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Kohlberg: Theory Of Moral Reasoning

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2359 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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Moral reasoning is a segment of social cognition that particularly aims at understanding the reason to why young people involve themselves in criminal offenses or behaviors. In most cases delinquency is associated with delayed maturation and development of moral reasoning. For minors when an opportunity for a crime arises, their underdeveloped cognitive ability to control and resist the urge or temptation to offend allows them to go ahead and commit the criminal act. In general this group of offenders lack self control and they tend to act impulsively. The strength of causation of crime varies from one individual to the other. In this paper I will discuss several theories in relation to the moral reasoning, evidence for and against moral reasoning.

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According to Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning, the cognitive-development takes an assumption that the primary mental structure is as a result of relationships or interactions between certain organismic structuring tendencies and the general structure of the outside world. Kohlberg examines that moral reasoning is exercised in the mental structure; the structure refers to the general attributes of shape, pattern organization of response like rules that guide the processing of information, for connecting experienced events. He goes a head and explains that linkages are formed by both selective and active processes of attention, information-gathering tactics and motivated thinking. Kohlberg’s structures of moral reasoning are synthetic due to the active processes between the human organism which is a self regulating system of cognitive and effective inclination and the social environment in which it is found.

Moral Reasoning is a process that progresses through stages. The theory argues that moral reasoning catapults the cognitive growth, for instance the capacity to reason and think is basic for improved and high levels of moral reasoning. Advanced moral reasoning wholly depends on advanced logical reasoning, that is, one’s logical stage demarcates the moral stage he can achieve. The moral stages should only be taken for what they are worth of.

Morality is the foundation on which Kohlberg’s theory is developed. In cognitive development, morality is a natural product of a universal human tendency toward empathy or role taking, and putting oneself in the conscious condition of another being. Consequently, moral reasoning is a product of a universal human advocacy for justice. Kohlberg’s understanding of morality is primarily based on Piaget’s definition whereby all morality comprises of rules, and the core of morality as a whole is to be sought for in the reverence which a person acquires for these rules. Morality according to Kohlberg is judgment based on justice. However justice is a distribution of rights and duties governed by concepts of quality and reciprocity. Justice is identified and recognized by Piaget’s logic, the equilibrium of social action and relations.

Moral Stages according to Kohlberg’s theory are divided into Preconventional level, Conventional level and Postconventional level.

Preconventional level

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation-the physical consequences of an action determines its goodness or badness regardless of human meaning or value. These consequences are weighed basing on the impact to the individual rather than based upon the consequences for all.

Stage 2: Instrumental-relativism Orientation-a right action is that which instrumentally fulfills one’s own needs and in some occasions the needs of others. These two stages have an egocentric point of view where one’s choices are based on the fear of punishment and a desire to be rewarded.

Conventional level

Stage 3: The Interpersonal concordance Orientation: good manners and behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is acknowledged by them. The person progresses to consider the approval or disapproval of other and not only after fulfilling one’s own interests. The intention of self and others are considered.

Stage 4: Law and Order orientation: the progress is made with regard to looking at the society at large rather than yourself and approval of others. Generally it is the orientation towards law, fixed rules and maintenance of social order. Doing one’s duties while showing respect to the authority and maintaining the given social order for its own sake. The conventional stage requires one to make choices from a society’s perspective, considering the good of others, positive relation maintenance taking into consideration the rules of the society.

Postconventional level

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation: Right actions are defined in terms of an individual’s rights and standards rather than those that have been examined and agreed upon by the society at large. The individual see the current rules and regulations as subordinate to the needs of the society instead of instructing them.

Stage 6: Universal-Ethical-Principles Orientation: Right is defined by a decision of conscience in accordance with self chosen ethical principles attractive to the logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistence. Principles are abstract and ethical; universal principles of justice, reciprocity and quality of human rights with respect of human beings as individual persons. In the Postconventional level, prior to the society’s perspective, personal ideals take precedence over particular societal laws.

Literature review

Evidence for Moral Reasoning

Eysenck Personality Theory

Psychologies the world over assume that behavioral consistence relies or depends primarily on the determination of one’s underlying attributes to act in a particular way in a certain situation. These tendencies are mainly personal traits like impulsiveness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, dutifulness and modesty. According to Eysenck, offending is a normal and rational basing on the assumption that human beings were hedonistic, sought pleasure and avoid pain. He also identifies that criminal acts like theft, vandalism, and violence were generally pleasurable to the offenders. Eysenck also gives the reason to why all people are not criminals to be as a result of build up conscience (conditioned fear response). Nevertheless, people who commit offenses have no strong conscience build up because they have poor conditionality.

To Eysenck, poor conditionality is associated with personality dimensions: Extraversion (E), Neuroticism (N) and Psychoticism (P). He defines that people with high E build up respond poorly as they have lower levels of cortical arousal. Those with high levels of N condition less well as their high resting levels of anxiety obstructs their conditioning. In addition N stimulates and anchors the existing behavioral tendencies, for instance neurotic extroverts are criminals. High P levels individuals particularly tend to be offenders; they are emotionally cold, have high hostility, inhuman with low empathy. Studies relating to Eysenck personality dimensions reported that people with high N were official offenders while those with high E levels self-reported offending. High P level was found to be related to both.

The study of 400 boys in London, reported that those found with high levels of both E and N were juvenile self-reported offenders, adult official offenders and adult self-reported offenders. No juvenile official offender was reported.

In addition to these, there are other factors like low family income, low intelligence, and poor parental child rearing behavior that contributed to the malice. From individual questionnaires, it was established that impulsiveness was key causing these criminal acts amongst the minors. There is a big linkage between impulsiveness and offending.

Impulsive Theories

Doing things without thinking is the most vital and crucial personality dimension that envisages offending. Some individuals are unable to control behavior; they are always hyper-reactive, impulsive, and unable to consider consequences before acting, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, poor ability to plan ahead and poor ability to control gratification. A study of 400 boys in London, three categories of the boys ended up offenders in their later life: a) boys nominated by teachers to be lacking concentration or exhibited restlessness, b) boys nominated by parents, peers, and teachers to be most daring or risk taking, and c) boy who were highly impulsive on psychomotor tests at ages eight to ten. In essence, daring, poor concentration, and restlessness predicted both self-reported delinquency and official convictions; daring being the independent predictor.

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The Pittsburgh Youth Study by Jennifer White found out that self-reported delinquency of males between ten and thirteen years were teacher rated impulsiveness, self-reported under-control, motor restlessness and psychomotor restlessness. In general, most theories suggest that impulsiveness reflects the deficiency in the executive function of the brain, located in the frontal lobe (Moffitt). Individuals with neuropsychological shortage are likely to commit crimes as they have poor moral control over their behavior. There is also an indirect connection between neuropsychological deficiency and offending whish is propagated by hyperactivity and inattention in schools thus resulting into school failures. Some related assumptions suggest that low cortical arousal produces impulsive and sensational seeking behavior.

The benefits of offending include material gain, sexual gratification, and peer approval. Despite these benefits, there are diverse consequences in relation to offending or committing a crime like being caught and punished, pangs of conscience, and disapproval by onlookers. Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) describes and emphasize conscience as the key to prevent offending or crime, and that conscience is built up in asocial learning perspective regardless of parental punishment in childhood transgressions. Individual difference is also another factor according to Wilson-Herrnstein theory as it provides the extent to which people’s behavior is influenced by the immediate as opposed to delayed consequences. People vary in their ability to think about or plan for the future. Highly impulsive individuals are poorly influenced by the likelihood of the future repercussions thus they are more likely to offend or commit a crime.

Evidence against Moral Reasoning

From practical arguments, morality is a rational enterprise. In Moral despair and Moral discouragement we are told that if there is no source for moral, order morality will collapse; it will cease to be a sustainable enterprise. Kant for instance argues that if the highest good cannot be attained then the moral law which bids us to seek it must be “fantastic and directed to imaginary ends must therefore in itself be false” (Kant 1996/1962, 231; 5/114). In relation to this, if morality ends are unattainable, then there would be no obligations and duties.

In general it would be demoralizing believing that there is no moral order to the universe because demoralization in itself is morally undesirable. For instance, Theism acts as a source of moral order which then implies that there is an advantage in believing that there is moral order in the universe that governs all activities and duties of human beings. For this matter there is a moral advantage of accepting theism (Adams 1987, 151). Morality demands that we become as good as we can be, this then means that if there is no source of moral order in the world then the need for us becoming as good as we can be is faced with many difficulties. And the only way these difficulties can taken or driven away is by us accepting theism. In essence we have a moral reason for driving ourselves into a situation where we can come to believe in the truth of theism.

In most cases truth is demoralizing and there is no reason for one to think that it is false. People are after organizing the world so as to meet our deepest human needs. With this in mind, such a hypothesis would be null and void if existence of God who gives us a divine source of moral order. In addition Kant appeals that individuals should believe that there is God but there are also needs of reason. Drabkin’s take is that the moral ills that afflict or would afflict us if there were no God give us ground, not for the belief that there is a God, but for undertaking the project of becoming to believe that there is a God (Drabkin 1994:171). This is evidence enough to go against moral reasoning. 


Moral reasoning helps in establishing the real causes of criminal behaviors amongst the young individuals. Kohlberg’s theory is key and funder mental in establishing the behavioral characteristics and traits of and individual through his developmental stages. For instance Kohlberg explains different stages of behavior development starting with Preconventional level, conventional level then lastly the Postconventional level. Evidence for moral reasoning are provided using two theories; Eysenck personality theory where offending is considered to be normal and pleasurable to the offenders. The theory also tells us that criminals have no strong conscience build up because of their poor conditionality. Impulsive theories explains to a great extend what causes one to offend; for example the theories explains that some individuals are unable to control their behavior, are hyperactive, impulsive and unable consequences before acting, they are sensation-seeking, apt in risk-taking, and poor ability to control gratification. The evidence against moral reasoning provides us with the existence of God who is the source of moral order of the universe. Morality is the key to having a good and cohesive society the world over.


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