Morality has always been an interesting subject for me. Depending on the person, their beliefs, where they grew up, where they currently live, and how the people around them believe, morals have a way of changing and staying the same. Of course, there are the morals prescribed by the Scriptures to help outline the direction in which one may manifest their morals and then also rules and laws to prevent oneself from stepping outside the moral circle.Think in terms of aspirational and preventive. A moral may be truthfulness. One can try to always tell the truth, while another may try not to lie. From an outside perspective, both people may appear to have high truthful morality.
The other element that causes confusion is the concept of ethics. Morals and ethics are often discussed without consideration of the difference between them. Below I want to give a quick outline of the difference between them and give an overview of Kohlberg’s moral development theory.
Kohlberg’s moral development theory has always caught my attention and I hope that it catches yours. I believe that morality is something that evolves in all of us and helps shape important decisions in our lives. I hope that you can work through the stages of moral development and see people you know or even try and find yourself.
Maybe you’ve heard these terms and wondered what the difference is. Many people think of them as being the same thing. While they are closely related concepts, morals refer mainly to guiding principles, and ethics refer to specific rules and actions, or behaviors.
A moral precept is an idea or opinion that is driven by a desire to be good. An ethical code is a set of rules that defines allowable actions or correct behavior. The concepts are similar, but there are some subtle differences.
What does “morals” mean?
A person’s idea of morals tends to be shaped by their surrounding environment (and sometimes their belief system). Moral values shape a person’s ideas about right and wrong. They often provide the guiding ideas behind ethical systems. That’s where it gets complicated because morals are the basis for ethics. A moral person wants to do the right thing, and a moral impulse usually means best intentions.
What does “ethics” mean?
Ethics are distinct from morals in that they are much more practical. An ethical code does not have to be moral. It is just a set of rules for people to follow. Several professional organizations (like the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association) have created specific ethical codes for their respective fields.
In other words, an ethical code has nothing to do with cosmic righteousness or a set of beliefs. It is a set of rules that are drafted by trade groups to ensure members stay out of trouble and act in a way that brings credit to the profession.
It is important to know that what is ethical is not always what is moral, and vice versa. Omerta, for example, is a code of silence that developed among members of the Mafia. It was used to protect criminals from the police. This follows the rules of ethically correct behavior for the organization, but it can also be viewed as wrong from a moral standpoint.
A moral action can also be unethical. A lawyer who tells the court that his client is guilty may be acting out of a moral desire to see justice done, but this is deeply unethical because it violates the attorney-client privilege.
Stages of Moral Development.
Level 1 – Preconventional morality
Pre-conventional morality is the first stage of moral development and lasts until approximately age nine. At the pre-conventional level children do not have a personal code of morality, and moral decisions are shaped by the standards of adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules.For example, if an action leads to punishment, it must be bad, and if it leads to a reward, it must be good. Authority is outside the individual and children often make moral decisions based on the physical consequences of actions.
Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation. The child/individual is good in order to avoid being punished. If a person is punished, they must have done wrong.
Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange. At this stage, children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints.
Level 2 – Conventional morality
Conventional morality is the second stage of moral development and is characterized by an acceptance of social rules concerning right and wrong. At the conventional level (most adolescents and adults), we begin to internalize the moral standards of valued adult role models. Authority is internalized but not questioned, and reasoning is based on the norms of the group to which the person belongs.
A social system that stresses the responsibilities of relationships as well as social order is seen as desirable and must, therefore, influence our view of what is right and wrong.
Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships. The child/individual is good in order to be seen as being a good person by others. Therefore, answers relate to the approval of others.
Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order. The child/individual becomes aware of the wider rules of society, so judgments concern obedience to the rules, upholding the law, and avoiding guilt.
Level 3 – Postconventional morality
Postconventional morality is the third stage of moral development, characterized by an individual’s understanding of universal ethical principles. These are abstract and ill-defined but might include such ideas as the preservation of life at all costs, and the importance of human dignity.
Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice. According to Kohlberg this level of moral reasoning is as far as most people get.
Only 10-15% are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for stage 5 or 6 (post-conventional morality). Most people take their moral views from those around them and only a minority think through ethical principles for themselves.
Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights. The child/individual becomes aware that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when they will work against the interest of individuals.
The issues are not always clear-cut. For example, in Heinz’s dilemma, the protection of life is more important than breaking the law against stealing.
Stage 6: Universal Principles. People at this stage have developed their own set of moral guidelines which may or may not fit the law. The principles apply to everyone, and include, for example, human rights, justice, and equality.
The person will be prepared to act to defend these principles even if it means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment. Kohlberg doubted few people reached this stage.
I hope that you were able to gather a few nuggets of wisdom from the information shared. I also hope that while reading the stages of moral development you were able to see yourself mirrored at different points of your life and see your current stage. Kohlberg believed that few if any can make it to the final stages, and I believe that he is correct.
Standing on your morality in the pursuit of helping others is often one of the most difficult choices one can make. It tests your resolve and grit in the face of oppression and can be unforgiving in consequence. I hope we as humans continue to strive further to a greater sense of morality and can highlight our development through our charity and compassion.
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