation of universal moral values: Individuals eventually judge according to their conscience, having chosen their own personal values on the basis of their logical meaning, universality and consistency. These values are abstract and aligned with universal concepts such as justice, equality, reciprocity, dignity and human rights.
Let this discussion be a good opportunity to (re)evaluate the criteria by which we as individuals formulate our personal moral judgments and behave accordingly. Are they based on our personal benefit, the benefit of our “own people”, or are they governed by universal human values?