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Discuss the Strengths and Weaknesses of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

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Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Kohlberg's theory of moral development.

In this essay, following a brief outline of the theory, I will be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Kohlberg's theory of moral development. Morality comes from the Latin word for custom. It is a behaviour that one has been accustomed to due to the laws and customs in a particular society. By the time a person reaches adulthood, they should have a good idea about personal and social behaviour (Carlson, 2004)

Kohlberg's theory of moral development was originally an adaptation of Piaget's theory which was deemed to be unreliable because it was solely based on interviews of young children. Kohlberg's theory is based on the response to a 'moral dilemma' to which there is no correct answer. The dilemma posed the question of 'Law against morality'. Is it right to steal a drug to keep someone alive even though the act of larceny is illegal? It was first issued to children, then people of all ages to assess the extent of their moral development. From his research using this dilemma and other similar ones, Kohlberg comprised three different levels and seven stages of moral development that people (should) experience from childhood through to adulthood.

Here is a brief outline of Kohlberg's theory and what each level of moral development entails: The Preconventional level consists of stage one and two. This level is basic and highlights the avoidance of punishment and the egocentricity experienced in childhood. The second level - the Conventional level - includes stages three and four. This level focuses on the understanding of social influences and the interpretation of laws and the need to follow them. The Postconventional level consists of stages five, six and seven. These are, according to Kohlberg the most advanced stages of moral development. They deal with the obeying of rules for 'the common good', ethical considerations when obeying or disobeying certain rules, and finally stage seven, the 'adoption of values that transcend societal norms'.

Kohlberg's research is considered key in psychological circles and is instrumental in explaining the moral development of not only children but adults too. It is one of the most tested theories in child development and there have been over 1000 experiments carried out exploring its ideas. However there are some parts of Kohlberg's research that are stronger than others. In the next part of the essay I will be discussing these strengths, followed by the weaker aspects of Kohlberg's theory.

Firstly, Snarey (1985) was in support of Kohlberg's findings and suggested that contrary to belief, the theory of moral development could be universally applied to western and non-western cultures, industrialized and non-industrialized (p271, Bee). Snarey found that there was a consistent rise in reasonability in children as they aged. It was also reported that the development of moral reasoning was an irreversible process. The movement through the sequence of the stages is only ever upwards, and all subjects that were observed or interviewed developed in their moral reasoning and never seemed to reverse from for example Postconventional to Conventional. Snarey is a supporter of Kohlberg's theories and looked into the cross-cultural differences when applying Kohlberg's theory to dissimilar societies. Snarey found that stage 5 is the typical stage experience by industrialized societies, whether western or non-western. However in more native societies such as Aboriginal or Amazonian ("folk"), stage 4 is the prominent stage experienced by most members of society. This evidence gives substantial support for Kohlberg's theory of moral development and applies it successfully to many different cultures, universally.

Kohlberg (1975) tested his own theory with students who were given the opportunity to cheat in a test. He found that only 15% of stage 5 students cheated (post-conventional), whereas 55% students cheated in the conventional level, and 70% of students operating at the pre-conventional level cheated. This shows that when given the choice to make a moral decision in reality, people in the post-conventional level are more likely to take the 'moral high-ground' than people functioning in the preconventional or conventional levels. This doesn't however prove Kohlberg's theory to be entirely correct. In fact no one study has shown a 100% correlation between the level of morality and actual behaviour. Nevertheless, Kohlberg's theory has stood the test of time and trial and it has a very strong significance in explaining moral development.

On the other hand, Kohlberg's theory has its critics. For example Shrewder et al (1987) found that most teenagers and adults function at the conventional level, and very few manage to progress into the latter stages of the scale. This almost deems the final three stages of the development scale ineffectual as so many people do not reach them.

Yet, the best known critic of Kohlberg's work is his co-worker Carol Gilligan (1982 & 1987). Gilligan worked with Kohlberg on his

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