Theories of Moral Development

In the area of nursing theory Lawrence Kohlberg’s theories of moral development are very influential. The ethics of nursing are influenced by moral development, as nurses must develop a strong system of morals in order to uphold the strict ethics required of them. Kohlberg’s theories of moral development are divided into three levels that consist of a total of six stages. Everyone starts out at the first stage and then develops morally as they mature. Each stage represents a graduation in the level of moral development, with stage one being the least moral and stage six being the most moral. To learn more about how the theory of moral development is relevant to nurses, read on.

Level One: Pre-Conventional

This level of moral reasoning is usually seen in children. However, some adults are at this level of moral reasoning. The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is characterized by the judgment of the morality of an action only by its consequences. This means this level of moral reasoning is very egocentric. Someone with pre-conventional morality has not yet accepted society’s conventional morality. Instead, they base their own sense of morality on the consequences to themselves.

Stage One: Obedience & Punishment Orientation

In stage 1 of pre-conventional morality, individuals focus on the punishment they may get from not obeying moral rules that are laid out for them. They only think that something they do is wrong if they get punished. For example, children will only feel they have done something wrong if their parents spank them. The more severe the punishment is, the worse a person at stage one will think their act was. This is a problem because it is egocentric and because innocent people who are suffering will be judged guilty in some way.

Stage Two: Self-Interest Orientation

People who exhibit stage two level reasoning are only interested in what’s in it for them. This means they are essentially focused on any rewards their actions could generate. They consider their actions to be good proportional to any positive consequences that might come about because of their actions. This sort of reasoning does not involve the consideration of reputation or relationships to other people. Stage two reasoning isn’t quite as egocentric because people at this level of reasoning do take an interest in the needs of others, but only if this interest will, in turn, help them. People in stage two of moral development often help out others, but only in the expectation that they’ll be helped out in return. Stage two moral developments is an example of relative morality.

Level Two: Conventional

Most people fall somewhere within level two, or conventional morality. Children usually progress from pre-conventional to conventional morality during adolescence. Adults usually stay at conventional morality, although more intelligent adults may progress to post-conventional morality. Conventional morality refers to judging the morality of your own actions by comparing them to society’s idea of morality. The most important thing to conventional morality is an acceptance of social mores. Social mores are rarely questioned by the individual at a conventional level of morality.

Stage Three: Interpersonal Accord & Conformity

Adolescence is commonly at stage 3 of moral development. When someone enters stage 3, this means they have really entered society because they are conforming to social standards. People wholly accept approval or disapproval from other people because they feel it reflects social mores. People at stage 3 of moral development try to be “good” by following social expectations. The underlying reason for doing this is because people who reach this level of moral development have learned that following society’s conventions will have benefited them in the end. A person at stage three usually judges the morality of any specific action by how it affects other people. People at the stage three level of moral development often think of how they would like to be treated and then apply this to other people. People at this level of moral development do not fully understand that they are following social conventions.

Stage Four: Authority & Social Order-Maintaining Orientation

Stage four of moral development is the most common stage for adults to be at and remain at. It is still conventionally moral in that morality is still defined by an external force, that is, social conventions. People who reach stage 4 moral development have an idea of their place in society and the way society functions. Stage four reasoning subscribes to a central idea of what is right and what is wrong. Generally, these people believe that society functions when everyone follows social conventions and otherwise the world would fall into chaos. In this way, people adhere to social mores and conventions because they feel society’s collapse would negatively affect themselves and their lives.

Level Three: Post-Conventional

Most people do not reach the postconventional level, designated as level 3, of moral development. People who do develop their own principles that are not necessarily in line with the social mores of society. They generally believe that people can develop their own morals that may be right while the generally accepted morals from society may be wrong. People at this level of moral development also may disobey social conventions and even laws if they are not congruent with their own principals. That is, people with postconventional morality live by their own ethics rather than the ethics of society. People at this level of moral development may view rules and social conventions as useful, but they view some as negative and possibly harmful. It is easy to convince people that preconventional reasoning and postconventional reasoning are similar, because individuals are creating their own concept of morality at both stages. However, postconventional morality is not nearly as egocentric.

Stage Five: Social Contract Orientation

Stage five of moral development views people as holding different opinions, rights, and values depending on their lives in the society they live in. People at this level of moral development believe that there should be mutual respect between people, even if they have different morals and ethics. Laws are generally viewed as a contract between members of society rather than absolute rules that everyone has to follow. This means that people at Stage five of moral development believe that laws that are not good for most people should be changed so they do make the overall society better. These laws should be changed through the decision of the majority so the common good is respected. The principals of democratic government are supposed to be based on stage five reasoning, although in practice the government is often not at this level of moral development.

Stage Six: Universal Ethical Principles

The final and most developed stage of moral reasoning is stage six. The few people who do reach the stage of moral development base their own personal set of morals on abstract reasoning with an idea of universal ethics. These universal ethics are usually based on the principle of human rights, which in some ways may be contrary to or exceed legal rights. Laws may not be just to people who are at stage 6 of moral development. In fact, they may be unjust. People at this stage of moral development will feel a commitment to disobey these laws. The few people who do reach this stage of moral development base their own personal set of morals on an idea of universal ethics. It is important to know do that these people will have form their own idea of justice as one of their universal ethical principles. People at stage six of moral development will make decisions based on imagining what others may do in their shoes if they thought the way other people did. This is because they believe that they are in the right if they are acting in a way that helps everyone. Their motivation for their actions is to do what they feel is right, rather than what is in their best interest or what is expected of them. Lawrence Kohlberg insisted that there were people who had reached this level of development but found it difficult to prove in his experiments.

Applying This Theory to Nursing

Nurses should aspire to develop their own moral reasoning as much as possible. This will help them treat their patients with more compassion and effectiveness. It can be difficult to develop moral reasoning once nurses are out in the workforce simply because they are so busy. This is why it is important for student nurses to develop an advanced level of moral reasoning before they even begin treating patients. This is why in nursing theory Lawrence Kohlberg is considered a very important figure. Student nurses can find out more by reading his books, which they may be assigned in school.

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