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Kohlberg's Level Two - Conventional Morality

... so-called because people at this stage conform to 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 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or 'natural' behaviour. Behavior is frequently judged by intention. 'He means well' becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being 'nice.'" (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern is "What will people think of me?" and the desire is for group approval. Right action is one that would please or impress others. This often involves self-sacrifice but it provides the psychological pleasure of 'approval of others.' Actions are also judged in relation to their intention.

Possible Stage 3 responses to Heinz Dilemma:
  • Yes, Heinz should steal the drug. He probably will go to jail for a short time for stealing but his in-laws will think he is a good husband.

  • Brown, the police officer should report that he saw Heinz behaving suspiciously and running away from the laboratory because his boss would be pleased. [ See Scenario 2 of Heinz Dilemma ]

  • Officer Brown should not report what he saw because his friend Heinz would be pleased.

  • The judge should not sentence Heinz to jail for stealing the drug because he meant well ... he stole it to cure his wife. [ See Scenario 3 of Heinz Dilemma ]

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

Inadequacy of Stage 3 reasoning:
  • Same person, different roles OR Different groups, different expectations

    What should Heinz do if he is in the same Medical Association as the doctor scientist? Family members will think he is a good husband if he stole the drug but he may not be able to face any member of the Association again. If he does not steal, his family members will think he is heartless. How can Heinz resolve these conflicting expectations?

    Another example of "different groups, different expectations" would be a teenager struggling with the expectations of his peer group and those of his parents. From which group does he seek approval?

  • Different people, different roles

    As a good husband, Heinz should steal the drug to cure his wife.

    But Brown, the police officer who saw Heinz behaving suspiciously and running away from the laboratory, also has a role to play. Does not that role demand that he report what he saw?

    Then there is the judge who has the responsibility to uphold justice. Does not that role demand that he sentence Heinz to jail?

  • People not living up to their duties or roles

    What if Heinz doesn't love his wife and does not want to steal the drug?

    As filial sons and daughters, we should provide financial support for our needy parents. But what if people, who are capable of supporting their parents, don't? Should laws be legislated (like the Maintenance of Parents Act) to "force" expected action?

    Another question: Should the doctor scientist be forced to turn the drug over to Heinz at half price? Why or why not?

Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Right behavior consists in doing one's duty, showing respect for authority and maintaining the given social order for its own sake." A person in this stage "orients to society as a system of fixed rule, law and authority with the prospect of any deviation from rules as leading to social chaos." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern now goes beyond one's immediate group(s) to the larger society ... to the maintenance of law and order. What is right is obeying the law of society. One's obligation to the law overrides one's obligations of loyalty to one's family, friends and groups. To put it simply, no one or group is above the law.

Possible Stage 4 responses to Heinz Dilemma:

  • As her husband, Heinz has a duty to save his wife's life so he should steal the drug. But it's wrong to steal, so Heinz should be prepared to accept the penalty for breaking the law.

  • The judge should sentence Heinz to jail. Stealing is against the law! He should not make any exceptions even though Heinz' wife is dying. If the judge does not sentence Heinz to jail then others may think it's right to steal and there will be chaos in the society.

An example of Stage 4 reasoning in a school setting would be a prefect who found his best friend who is also the head prefect breaking a school rule. The prefect said he was sorry that he had to book him (his best friend) as he could not make any exceptions. The law is the same for everybody.

Inadequacy of Stage 4 reasoning:
  • Unquestioning obedience toward authority is unhealthy

    Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate asked his followers to commit suicide so as to shed their earthly bodies (or "containers") and depart in an UFO to a higher plane of existence. The UFO was supposedly travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. In late March 1997, all 39 cult members obeyed and took their own lives in a mass suicide ( Source: CNN Interactive ).

  • Accepted social order may not be the best possible order. The laws of society may even be bad.

    For example, Hitler introduced a decree suspending the basic rights of citizens and imposing the death sentence for arson, sabotage, resistance to the decree, and disturbances to public order ( Source: The First Steps Leading to the Final Solution ).

There are other societies with rules different from ours. Why should we just accept the conventions or rules of our society? What are the bases for our rules?


Kohlberg's Level Two - Conventional Morality Sep 2000 Alan S.L. Wong