The Development of Moral Thinking

The Development of Moral Thinking

I was reading the most wonderful book Teach like your Hair’s on Fire by Ralf Equith who brought my attention to Lawrence Kohlberg’s six levels of moral thinking.

Ralf uses them beautiful in the Grade 5 classroom to teach the value of having a personal code of behavior to follow when making choices. Thinking about what all this means, I was stuck by how beautiful this worked as a step by step guide to how we evolve our thinking and gain emotional intelligence.


The Six Levels of Moral Thinking

Level 1 thinking is ‘I don’t want to get in trouble’ and in many schools, organizations and government this is a cornerstone of how things are run. The mantra is simply: “Don’t do that or you will get into trouble”. But the truth is that this requires people to live in a place of fear and getting into trouble has to be a big enough deterrent to stop certain behaviors.

When one has “fear” and “trouble” you also have “policing”. It is true, that this way of thinking requires a lot of policing and keeping an eye on everyone to ensure they do get into trouble when they do something wrong. Doesn’t it feel restrictive and exhausting? I feel exhausted thinking about this type of management.

Level two thinking is ‘I want a reward’. I think this links strongly with level 1 thinking; this idea proposes that moving away from pain and toward pleasure is the key to what motivates us.

Here, the challenges are that the rewards have to appeal to everyone. And even if you manage to find rewards that encourage good choices and behavior that works for everybody, you’re building a culture of dependence. Imagine these responses:

• What am I going to get if I do that?
• I’m not doing that unless I get a reward!
• Once I’ve received that reward a few times it becomes expected.

The Level two way of thinking also means that we are dependent on rewards to guide our behavior. And really, do we forever want to be led by rewards versus doing something for its own sake? (I know plenty of people who will do anything for ice-cream)

Approval and Appreciation

Level three thinking is ‘I want to please somebody’. There is great merit in this thinking. I must admit, that my life was greatly enhanced by the teachers, parents and people through my life that I respected and who I strove to impress. I think we all do that to a greater or lesser extent, when we put in the hard work to receive their approval and appreciation.

This is a powerful step on the process toward level six thinking but it does leave us dependent on what other’s think of us. And we know the consequences – it is great when we get good feedback, but it can be devastating when we don’t. But still, I can see the value of moving onward to the next level of thinking.

Level four thinking is about following the rules. There is great value in following the rules but there are many great leaders who wouldn’t be around if they had followed the rules. It is often through breaking accepted rules and norms that the world evolves into a more human and caring place. Examples are Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and the school children of Soweto in 1976.

The Serenity Prayer

I can’t help but to think of the Serenity prayer in relation to this rule as I sometimes waste unnecessary energy bemoaning rules that are not actually a big deal to adhere to. Perhaps it could be written: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the rules that don’t need to be changed, courage to change the things that do need to change, and wisdom to know the difference’. I personally waste a lot of energy kicking against rules that aren’t worth investing energy in.

Level five thinking many people in our world never get the good fortune of living. This is ‘I am considerate of other people’. This is where empathy is powerful. I grew up with this in my home in Pietermaritzburg. My mother, Di Smith was very strong about this in our home. Never judge another until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. The world would be a very caring place if we each took into account each other. However I still think this means continually guessing what everyone else’s needs are as you strive to keep the rest of the world happy. It’s my experience that when you take care of your own happiness it liberates others to do the same and so that leads us to level six thinking.

Getting to Know Who You Are

Level six thinking is ‘I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it.’ This is where our emotional intelligence work really begins. It’s all about taking responsibility for oneself; it stops being about anyone else. You are no longer required you know what the rest of the world’s needs and preferences are. But it does require you getting to know who you are. After all the only person you can really change is yourself. This requires awareness and effort to gain clarity about what is important to you and what you value. Then no matter the rules, the rewards, the punishment or what other’s beliefs and values are, you live the choices that mean you walk your own walk. Drawing strength from your own personal code of behavior. Living your own truth means that you can remain strong and make choices that serve you no matter where you are or how life or people challenge you.