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26 March 2012

Morality - reason and response

Strand(s):  Ethics and Values

Year level: Senior School

Phase: All

Time: 1 lesson

Summary:  An activity to explore the motivations behind people's moral decisions making using Kohlberg's stages of moral development.

1. Introduce students to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development with the following information:

Moral development is the process by which we acquire values, beliefs and thinking abilities that guide moral behaviour. In order to study this Kohlberg presented children of different ages with the following scenario:

A woman was near death from cancer, and there was only one drug that might save her. It was discovered by a druggist who was charging 10 times what it cost to make the drug. The sick woman’s husband could only pay $1000, but the druggist wanted $5000. He asked the druggist to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. The druggist said no.  What action should the husband take?  

(at this stage you might like to get student to reflect and write about what they would do in this situation and why)

Kohlberg classified the reasons given for each choice and identified three levels of moral development. Each is based not so much on the choices made but on the reasoning used to arrive at a choice. The three levels are: Preconventional, Conventional and Postconventional.

  • At the preconventional level thinking is guided by the consequences of the action. (reward, punishment etc)
  • At the conventional level reasoning is based on the desire to please others or to follow accepted rules and behaviours.
  • At the postconventional level reasoning is based on self-accepted moral principles.

Within these three levels Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development. People pass through these stages are different rates, with some never reaching the higher levels.

2. Using the scenario above, and Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development as a framework, propose possible courses of action the husband might take and most importantly the reason behind them.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development


Stage 1. Punishment orientation

Actions are evaluated in terms of possible punishment, not goodness or badness; obedience to power is emphasised. Avoid punishment.

Stage 2. Pleasure-seeking orientation

Proper action is determined by one’s own needs; concern for the needs of others is largely a matter if ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ Not of loyalty, gratitude or justice. Self interest.


Stage 3. Good boy/good girl orientation

Good behaviour is that which pleases others in the immediate group or which brings approval; the emphasis is on being ‘nice’. Whose approval do I seek?

Stage 4. Authority orientation

In this stage, the emphasis is on upholding law, order and authority, doing ones duty, and following social rules. What would traditional values say?


Stage 5. Social-contract orientation

Support of laws and rules is based on rational analysis and mutual agreement; rules are recognised as open to question but are upheld for the good of the community and in the name of democratic values. Social contract.

Stage 6. Morality of individual principles

Behaviour is directed by self-chosen ethical principles that tend to be general, comprehensive, or universal; high value placed on justice, dignity and equality.

3. Explore possible responses with students.

Possible  Responses:


Stage 1. Punishment orientation
 ‘He shouldn’t steal the drug because he could get caught and sent to jail.’ (avoiding punishment)

Stage 2. Pleasure-seeking orientation
 ‘It won’t do him any good to steal the drug because his wife will probably die before he gets out of jail’ (self-interest)


Stage 3. Good boy/good girl orientation
 ‘He shouldn’t steal the drug because others will think he is a thief. His wife would not want to be saved by thievery’ (avoiding disapproval)

Stage 4. Authority orientation.
 ‘Although his wife needs the drug,, he should not break the law to get it. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and his wife’s condition does not justify stealing’ (traditional morality)


Stage 5. Social-contract orientation.
 ‘He should not steal the drug. The druggist’s decision us reprehensible, but mutual respect for the rights of others must be maintained. (social contract)

Stage 6. Morality of individual principles
 ‘He should steal the drug and then inform the authorities that he has done so. He will have to face the penalty, but he will have saved a human life’ (self chosen ethical principles) 

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