Communication Studies: Developmental Psychology

To what extent is a person's morality dependent on their cognitive development? Discuss with particular reference to Kohlberg's work.

When towards the end of the 1950s Lawrence Kohlberg began his research in the field of moral development, which was to span nearly 30 years, he wholeheartedly subscribed to Jean Piaget's cognitive developmental theory, which had been developed over the preceding 30 years. Despite recurrent criticism, the latter's work has never lost its appeal to psychologists nor has it ceased to influence their own research. With Piaget's theory being based on the assumption that development is a construction process in which children build ever more complex cognitive structures through their reciprocal interaction with the environment (in Crain, 1992: 103), Kohlberg approached his subject accordingly. Likewise believing that cognitive development takes place in a sequence of stages which mirror children's mental abilities at a particular level, he set out to "describe age-related transformations in the organization of moral thought" (Turiel, 1983: 130). Kohlberg reasoned that these would presuppose advances in the realms of "logical and social thought" (Crain, 1992: 149), and that upon realization of the inferiority of a stage, this would be integrated into a higher, cognitively and morally more adequate stage. Unlike Piaget, however, who claimed that children did not differentiate between moral and social issues and accordingly confronted them with a variety of tasks pertaining to both domains, Kohlberg focused on purely moral concepts. For him that meant assessing a person's ability to give a detailed account of the reasons for judging right or wrong decisions involving justice, fairness and welfare. And like his predecessor's, his influence in this domain has been a lasting one.

In order to evaluate their moral reasoning, Kohlberg confronted children, adolescents and young adults with hypothetical events involving moral dilemmas. The subjects' responses to conflicting claims were elicited by way of clinical interviews, which leave researchers scope for tailoring each interview to the individual situation. With the help of a scoring manual accounting for all the different responses, their findings were then assessed. Based on the careful analysis of a substantial amount of empirical data in the form of detailed examples of reasoning, Kohlberg formulated a culturally universal, invariant sequence of six stages outlining the origins of moral judgment. (in Turiel, 1993: 153-154 and 3)

He established three levels accomodating the six stages, each level being characterized by a certain kind of morality which differs only slightly between the two relevant stages, but widely across the levels. At the first level, the Preconventional Level, subjectivism reigns among the 4 to 10-year olds. Right is what the subject likes, and at Stage 1 s/he likes what brings rewards or avoids punishment (as a sign of 'wrongness'). Accordingly, rules that are seen as externally imposed and unchangeable are strictly observed (by an individual not yet belonging to society, hence 'pre-conventional'). According to Kohlberg, this punishment orientation is caused by the unequal power structure between adults, the main socializing agents at that age. At Stage 2, however, punishment is simply seen as a risk best avoided. Beginning to question the existence of one 'collective' authority, the child also recognizes and acknowledges self-interest in other individuals, too. This level, although not quite mapping onto Piaget's age-classification, can be seen as corresponding to his level of Preoperational Thought (2-7 years). This is characterized by egocentrism, since children are not yet able to consider other people's perspectives.

Overcoming this limitation enables them to enter Piaget's stage of Concrete Operations (7-11/12) with its increasing awareness of viewpoints other than their own. Transferred to Kohlberg, this entails their attainment of Level 2, the Conventional Level, covering ages 10-13. Arguing like Piaget, Kohlberg attributes this advance to increasing peer interaction with its more balanced power structure, the frequent exposure to conflict, and the need to make oneself understood without the help of adult prompting or guessing. The solipsistic subjectivity of Level 1 has now turned into collective subjectivity with self-interest being replaced by group interest. Accordingly, conformity reigns. In Stage 3 this means living up to the expectations of others close to oneself in order to meet their approval, whereas in Stage 4, rightness is equated with conformity to the demands of some higher authority, i.e. the society as a whole or the state.

Outgrowing this law-and-order morality adopted to preserve the society of which they are members (hence 'conventional'), leads to a state of transcendent objectivity, in which adolescents and adults contemplate the values an ideal society should be based on irrespective of individual or collective interests. Attaining Piaget's stage of Formal Operational Thinking (beginning at the age of 11/12), which means that their thinking will be highly abstract and hypothetical, allows adolescents and adults to reason at the Postconventional Level 3, i.e. not referring to the society of their reality. Contemplating what the future will hold for them in the society they are about to enter, Stage 5 thinkers value those decisions that are based on humanistic and democratic principles. However, even these do not guarantee freedom from injustice, for example, so Stage 6 respondents try to formulate truly universal values, such as justice, that would require a decision to be based on equal respect for all in order to be deemed morally right. (Based on Stigler, 1992: 133-136 and Crain, 1990: 136-141 and 115-121)

Given the high level of abstraction and idealization required by post-conventional thinking, it is hardly surprising that Kohlberg's interviews hardly revealed any Stage 5 reasoning, let alone the principled morality of Stage 6, among his subjects. Maintaining - as he does - that children under four do not possess any moral reasoning abilities at all, is something altogether different, however. After all, extensive research has in the meantime produced sufficient evidence to suggest that moral judgment can indeed be found in children well before they attain formal reasoning capacities. The late onset of moral reasoning according to Kohlberg, on the other hand, can wholly be attributed to the difficulties of testing younger children on the basis of the methods he applied. In view of some more general methodological problems inherent in Kohlberg's research, it may be useful to evaluate the reliability of his findings at a very basic level, before dealing with some major points of contention raised against his overall theory.

Focusing on the way his dilemmas and questions are presented (see appendix), makes is quite obvious that several basic questions can hardly be answered in a measurable way without essential terms having being clearly defined beforehand or in the course of the interview. Enquiring after Heinz's / a judge's / a doctor's 'duties', 'obligations' or 'responsibilities' and the 'moral' rightness / wrongness of their actions would presuppose a lengthy discussion of what exactly the interviewer means and/or the subject understands in each individual case. (In connection with Dilemma III, III! and IV, respectively)

In other instances, the answer is often at least partly implied by the way the question is put. In these cases, the candidate can either guess at what the researcher wants to hear, or s/he is subconsciously put on a track of reasoning which might not be her/his own at all. Thus, Question 8 in Dilemma III reads: It is against the law to steal. Does that make it morally wrong? The unspoken 'but' linking these two sentences, which makes the questioner's intention unmistakably clear, more or less puts the 'logical' answer into the respondent's mouth. Or Question 9: In general, should people try to do everything they can to obey the law? Here, the words 'in general' and 'try to' hardly leave the candidate any choice other than to come up with "Yes, of course, but ..." and then go on to argue as desired.

By the same token, some questions are worded in a way that candidates of average intelligence are very likely to sense the trap that has been laid for them, and consequently they will try to reason their way around it. Question 4 of Dilemma III and Question 2 of Dilemma III! are of such a nature: If Heinz doesn't love his wife, should he steal the drug for her? Or: Suppose Officer Brown were a close friend of Heinz, should he then report him? Clearly, the subject's attention is drawn to the fact that at a higher level of morality such personal considerations have lost their raison d'être, and s/he is more likely to reason as hypothecized.

Such criticism is countered by Turiel, who defends Kohlberg's (and his own) clinical-interview method by stressing the importance of adequate probes to clarifiy or disambiguate questions. But this in turn raises the question of the generalizibility of results obtained by different interviewers who - in line with their knowledge of the "specific hypotheses and aims of the particular interview" (Turiel, 1983: 25) - might probe to varying degrees, thus changing testing conditions, and hence results, considerably. And what may be tested in the end, might turn out to be the 'zone of proximal development' (Morss, 1996: 13), i.e. a person's achievement potential in correlation to guidance, rather than his actual stage-related performance. Moreover, while this type of testing may well require the "investigator's methodologies" to be "related to hypotheses and theoretical propositions" (Turiel, 1983: 23), and thus explain the tendency to imply answers, Kohlberg did not choose theoretical validity, but an empirical criterion, viz. the correlation of his scale with chronolgical age. Given that he also explicitly ruled out the inclusion of data disproving his theory of invariant stage sequences (in Lind, 1997: 5), these highly arbitrary factors can easily blur the line between subjective and objective findings.

Additionally, in some cases Kohlberg attempts to solicit moral reasoning by trying to get the subject to empathize with his 'characters'. And while Piaget allows for the "interdependence" of cognitions as structure-building entities and emotions as providing "the dynamics and energy" in that process, he also postulates an end-state in which "feelings for other people are overlaid by feelings for collective ideals" (Sternberg, 1992: 201). So it is questionable if the highest level of reasoning can be elicited by, eg. describing Heinz as 'desperate' (Dilemma III), speaking of 'pet animals' (and not crocodiles, for that matter; Dilemma III Question) or using the euphemistic term 'mercy-killing' (Dilemma IV).

Moreover, some questions are rather complicated in that they present multi-layered hypotheses. Accordingly, a respondent who is not well-versed in such question-answer techniques may get stuck after the second stratum, not being able to juggle the many reverse aspects of the underlying assumptions, which would have to be contemplated before any answer could be given. Consider Question 4 of Dilemma III: If Heinz doesn't love his wife, should he steal the drug for her? (Does it make a difference in what Heinz should do whether or not he loves his wife?) Or Question 10 of Dilemma III!: Is there really some correct solution to problems like Heinz's, or when people disagree, is everybody's opinion equally right? Why? Linking two sentences that have two or three different foci, makes it difficult to produce a coherent and exhaustive answer. Leading us on to the more serious charges against Kohlberg's theory, though, is Question 6 of Dilemma V: What's so important about human life that makes it important to save or protect? Although not difficult to understand as such, this question has certainly been at the heart of most philosophical discussion over the centuries, and accordingly, the respondent is expected to come up with an answer worthy of any of the great philosophers, no less.

Especially this last point constitutes part of one the major charges that have been levelled at Kohlberg, viz. that his work is strongly biased toward a Western-style educated and technically advanced society. In line with Piaget, Kohlberg does not see the process of (moral) development as one of maturation nor as the result of socialization; instead he views it as the product of mental processes stimulated by "open and democratic" interaction and through "role-taking opportunities". (Crain, 1992: 142). And it is only an educational system based on these principles that will foster formal operational thinking of the kind required to be able to argue along increasingly abstract and hypothetical lines.

However, his claim that "genuine moral understanding" is inextricably linked to the "development of rational reasoning", which is at the basis of his postulations, has been contested and empirically refuted. Respective studies have shown varying scores on "Piagetian logical tasks" and "Kohlberg's moral dilemma interview" (Stigler, 1990: 140). Explanations of the invalidity of the domain-general universalism of constructivism might include the potential importance of modelling in moral development, as formulated in Bandura's social learning theory, and would thus entail a closer look at an entirely different developmental approach, challenging cognitive developmental theory in general.

On the basis of afore-mentioned assumptions, however, Kohlberg has called for teaching to centre round Socratic dialogue, since dialectic instruction will bring about the representational intelligence which allows perspective-taking and reflection on alternative courses of action. For according to "dialectical theory", "change occurs when our ideas meet with counterevidence that motivates us to formulate new and better ideas" (Crain, 1992: 123).

And although Kohlberg's insistence on educators' reasoning to be slightly higher than their students' present developmental level, comes close to Vygotsky's own claims arising from his theory of the 'zone of proximal development', the Russian psychologist contests the claim of a universal stage sequence on the grounds that children "will not develop purely abstract modes of thought without instruction in abstract sign systems" (hence 'representational intelligence'), which "is only widespread in technically advanced societies" (Crain, 1992: 199).

Furthermore, even having been schooled in such a way may not be a guarantee for scoring high in Kohlberg's testing, for the capacity for abstract thinking does not necessarily entail the willingness to reflect on one's knowledge, nor the verbal skills required to give expression to such thoughts. And precisely this potential discrepancy between knowledge and reasoning has been cited by critics challenging the claim that his theory is culturally universal. After all, while not all cultures may put the same emphasis on verbal exchanges and on reflection and self-reflection, this is no justification for rating their members morally inferior. For external circumstances might limit a society's educational endeavours to teaching the three R's, or prevailing philosophies/ideologies might set greater store by students' memorizing by heart than by fostering independent thought.

Hence, Kohlberg has been charged with drawing (too) heavily on the ideas of "Western philosophical tradition" (Crain, 1992: 152) and Western liberal democracies "in defining the final, most adequate level of moral judgment" (Helwig, 1997: 3). After all, in these an individual's rights and the pursuit of liberty are stressed rather than a person's obligations or duties within a community. Accordingly, people brought up in a duty-oriented society might reason on the basis of a different moral code than the one assumed by Kohlberg, for they may not have been raised in a way that would enable them to "formulate conceptions of rights, values and principles by which they evaluate existing social arrangements" (Crain, 1992: 151/152). And this very notion of evaluating (and possibly finding fault with) existing social arrangements might not be considered a worthy goal in societies interested in the conservation of the status quo through obedience or respect. Correspondingly, one recent cross-cultural study comparing North American and Indian cultures, with the latter emphasizing "interpersonal relations and community influences" (Mulder, 1997: 3), found evidence for at least a partial influence of cultural systems on moral development. Contrary to Piaget's and Kohlberg's isolated subjects that are "positioned outside history and society" (Burman 1994: 154), individuals in Indian society "are seen as a fundamental part of the social structure and thus the need of others is viewed more often on moral terms" (Mulder, 1997: 3).

Accounting for such phenomena, however, would mean that Kohlberg's strict separation of ratio and emotion could not be upheld. In the above care-based system, attachment would have to be seen as a major factor influencing moral reasoning. To be true, Kohlberg's theory is based on the assumption that, contrary to Piaget's claim of a single-step procession from moral autonomy to heteronomy, a person's moral development closely mirrors her/his "gradually widening social radius", in which changing power structures between individuals engaged in social interactions are seen as a major influence. (in Sternberg, 1992: 212). Yet he does not view attachements as a corollary of social interaction, and thus his hypothetical society is made up of rather hypothetical individuals who have been stripped of any emotional ties, so that he can define justice in terms of every person's claims being treated as equal. In reality, though, a "special rights zone" is most likely to be claimed by each person, in which the demands made on him will take precedence over those made by any other member of that society. (in Stigler, 1990: 149) Moreover, it is in this context that Kohlberg's overall notion of morality might be considered too restricted in that concepts such as "guilt and shame" (Burman, 1994: 180) are not accomodated.

However, much of the above criticism is based on speculation and has not been sufficiently supported by empirical data. On the contrary, an exhaustive review of a large number of cross-cultural studies has produced reliable evidence supporting the universality theory of the stage sequence; and "stage 5, the ostensibly culturally biased Western moral perspective" (Helwig, 1997: 4) has also been found in non-Western societies. This may be due to the critics' equating a particular culture's ideals with a comparable mode of thought underlying its members' reasoning, when in reality their cognitive structures are a limiting factor in their process of decoding the moral codes prevailing in a certain culture. The fact that "almost all adults in all cultures conceive of virtue as conformity with the subjective preferences of the group" rather than the "objective obligations" (Stigler, 1990: 142) may also serve to explain the discrepancy that has been found in North American-style democracies between the prevalent mode of moral reasoning and its hypothetical ideal. "Indeed, the moral perspective found to be normative (...) is not the individual rights and social contract perspective of Stage 5, but rather the very different Stage 4 law and order morality" (Helwig, 1997: 4).

Kohlberg himself insisted on the cross-cultural invariance of his stage sequence on grounds that his "theory is not concerned with specific beliefs but with underlying cognitive capabilities" (Crain, 1992: 122). Accordingly, he stressed the importance of separating form and content in his clinical interviews, a fact which has also been criticized for being based on too restricted a notion of morality that fails to account for moral behaviour. On the one hand, this stands in some contrast to the examples he chose as representative of Stage 6 thinkers, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. After all, these two men actually lived according to their gospel, and in choosing them, Kohlberg may have involuntarily applied a more commonsensical notion of morality as composed of thinking, feeling and acting. The only hypothesis he ventured as to a potential correlation was to assume that "moral behaviour is more consistent, predictable, and responsible at the higher stages" (Crain, 1992: 148). Given the inconclusive evidence of research in this field and strictly applying his reasoning-only approach, however, it should not be too difficult to find some Stage 5 or 6 thinkers among former as well as present-day ideologues who might be hard to contest even when justifying oppressive regimes by claiming some higher goal.

On the other hand, this splitting of "action from account" (Burman, 1994: 155) is difficult to reconcile with Kohlberg's emphasis on the importance of environmental stimuli for development. In the first place, eliciting, and responding to, such stimuli would require "attachments" "because they herald the beginnings of interpersonal contexts from within which the child will develop his or her interactions with the broader world" (Durkin, 1995: 100). Additionally, "such constructive activities must take place in specific contexts" (Sternberg, 1992: 110), and the knowledge thus arrived at is most likely to reflect these context and culture-bound stimuli. This may explain why some societies tested did not progress beyond Stage 3 in their moral reasoning, as their members' thinking might not have been sufficiently encouraged. Not taking these differences into account and not allowing for different moral codes, means that non-Western reasoning is more likely to be classified as "rationally inadequate" (Stigler, 1990: 142). And it is in this vein that Burman charges Kohlberg with denying and perpetuating "the inequality of [children's] starting position", thus devaluing "indigenous cultures and values" (Burman, 1994: 170).

More important still, severing thought from action makes one fundamental tenet of cognitive development theories hard to hold, viz. that action as a catalyst for the construction of cognitive structures will precede a person's reasoning ability. (in Sternberg, 1992: 113) When solely concentrating on the discussion of hypothetical dilemmas, however, "non-cognitive aspects and judgments of experiences in the moral domain are ignored" and "the importance of experiencing moral conflict, which would give rise to the cognitive structures required for moral reasoning, is neglected" (Batisweiler, 1997: 5; my translation).

Part of this charge has been incorporated in Carol Gilligan's criticism of Kohlberg when she evaluated women's moral reasoning in connection with some real-life issues such as abortion. Claiming that in his testing Kohlberg did not account for the alleged difference in male and female moral orientations, she attempted to show that through inherent gender differences and due to context-based processes of socialization, women argue from a care-based moral system as opposed to the rights-based system towards which Kohlberg's research was inclined. Hence, Gilligan charged him with downgrading female moral reasoning: "Regarding all constructions of responsibility as evidence of a conventional moral understanding, Kohlberg defines the highest stages of moral development as deriving from a reflective understanding of human rights" (Gilligan, 1981: 19). However, studies aimed at substantiating her claims have produced inconclusive evidence at best, while her work has come under some attack for distortions of Kohlberg's theory and alleged misinterpretations of her own findings. (in Helwig, 1997: 5)

One of her criticisms, however, the context dependence of moral reasoning, has been taken up by several researchers challenging cognitivist theories of a "structure-of-the-whole", which should result in a high level of consistency in a person's reasoning across content domains and situational contexts. (in Sternberg, 1992: 119). Their findings have, on the whole, shown a high degree of variability instead. (For cross-domain validity, see page 3). As to contextual factors, it was found, for example, that a person may reason in line with Stage 3 thinking on property questions while representing Stage 4 on human rights issues. Additionally, slightly modifying Kohlberg's dilemmas (e.g. Heinz facing more severe punishment) or testing conditions (e.g. more prompting) has produced noticeably different results. (in Helwig, 1997: 6) One study has even found that a situational factor, such as a positive mood generated prior to an interview, might elicit a higher level of moral judgment from a subject since a good mood allegedly encourages formal operational thinking, one major prerequisite for principled moral reasoning. (in Batisweiler, 1997: 4)

Outlining some major criticism of Kohlberg's theory, i.e. that "moral development may be much more context and concept specific" than his global stage theory (Helwig, 1997: 7), and that "how we feel, act and think about good and bad" should all be considered as "parts of our morality" (Crosser, 1996: 1), does not mean to belittle his lasting influence e.g. on educational systems. After all, Kohlberg's call for a learning environment geared to fostering development by stimulating students' cognitive capacities and hence their moral reasoning abilities, has certainly been heard in classrooms far and wide. Accordingly, formal instruction has had to make some room for a child-centred approach providing opportunities for role play, peer interaction as well as experiences and discussion of moral conflict. And while Kohlberg's grounding in Piaget's constructivism may entail a rather normative view of development by prescribing an "endpoint, the goal, of development", the former's advocacy of facilitating reasoning centering round justice, rights and welfare, can hardly be construed as serving "bourgeois" ideologies in "maintaining social control within and between social groups and nations" (Burman, 1994: 183 and 19). For although he postulates "rational universal principles" (Sternberg, 1992: 214) as the ultimate guideline for of a person's moral judgment, adult interaction with children is meant to pave the way for their intellectual emancipation from any pressure to conform to authority so that the ideas they will be able to formulate will be their own. (in Crain, 1992: 142)


Kohlberg's Moral Dilemmas (Kohlberg, no date: 15-24)

Dilemma III: In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later, But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife.

Dilemma III!: Heinz did break into the store. He stole the drug and gave it to his wife. In the newspapers the next day there was an account of the robbery. Mr. Brown, a police officer who knew Heinz, read the account. He remembered seeing Heinz running away from the store and realized that it was Heinz who stole the drug. Mr. Brown wonders whether he should report that it was Heinz who stole the drug.

Continuation: Officer Brown did report Heinz. Heinz was arrested and brought to court. A jury was selected. The jury's job is to find whether a person is innocent or guilty of committing a crime. The jury finds Heinz guilty. It is up to the judge to determine the sentence.

Dilemma IV: There was a woman who had very bad cancer, and there was no treatment known to medicine that would save her. Her doctor, Dr. Jefferson, knew that she had only about six months to live. She was in terrible pain, but she was so weak that a good dose of a painkiller like morphine would make her die sooner. She was delirious and almost crazy with pain, but in her calm periods she would ask Dr. Jefferson to give her enough morphine to kill her. She said she couldn't stand the pain and she was going to die in a few months anyway. Although he knows that mercy-killing is against the law, the doctor thinks about granting her request.

Dilemma V: In Korea, a company of Marines was way outnumbered and was retreating before the enemy. The company had crossed a bridge over a river, but the enemy were mostly still on the other side. If someone went back to the bridge and blew it up, with the head start the rest of the men in the company would have, they could probably then escape. But the man who stayed back to blow up the bridge would not be able to escape alive. The captain himself is the man who knows best how to lead the retreat. He asks for volunteers, but no one will volunteer. If he goes himself, the men will probably not get back safely and he is the only one who knows how to lead the retreat.






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