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How the mind develops

HelpRival Traditions of Character Development : Classical Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Emprical ScienceMoral Development and Moral Education: An OverviewLES DILEMMES MORAUX DANS LE COURS DE MORALE
The Pros and Cons of Stage DevelopmentStudying Moral Ethos Using an Adapted Kohlbergian ModeThéorie du développement moral chez Lawrence KohlbergDomain Theory: Distinguishing Morality and Convention
Synthesis of Research on Moral DevelopmentCarol Gilligan and the Morality of CareLecture TopicsBook : Books of Interest in moral development and education
Moral DevelopmentMoral Development and Reality- Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg and HoffmanKOHLBERG'S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT
CAROL GILLIGAN (1936-Current)

Many studies have shown that there are cultural differences in the ways that people assess moral dilemmas. In one experiment where the subjects included Americans with Christian backgrounds and Indians with Hindu backgrounds, it was found that on questions of social responsibility, the Americans focused more on concepts of individuality and freedom of choice, while the Indians’ culture caused them to place more emphasis on interpersonal relations and the influence of the community.

This study also revealed other differences between these communities, based on the same underlying cultural assumptions. For example, the Indian community seemed to show a greater tendency to pardon certain behaviours than the American community did.

Both Kohlberg and Gilligan postulate that moral judgment arises from an internal model that is constant for any one individual, regardless of what situation that individual may be facing. But this does not always seem to be the case. For example, in one more recent study, 85% of the subjects displayed at least three different stages of Kohlberg’s model in making their moral decisions, and 25% alternated among five of these stages! Thus, even if such stages can in fact be defined, it is not at all clear that individuals always completely abandon a lower stage when they move on to a higher one.


Kohlberg developed his three major levels of morality and six specific stages of moral development on the basis of moral dilemmas. The heart of any moral dilemma is that it forces the individual to make a decision or choose a course of action that will have implications for other people. For this reason, some authors have argued that we cannot really call Kohlberg’s stages 1 and 2 moral stages, because children at those stages are still too self-centred to consider other people at all.

Many other criticisms have also been made of Kohlberg’s model. Some critics argue that to speak of moral development, one must have suitable criteria for measuring such development. But to the extent that Kohlberg’s criteria for judging the morality of any given line of reasoning are products of their time, they entail certain philosophical presuppositions. For example, someone living in Ancient Greece could scarcely have judged the morality of actions according to universal principles of human rights (Kohlberg’s stage 6), because in those times not all humans were regarded as having the same rights (for instance, women and slaves had no right to vote). Similarly, some time later, in places where Christianity became the predominant religion, social customs could still easily have conflicted with the norms decreed by God and the Church. Such conflicts would not have made moral judgments easy for people at Kohlberg’s stage 4!

Another criticism of Kohlberg is made by certain psychologists who believe that the positive and negative reinforcements that children receive at home have more influence on their moral development than any natural progression through moral stages such as Kohlberg proposes.

The methodology of Kohlberg’s studies has also been questioned in various respects. For example, just because someone says how he would act if faced with a particular moral dilemma does not necessarily mean that he would actually act that way. In other words, our actions are influenced by many other factors besides our moral judgment—factors such as social pressures, dependencies, and fears.

Yet another issue: there is some uncertainty as to whether any given child would be assessed as being at the same stage when interviewed by two different researchers on two different days.

And what about the differences between men and women? It is known that in resolving moral dilemmas, women tend to accord greater importance to interpersonal relations. But this tendency leads interviewers to assess women as being at earlier moral stages than men who base their judgments more explicitly on abstract concepts such as justice and fairness, which prevail at stage 5 or 6.

Carol Gilligan was the first to point out that because Kohlberg derived his stages solely from interviews of males, these stages were highly likely to be biased in their favour. By listening to numerous women, Gilligan realized that in women, a “morality of care” quite often took the place of the morality of laws and justice that predominates among men and that Kohlberg embraced.


In fact, Gilligan found that in men as much as in women, moral judgments always seem to embody two imperatives: the imperative to treat others fairly (which is based on justice), and the imperative to help other people who are in need (which is based on caring). Gilligan’s work has had a considerable impact, by showing that paying attention to other people constitutes a fundamental component of our moral reasoning.

Other studies, conducted by Elliot Turiel and his colleagues, established a distinction between children’s development in the moral domain, on the one hand, and in the domains of social skills (such as adherence to social conventions) on the other. According to these researchers, children make this distinction naturally as they discover various forms of social experiences associated with these two kinds of social events.

Social events with moral content are those that have a direct effect on other people’s well-being, such as hitting them or stealing from them. In contrast, events that depend on social conventions—for instance, whether a university student addresses a teacher as “Professor” or uses her first name instead—generally do not have any intrinsic effect on that person. Nevertheless, the fact that in a given social context, one of these forms of address is considered better than the other still shows that conventions play an important role in facilitating social relationships.

Turiel’s contribution to our understanding of moral development was to show that morality and social conventions follow two parallel pathways of development, rather than a single path, as Kohlberg had supposed. But because even the most trivial social event takes place within a broader social setting, every act of moral reasoning falls not only within the framework of certain conventions, but also within the broader framework of a particular cultural and historical context (see the first sidebar at the top of this page).

Another criticism made regarding Kohlberg is that he never seems to contemplate the use of moral judgments for strategic purposes—in other words, to instrumentalize or manipulate people rather than to get along with them.

The pedagogical implications of this line of inquiry are immediately apparent. Would teaching Kohlberg’s moral development scale in the schools automatically suffice to make students moral? It seems highly unlikely, and there is no denying that daily experience offers many examples where apparent acts of altruism are based not so much on moral principles or moral reasoning as on the expectation of receiving favours in return.

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