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Stealing and Moral Reasoning: Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

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            Numerable instances in an individual’s life challenge his or her moral capacities and inhibitions. Such judgment based on moral reasoning was studied by Jean Piaget in a four-stage constructive theory of cognitive development, and was further explored by Lawrence Kohlberg in his six-stage constructive theory of moral development.

            Piaget and Kohlberg—both significant figures of developmental psychology, epistemology, and ethics—focused on the growth of moral reasoning across human lifespan, specifically across developmental stages. These stages emerge one after the other, with each stage more comprehensive at responding to moral dilemmas than the last.

            Kohlberg’s theory (1979), however, delved into studying individuals beyond the stages that Piaget determined. This signified that intellectual development regarding morally-relevant undertakings and issues did not stop at age 11, as what Piaget mentioned in his theory. Kohlberg believed and proved that during adolescence, moral reasoning further developed adequately. His six-stage theory was further divided into three major levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional moralities (Crane, 1985).

            Kohlberg conducted a study that showed these levels of moral reasoning across children of different age levels who were asked to respond to a specific moral predicament popularly known as the Heinz Dilemma. The dilemma is such:

“A woman is suffering from a rare form of cancer and is near death. The doctors claim that there is only one drug that might possibly save her. However, only one pharmacist, who lived near the woman, made the life-saving drug. The drug was expensive – too expensive for most people to afford and was not covered by most insurance plans. The pharmacist was actually charging nearly ten times what the drug cost to make. The husband of the sick woman tried to borrow the monies needed to pay for the drug, but was not approved for a loan and could not borrow the total amount of money needed to pay for the drug (he was only able to get $1,500, which was half of the total cost). The husband tried bargaining with the pharmacist for the drug, but the pharmacist refused to release the drug without full payment. Desperately trying to save his wife, the husband breaks into the pharmacy and steals the drug. Was the husband wrong to steal the drug?”

            According to Crane, respondents from each of the six age brackets characterized the six stages of moral development in responding to this moral problem. For pre-conventional morality, the first two of the six stages are highlighted. This level emphasizes intrinsic motivation and self-referencing of moral judgment among children (1985).

The first stage is concentrated on obedience and punishment, wherein children believe that going against authority-imposed rules would merit negative consequences and should thereby be avoided. Responses from children of this stage would thus include the husband not stealing the drug because stealing is forbidden by the law, or the husband stealing the drug since he was already offering the pharmacist the right and reasonable amount of money.

Individualism and exchange is hallmarked by the second stage. Since children from this bracket are now aware that not only the view of those in authority is acceptable for different people have different opinions and interests, they may respond to the Hienz Dilemma in the following ways: “the husband should steal the drug because he values his wife’s life more than his probable imprisonment for stealing the drug;” “the husband should not steal the drug if he plans on marrying someone younger and healthier.” The husband’s self-interest is, accordingly, the main factor of moral reasoning.

The second level of moral development is conventional morality, which focuses on judging moral predicaments based on the conditions of a society as a whole and covers the succeeding two stages of moral development. Stage three caters to good interpersonal relationships, featuring Heinz Dilemma responses indicating that stealing the drug was not wrong since no husband should merely sit and watch his wife pass away or since it was the pharmacist’s fault for selling the drug too expensively. With these responses, this stage thereby gives importance to good and proper behavior for the love and concern for others.

Stage four, on other hand, merits responses that imply that the husband should not steal the drug because if everyone with a similar problem did so, then society would turn chaotic. This is because the fourth stage amplifies the maintenance of social order. Love and concern are overpowered by laws that uphold societal structure and systematic group control.

The last level, post-conventional morality, looks at people as separate entities from the society and should therefore be prioritized above the majority. Respondents from the fifth stage, who live with the social contract and individual rights, realize that an efficiently-operating society is not necessarily a good one and that having laws to follow correspond to having individual rights and freedom to uphold as well. Thus, it was the husband’s duty to save his wife’s life because for him, life transcends any possible law. The husband should also not steal the drug because the pharmacist had the right to indicate his preferred price.

Finally, universal principles are underlined in the sixth stage. This stage calculates the value of having freedom or democracy, since not all application of such lead to justice. The impartial dignity and equal respect for all are hence stressed. Then, the husband should not steal the drug because other people might be as sick as his wife, or the husband should steal the drug because saving a person’s life is more important than another’s payment demand.

After a thorough look into Kohlberg’s theory, the student nonetheless deems that such strong bases on moral standards are inadequate to justify the husband’s act in order to save his wife. Other crucial values such as care and compassion are overlooked by the concentration on moral justice. Moreover, Kohlberg focused merely on moral reasoning and not on moral action, which are two different aspects in considering the Heinz dilemma. Still, the student believes that Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is of enormous value in the emergence and progress of developmental psychology. Kohlberg provided the world with a more solid foundation into learning more on human moral development.


Crane, W. (1985). Theories of Development [electronic version]. Prentice Hall. 118-136. Retrieved November 4, 2008, from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary Website: http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm

Kohlberg, L. (1979). Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved November 4, 2008, from: http://www.xenodochy.org/ex/lists/moraldev.html

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