Reaching New Moral Ground

First published by The Guardian on 19th January 2007.


The developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg who single-handedly founded the sub-discipline of moral psychology died 20 years ago today. For a while it seemed that his research might have profound consequences for the way we think about social relations. As it is, his early death and the events of the last quarter century have conspired to leave his legacy little explored outside academia.

Like most of his generation, Kohlberg was appalled by revelations of the Holocaust. He wanted to better understand why it had happened, what had gone wrong, and what could be done to ensure it would never happen again. He rejected the attempts of relativists to explain the murder of 6 million Jews, believing their arguments to be philosophically unsound and politically very dangerous. If philosophy permitted no grounds for the rational criticism of one morality by another, then what was to stop the emergence of another Hitler? But Kohlberg understood that no amount of philosophising would save the world from that prospect, so he set out to find empirical evidence to support his belief that humankind, through a gradual process of cultural advance, might outgrow its all too frequent tendency to indulge in heinous acts against members of its own species.

If groups of human beings were to coexist peacefully, Kohlberg thought, it would have to be on the basis of some shared morality, common to all. But the idea of a universal morality had struggled to find support among moral philosophers, possibly because the relativists’ position – that the values and standards of a particular society are the inevitable product of unique cultural experience and therefore equally valid – helps explain historical events more easily.

In order to test the possibility of a universal morality, Kohlberg devised a theory for the development of moral reasoning based on stages that could be observed, or at least imagined, in humans. His schema proceeded from stage one, the obedience and punishment orientation, which describes the level of moral reasoning usually found in small children, up to stage six, which he termed principled conscience. He then designed a protocol for measuring the process of moral development in individuals at various points in life, and set about interviewing thousands of subjects drawn from many different cultures.

He found that the development of moral reasoning does indeed proceed in sequence through a series of stages. People never skip a stage, and when they make the step to a higher stage – usually in response to a moral dilemma they have to deal with but for which they are ill-equipped – they are more content than they were at the previous stage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, few of the subjects studied appeared fully to have attained stage six, where moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles and a commitment to the value of justice. Indeed, some have even questioned whether Kohlberg found sufficient evidence to prove unequivocally the existence of a fifth stage.

Despite these doubts, Kohlberg was able to show that moral development moves through stages and that some people do appear to attain an “ultimate” level of moral reasoning. His stage theory also seems to apply across cultures; and, as you might expect, a strong correlation exists between educational opportunity and achievement, and attainment of the higher stages.

Kohlberg may not have proved beyond doubt the existence of a universal morality, and even if he had there remains the question of how to create the cultural and educational conditions in which many more people might further develop their powers of moral reasoning. But he did find evidence that all humans have much in common in terms of their moral reasoning and how it develops.

In the current climate we need all the help we can get working out how to prevent the further deterioration of relations between opposing groups and cultures. Professor Kohlberg devoted his life to helping articulate a fundamental aspect of our common humanity. His ideas, while conceived as a reaction to the horrors of the concentration camps, were born of the radical social optimism of the 1960s. That they were overtaken by the conservative backlash of the 1980s in no way invalidates his work. Kohlberg gave us hope that we might one day come to understand fully the factors that influence our development as moral beings, and the evidence he uncovered strongly suggests that given the right conditions, all human beings aspire to a world in which justice and equity provide the foundation for social relations.