should bill steal the medicine? pt. 2: lawrence kohlberg’s stages of moral development

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Friday, May 13th, 2011

should bill steal the medicine? pt. 2: lawrence kohlberg’s stages of moral development

yesterday, i decided to try a little something different here on the blog and posed a scenario, asking for your response. here was the scenario:

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Bill, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Bill got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should Bill have broken into the store to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

i was pleased to get a handful of responses, both in the comments and a couple via email.

this scenario is called the “heinz dilemma” (i changed the name to bill to avoid easy “google-bility”…) which, while used in many ethics/morality contexts, is often closely associated with moral development psychologist lawrence kohlberg and his stages of moral development.

to offer a brief context, while in seminary, one of my favorite classes was ‘moral development’ where kohlberg’s theory (as well as the work of swiss psychologist jean piaget) was one of the primary focal points. it’s been incredibly helpful both in personal relationships as well as pastoral work. a couple nights ago in our love wins book group at eikon church, these stages of moral development came up in conversation and it compelled me to share some of it here on the blog.

ok, so back to the heinz dilemma and your responses. you can read some of the responses on yesterday’s post and while i won’t repost them all here (nor will i attempt to deconstruct/psychoanalyze them), here’s a sample to offer a couple perspectives:

Of course. The sum of the many possible ramifications for breaching our social, moral, and legal codes by theft, for all parties, is a small price to pay to save a person’s life. In time, as money allows, Bill can pay the druggist for the medicine and the damage to the building from breaking in, and anything else, anonymously if he needs to avoid criminal charges, or, if he is willing and able to absorb the criminal record, he can turn himself in after the treatment has been administered.

and another:

No. Laws are laws. Maybe the drugisst has a sick wife also and that’s why hes charging so much. Also, how much good will Bill dohis wife if he is in jail. bill shouldn’t have stolen the drugs.

by and large, the responses were relatively similar and quite frankly, the responses of people reading and engaging in this type of conversation should probably be answering in these ways. but why?

well, that’s where kohlberg’s 6 stages of moral development comes into play. here’s his stages (note that i’m putting these in the absolute most simple language) with a brief description/example:

1. punishment: bill shouldn’t steal because he will go to jail, meaning he is a bad person.

2. reward: bill should steal because he will be happier if his wife lives.

3. social conformity: bill should steal because his wife expects him to and he wants to be a good husband.

4. law and order: bill shouldn’t steal because it is illegal.

5. human rights: bill should steal because his wife has the right to live, regardless of the law.

6. universal human ethic: bill should steal because saving a human life trumps another person’s property rights.

**note that kohlberg is uninterested with whether you answer yes or no, but what your reasoning was in arriving at your decision.

so, where do you fall? if you responded, where do you find your reasoning? whereas the responses were relatively similar, there’s a number of stages represented.

the idea with these stages is that, theoretically, every person should progress through them throughout their life. stage 1 represents a very low level of moral development (typically found in children between the ages of 2 & 5ish) whereas stage 6 represents the highest level of moral development (which, if ever, is achieved at some point post-adolescence).

the context in which it came up in our love wins book group was the nature of the church’s “dangling” of heaven and the threat of hell in regards to one’s relationship to god. for example, if one’s faith is propelled by not wanting to go to hell, then that person is engaging in stage 1 reasoning—the same stage that my youngest daughter olive primarily engages. 🙂 quite frankly, there’s a large contingent of church practitioners whose entire ministerial philosophy is built on literally scaring the hell out of people.

but lest we only point the finger at fear-mongerers, those who simply rely on heaven as a reward plant firmly in stage 2 reasoning—which is often what my 4-year old engages in—and never move beyond that.

both the fear of hell and the pursuit of heaven are, quite frankly, bad—or maybe “low level”—influencers in relation to whether or not one engages in the way of jesus.

of course, far beyond the theological implications, kohlberg’s stages (of which he had completely irreligious intent) speak into all aspects of life: marriage, dating, workplace dynamics, social media and any other facet of life that involves social dynamics (a.k.a. everything).

so, where are you in this spectrum? and how do you progress in your primary modes of reasoning if you’re in one of the lower stages? hopefully knowing and understanding these stages of moral development will benefit you as much as they have me over the last several years.

3 Comments

  1. My one question is: what about all of us who said he should steal it, but also that he should go to jail? My reasoning for that is: as a society, we want to discourage stealing except in the most dire of circumstances, such that only someone willing to actually pay the price would consider taking the risk.

    • ryan says:

      good questions, sarah.

      1. if you dig further into kohlberg’s theory, he proposes that we often don’t firmly land in any 1 single stage. theoretically, we generally operate within a single stage, but often drift based on a number of factors. the lines are particularly blurred between stages 5 & 6 for adults.

      2. ultimately, it’s fine if you think bill should go to jail. the point is that you aren’t bound by the threat of jail. if the punishment is jail, so be it. that’s a reality of our society that we’re willing to deal with, based on societal pragmatics. in this case, it seems your response is a stage 6 response, regardless of whether or not bill should go to jail. human life trumps property rights, sans the reality of jail. the question remains in spite of the societal pragmatics of a penal system.

      • ryan says:

        and by the way, yes, it also drives me nuts that my commenting system takes out the paragraph breaks. 🙂 i need to dig around and find a solution to that…

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