Kids and Moral Dilemmas

Latest News Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

One important aspect of a child’s growing maturing concerns their moral development. There are some interesting moral dilemmas online which can offer a good conversation at home and which give insight into your child’s moral reasoning. It is also fascinating to see where you, as parents, may sit in these stages of moral development. Kohlberg suggested that people move through reasoning stages (in the diagram) in a fixed order and that moral understanding is linked to cognitive development. He worked with children for years presenting moral dilemmas and stories to establish the reasoning behind a decision - which was more important than the answer.  

One of the best known of Kohlberg’s (1958) stories concerns a man called Heinz who lived somewhere in Europe. You should try this dilemma at home.
Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, and so Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later.

The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

1. Should Heinz have stolen the drug?

2. Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?

3. What if the person dying was a stranger, would it make any difference?

4. Should the police arrest the chemist for murder if the woman died?

Some good moral dilemmas can be found here.

Kohlberg identified three distinct levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level has two sub-stages. People can only pass through these levels in the order listed. (There has been some criticisms of his work but by and large, it still holds firm).

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation. The child/individual is good in order to avoid being punished. If a person is punished, they must have done wrong.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange. At this stage, children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints.

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships. The child/individual is good in order to be seen as being a good person by others. Therefore, answers relate to the approval of others.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order. The child/individual becomes aware of the wider rules of society, so judgments concern obeying the rules in order to uphold the law and to avoid guilt.

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights. The child/individual becomes aware that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when they will work against the interest of particular individuals. The issues are not always clear-cut. For example, in Heinz’s dilemma, the protection of life is more important than breaking the law against stealing.

Stage 6. Universal Principles. People at this stage have developed their own set of moral guidelines which may or may not fit the law. The principles apply to everyone.

E.g., human rights, justice, and equality. The person will be prepared to act to defend these principles even if it means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment. Kohlberg doubted few people reached this stage.

(Source: Simple Psychology: Kohlberg’s theory of moral development)


Some good moral dilemmas can be found here

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