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Kohlberg's Level One - Preconventional Morality

... so-called because people at this stage do not really understand the conventions / rules of a society.


Chart of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development
Level One:
Pre-conventional Morality
Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation
Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation
Level Two:
Conventional Morality
Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation
Level Three:
Post-Conventional Morality
Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Physical consequences of an action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are valued in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern is for self - "Will I get into trouble for doing (or not doing) it?" Right or good behaviour is associated with avoiding punishment.

Possible Stage 1 responses to Heinz Dilemma:
  • Heinz should not steal the drug because he might be caught and sent to jail.

  • Heinz should steal the drug because if he doesn't then his in-laws might considered him as heartless and scold him.

Note: Opposite responses could be given at each stage or different reasons could be given for the same response.

Inadequacy of Stage 1 reasoning: Avoidance of punishment regardless of the ethical value of the actions is unhealthy especially under "bad" authorities such as Adolf Hitler.

From 1933-45, Nazi soldiers persecuted Jews and other minorities. These soldiers either were carrying out orders under threat of punishment or had a misplaced trust in their leader.

Another example of Stage 1 reasoning is a victim's fear of reporting sexual abuse because the perpetrator is a person in authority and had threatened to punish her if she did. How would you use the person's understanding of moral reasoning (Stages 1 and 2) to encourage her to report the abuse?


Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: Right action is "that which instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others." "Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace; elements of fairness, reciprocity and equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical or pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours,' not of loyalty, gratitude or justice." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern is "What's in it for me?" Still egocentric in outlook but with a growing ability to see things from another person's perspective. Action is judged right if it helps in satisfying one's needs or involves a fair exchange.

Possible Stage 2 responses to Heinz Dilemma:

  • It is right for Heinz to steal the drug because it can cure his wife and then he would not be all alone and she can cook for him.

  • Heinz's wife never has time for him, but always has time for shopping and to spend time with her friends. She had never spared a thought for Heinz so Heinz should not steal the drug to save her. He is better off without her.

  • The doctor scientist had spent lots of money and many years of his life to develop the cure so it's not fair to him if Heinz stole the drug.

Inadequacy of Stage 2 reasoning: Heinz' need to have the drug to save his wife conflicts with the doctor scientist's need to make a profit from his research.

A modern day equivalent is the issue of software piracy in the homes pitching the need of individuals to pick up IT skills against software developers' need to make a profit.

Where the needs of different individuals conflict, can there ever be a fair exchange? Doesn't this conflict call for sacrifice from one of the parties?


Kohlberg's Level One - Preconventional Morality Sep 2000 Alan S.L. Wong