Following recent blogs where I acknowledged Dr. Thomas Szaz and Joseph Campbell for their influence on my development as a therapist, I have had several inquiries regarding what other influences have helped to shape my practice of psychotherapy.

After receiving these inquiries, which were something of a surprise to me, I gave it some thought and decided to do some blogs on some more of the theories that have been most influential to me in my work:
Erik Erickson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
Carl Jung’s Twelve Archetypes
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Today I’m going to focus on Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. In his theory there are six stages of development that fall under three broad categories or levels.

Kohlberg based his theory on the developmental theories of Jean Piaget. While they are more complex, I think they are very accurate in terms of the development across a moral spectrum. Some cultures may have different value systems and therefore you would see differences in the percentages of the population that appear in each stage. The age ranges given denote when you normally would see this stage of development take place, but they are by no means exact: some may take longer to move through a stage, while some may never progress beyond a certain stage. Differences in developmental levels may lead to conflict; for example, within families it can be very common for parents to view adolescents as “rebellious” as they naturally move through different stages

Level One: Pre-Conventional
This level is typically found in children ages 4 to 10 years.
Stage One: Punishment vs. Obedience
Children at this level tend to obey rules only to avoid punishment. “No” and “stop” are the basic parameters.
Stage Two: Instrumental Purpose & Exchange
All actions at this stage are based on total self-interest. The primary considerations is what others can do for me. We are, in this stage, naturally selfish.

Level Two: Conventional
This level is typical for ages 10 to 13 years, although some individuals may never progress beyond this level.
Stage Three: Mutual Relations
At this stage, acts are evaluated according to the motives behind them and circumstances are given consideration. Individuals at this stage want to help others, can begin to judge the intentions of others, and begin to develop their own ideas about morality. Because experience is still limited at this stage, there can be a great deal of naïveté.
Stage Four: Social Concern & Conscience
A “law and order” mentality is predominant at this stage. Respect for authority, doing your duty, and maintaining the social order are the primary concerns. Here, if an act harms others or violates a rule of law, it is considered wrong. Most moral decisions are made in polarized terms (good/bad, black/white, etc.)

Level Three: Post-Conventional
This level is usually achieved in adolescence to early adulthood, but there are individuals who never reach this level.
Stage Five: Morality of Contract, Rights, and Law
At this stage, individuals are placing emphasis on the will of the majority and the well-being of society. Although individuals at this stage may recognize that there are times when human need and the law are conflicted, they believe that it is better if people simply follow the law.
Stage Six: Universal Ethical Morality
In this stage, individuals do what they think is morally correct, even if those actions are in conflict with the currently established laws. Kohlberg felt that very few people ever achieved this level of development and often cited Mohatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as modern examples. Interestingly, Kohlberg noted that individuals who reach this stage of development are often viewed as threats to the current accepted social order and as a consequence of that are often martyred. Sadly, history appears to affirm this.

Given these stages, there is potential for conflict. Individuals at one stage of development may view someone at a lower level of development in judgmental ways, while at times seeing someone at a higher stage as either a hero or a threat. Many times, people are most comfortable around others who think and feel as they do: this can become problematic and history again provides us with many examples of this. In a democratic society where the freedoms of thought and expression are provided, the conflict of ideas is inevitable. It is through that conflict of ideas that compromise and advancement can become available. Chaos and conflict provide opportunity.

Next up, Sigmund Freud’s former wingman, Carl Jung.....

Jim Harger, M.Ed., LPC

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