The Kohlberg stages of moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the way people take moral decisions, and divided moral reasoning into six successive stages. The first two are the pre-conventional levels (obedience, self-interest), the next two are the conventional levels (conformity, authority), and the last two are the post-conventional levels (social contract, universal ethics). This structure puts me and people like me at the apex of moral development, so I think it’s pretty great.

Here is a description of Kohlberg’s stages:

Stage one is obedience and punishment-driven. One is concerned about the consequence of their actions on themselves, including rewards and punishments, and the belief that people are guilty because they are being punished (i.e. “you were punished, therefore you must have done something bad”).

Stage two is self-interest-driven, including caring about others only if it furthers the individual’s own interests.

Stage three is based on social roles (false selves that society imposes on the individual) and general approval or disapproval of a person’s actions based on their social roles and relationships. Family tribalism and other forms of tribalism are of this stage.

Stage four is authority-driven. People who are absolutists about laws, religious rules and social conventions are on this level. They believe we have a moral obligation to obey laws and rules (even though this is logical nonsense).

Stage five is the social contract view, that rules must bring about the “greatest good for the greatest number.” This is the democratic, consequentialist level (that is to say, insanity, although somewhat less insane than the previous levels). It is also the position of human rights.

Stage six is that of universal ethics, based on justice (not law), empathy, acceptance of other beliefs. An action is right because it conforms to principles of right, not because it is a means to some external end. It is noted by Kohlberg that people do not tend to think at this level for long periods.

I’ve noted on most of these why they are wrong or illogical. An interesting further thing to note is that they are based on omitting context or taking it for granted. Obedience omits the values of those who issue orders. Self-interest and social roles omit the institutions which create the conditions for the fulfillment of that self-interest and the definition of social roles. Obeying laws and rules omits the values of those who issue those laws and rules. The concept of social contract omits the fact that whoever has the power determines what is “good” and who is the “greatest number,” as well as the punishment one might inflict on those who are not part of the “greatest number.”

Further, it’s important to note that, because of this, all these levels are by their very nature authoritarian. And it is true that most people are authoritarian, not because they want to be but because they refuse to look at the context, which is where most authoritarianism resides: not in shows of force, but in running and changing the institutions we take for granted, influencing culture, writing new laws and rules, and imposing a specific view of ethics. And that is how authority works in a media-heavy, infrastructure-heavy democratic society.

If followed to their logical extent, all of these levels of morality lead to evil, disaster and death; they all let authority grow unchecked because they all let authority remain unexamined as long as it hides in the context (although I admit it is possible for anarchists to be level five, as long as they have sufficiently universal concepts of “good”). Fortunately, most people do not follow their moral reasoning to its logical extent (and those who do are promptly arrested, except if they’re cops, soldiers or politicians).

We can compare the six-part structure to the reactionary-libertarian-liberationist political structure I discussed in “Voluntaryism: it’s not just about capitalism…“. The reactionary position is analogous to that of stages one, three and four: people who live in hate because they were abused themselves, people who believe in perpetuating traditional social roles, and people who are absolutists about religious rules and who favor the rule of law over ethics. The libertarian (voluntaryist) position is analogous to that of stages two and five: people who believe solely in self-interest (Objectivists, capitalists) and people who believe in utilitarian social rules and the right to do what one wants (“progressives” and more leftist liberals). The liberationist position, like Anarchism, is analogous to a more universal stage five and stage six, insofar as it sees voluntaryist as a narrow, atomistic perspective and tries to zero in onto a more systemic, universal perspective.

More universal ethics (which apply to society or mankind as a whole) are always superior to less universal ethics (which apply to specific legal systems, social roles, or individual self-interest). So the reactionary-libertarian-liberationist hierarchy is vindicated.

I can imagine voluntaryists, however, try to argue that they are stage six thinkers because they preach acceptance of other beliefs and that they believe voluntaryism is a universal principle. But there is a vast difference between ignoring or fighting other beliefs on some kind of equal footing (depending on the conception of voluntaryism), and accepting them. Because of the omission of context, voluntaryists are also authoritarians, in that they consider any action which fits within existing institutions (such as democracy, property rights, capitalism, and so on) as voluntary. So there’s nothing universal about voluntaryism. Like all other forms of anomie, it perpetuates and amplifies tyranny.

The main differences reside in the value of human life and a universal commitment to justice, instead of commitment to the value of certain human lives but not others, and justice for some but not for others.

What does that have to do with radical ideologies like Anarchism or antinatalism? Well, they both use stage 5 and 6 arguments. But most importantly, they follow a conception of justice and acceptance of other beliefs which is not present in the opposition. Statists want to impose singular value-systems on entire societies in the name of “order,” and reject or refuse to accept people who reasonably disagree with that value-system. Natalists want to impose life on people without their consent based on the assumption that all new lives are worth living (even in cases where the person’s health will be severely compromised). Woman-haters want to impose traditional social roles on those who wish to diverge from them in some way. In all cases, there is a proud disregard for, and often hostile aggression against, other beliefs; at best, they believe that other beliefs should be tolerated.

It’s easy to see how belief in free will might exacerbate this. After all, if beliefs are the result of choice, then an Anarchist can turn emself into a statist, a socialist can turn into a free market capitalist, a convinced pessimist can turn into a starry-eyed optimist, and a radical feminist can turn into an obedient slut, all through the power of choice. This means that people merely choose to be oppressed, and what kind of sympathy can one have for that? Only a complete imbecile would choose to be oppressed.

Kohlberg’s structure of moral development illustrates that being a mature moral agent means to reconcile one’s internal drives with external incentives. One must both realize that one’s internal states are extremely incomplete guides (pre-conventional) and that the incentives we’re presented with are fundamentally wrong (conventional). The anti-authoritarian is the only fully moral person; any authoritarian moral sense is underdeveloped and diseased with contradictions, as the Christian ethos and the statist ethos demonstrate.

5 thoughts on “The Kohlberg stages of moral development.

  1. JR July 23, 2013 at 01:55

    Can societies be at different stages of moral development? And could it ever be justifiable to impose the authority level on people who are at the self-interest level, for instance?

    • Francois Tremblay July 23, 2013 at 02:15

      I am not sure. Obviously all societies have some elements of each of these stages. On the other hand, if you look at Galbraith’s classification, he states that societies go through an evolution away from coercive power and towards compensatory and conditioned power. So there is a progression there.

      I think it would make more sense to talk about Galbraith’s classification, because it makes sense to classify uses of power. But on this scale of stages, I am not sure how we would talk about a society be at a self-interested stage or a society being at a social roles stage. I mean, what exactly would we be looking at? The motivations of the average person?

      Your last question only deepens my confusion, because I can’t really figure out what we’re measuring here. What exactly are you imposing, when you say “impose the authority level”? Are you trying to force that person to care about laws or religious dogma? I would think that this would not be likely to work, no.

      • JR July 23, 2013 at 04:12

        Yeah, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to classify society on this basis. By imposing the authority level I do mean something like a theocracy.

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