Social psychology implies by its name that it jumps from the focus being on the individual to how the individual functions within the confines of a society. Morality, or a set code of personal conduct and defined and agreed upon notions of right and wrong are at the center of any societal concern. Kohlberg categorized moral attitudes as “the basic building block of the social psychological theories” (Kohlberg, 1963). Kohlberg agrees with psychologist McDougall that “the fundamental problem of social psychology is the moralization of the individual by the society.” This essay endeavors to explore Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and then apply it in understanding a an interview that was presenting to a subject asked to make moral decisions on a presented set of circumstances.
Article 1 Review
In Lawrence Kohlberg’s article “The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order” he explores the fact that many big names in psychology, Freud and Durkheim have generally seen morality as something given by the culture to the individual rather than given cumulatively from the individual to the society.
Kohlberg saw it as “’stamping in’ the external prohibitions of the culture upon the child’s mind.” (Kohlberg, 1963). What was of prime interest for Kohlberg was how morality develops in a child and then turns into an individual adult’s morality.
The research presented in Kohlberg’s article centered on a group of 72 boys living in Chicago suburban areas from three age groups, 10, 13 and 16 from differing socio economic backgrounds and of comparable intelligences. The study consisted of interviews in which subjects responded to hypothetical moral dilemmas based upon the work of Piaget in 1932.
One case study shows that many children make moral determinations based upon the outcome of consequences they fear they could suffer should they deviate from what is considered acceptable behavior. The responses allowed Kohlberg to separate the children into three different categories of moral consciousness: Level I, Level II and Level III.
Level I is basically a morality governed by the avoidance of punishment. Level II is consistence with obeying authority simply because someone possesses it and maintaining good relationships with others. Level III is a level, which respects laws because they have been democratically put into place and also allows for an individual conscious to have a role in moral decision making.
Kohlberg’s finding indicated that age was important in determining which stage of moral development a child was at, but it was not the only factor at play. He found that “Our moral age tends to indicate that large groups of moral concepts and ways of thought only attain meaning at successively advanced ages and require the extensive background of social experience and cognitive growth represented by the age factor.” (Kohlberg, 18).
Article 2 Review
The second article I chose to review deals with an underlying philosophy that guide the thought process of many social psychologists. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that means that actions are both governed by their outcomes and are determined moral if they lead to an outcome of the great good. This philosophical theory departs from Kohlberg’s thoughts on morality in that it takes morality from the individual and places a universal standard to govern an action as right or wrong. This, obviously has some short comings, which Bernard Williams points out in his article “A Critique of Utilitarianism.”
Laws are often based upon maximizing utility, which set of legal circumstances can lead to the common good. This works for a lot of cases but in a system without exception, many “immoral” outcomes can come to passed because of laws put into place to avoid them.
Williams writes, “There is no relevant difference which consists just in one state of affairs being brought about by me, without intervention of other agents, and another being brought about through the intervention of other agents.” Meaning, it is hard to attribute a certain state of affairs to just one person’s action, when instead it is usually based upon multiple people all acting in their self-interest.
I chose this article because in the interview I did with a subject to present them with a moral dilemma, it seemed to be the law, governed by utilitarian principles which was what influenced the subject’s answers.
Method and Subject
For studying these moral issues in a real world environment I selected a study participant over the age of 18 to respond and analyze a moral dilemma. I employed the interview method, sitting down face to face.
The moral dilemma was about a man whose husband was dying of cancer. He knows of a drug that can cure her, but it is very expensive. It costs $10,000. He exhausts every available method of affording the medication, and at the end is faced with a moral dilemma and decides to steal the medication.
The setting in which this study was conducted was within a small office where we sat face to face. There are not real limitations to this setting, it was comfortable and without any distractions.
Q: Knowing what you know, that the drug will save her, is it wrong for the husband to steal it? It’s wrong, why is it wrong
A: Yes, it’s wrong.
Q: But if it saves a life why is it wrong?
A: Because it’s stealing and stealing is wrong?
Q: Even if it is only stealing to save the life of someone he loves?
A: Yes, it’s still wrong. Even as much as you love somebody, you can’t do wrong.”
Q: So what you are saying is that even if he loves his wife that much, it is not his obligation to steal to save her life?
A: No, it’s not his obligation, he would want to, it’s his desire because he loves her and he doesn’t want to live without her, but if she has cancer and she is hurting it is best for her to go.
Q: The drug is going to save her—
Q: No, you can’t say maybe (I point to my paper) it says right here that it will save her.
A: Then yes, I maintain that it’s wrong, you can’t go steal it.
Q: Do you think that it is important to do whatever it takes to save someone’s life”?
A: Within reason
Q: Is stealing within reason?”
A: You can’t steal! What if he goes and steals it and she lives, he gets caught he’s in jail, he gets caught and she finds a new husband. Now what?”
Q: What if she is going to wait for him to get out and they will have a great life together?
A: That’s not how life works.”
Q: So your moral reasoning is going to make you follow the law, you believe that that would be wrong?
A: Yes, because if you use your moral reasoning you would not go against the law. God doesn’t allow everybody to be saved, that’s part of life”
What is most interesting about this is that the subject equates morality with the law, rather than basing the law off morality. What is moral for her is what is legal. Therefore anything illegal cannot be morally right, even in the extreme case of life or death decided by a husband’s inability to provide his ailing life with the medicine she needs due to financial difficulty.
What is obvious though in analyzing the video of the interview conducted with the subject is that she seemed very uncomfortable in answering the question. It seemed like different parts of her thought process was at war with itself. Obviously, death is something we spend our entire lives trying to avoid, and our culture and society has taught us to place great value on the preservation of life. The crime of stealing is punished much less severely than the crime of stealing. So under this, morally, it seems reasonable to say that preventing an avoidable death is of greater importance than not stealing. Yet, the death would be allowed to occur without breaking a law whereas preserving a life would mean breaking the civil legal code, which itself appeals to a higher plane of morality.
Though the subject might have been unaware of it at the time, the conflict she was experiencing is one that scholars have been debating for a lont time. It is the difference between rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism.
Rule utilitarianism says that morality should be governed by rules set for particular classes of actions and that based on the typical outcome of these actions are we should in any situation follow the rule that in general brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Normally, stealing does not have any society benefits and usually causes problems within a society.
Act utilitarianism is more contextual and sees all actions as permissible in certain situations in which they will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.
In utilitarian calculus Rule utilitarian would look at instances of actions and would allow those that typically amount in the greatest deal of happiness and prohibit those actions which generally amount in a lesser degree of happiness. For the calculus act utilitarianism would also be concerned with the implications of happiness/unhappiness with an act but would take into account the context in which the action was committed in weighing whether or not it is morally permissible.
Rule utilitarianism would formulate the utility principle to reflect an concrete standard of actions, whereas for an act utilitarianism the standard would be adapted to take in to account the context of where an action is committed and given the situation what the consequence will be.
The subject interviewed was unable to get past the fact that “the law is the law” and therefore was unable to look at the situation from a pure moral perspective in which even the laws in place are subject to scrutiny.
This brief interview, while not very scientific, did a good job of presenting one of the key moral dilemmas people face: Is something morally right because the law says it is? Often there are laws that might not be moral in governments that are not founded on ethical principles. The subject provided a good illustration of why Kohlberg’s work is important in not just looking at how morality exists and develops but learning the best way for societies to incorporate their morality.
Interviews citation, include name of interviewer, date, your name and place it occurred.
Kohlberg, L. (1963). The Development of Children's Orientations Toward a Moral Order. Department of Pychology, 11(33), 8-19.
Williams, B. (1989). A Critique of Utilitarianism. Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory, 1, 253-261.