Reasoning

Like Jean Piaget, the pioneer of cognitive theory, Lawrence Kohlberg, a prominent moral development researcher, believed that people's perceptions, attitudes, and actions are influenced by the way they think or reason. So, he studied the reasoning process employed to resolve ethical dilemmas, not the resulting judgments or rules that foster social justice. Through research, he discovered three progressive stages of moral reasoning: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Each stage has two phases. All six levels reflect a type of decision that could not be made at an earlier age. Even though an elementary-school-age child has an improved understanding of others' beliefs and thoughts, children between the ages of six and eleven tend to reason in preconventional or self-focused ways. At first, they are likely to make judgments that reflect the need to obey moral rules to avoid punishment, but in later elementary grades, reasoning is likely to reflect a need for reciprocity or in-kind treatment. A person's moral reasoning ability, however, develops over a lifetime and individuals, from the age of twelve on, tend to reason in conventional or community-focused ways.

First, they want to please others or receive social approval for following the community's rules. Later, they may think from a law-and-order perspective and value becoming a good citizen. The third stage, post-conventional or ideal-centered reasoning, occurs rarely.

These levels of reasoning may overrule the culture's standards and the individual's personal concerns. Initially, laws are important in ideal-centered analyses of moral dilemmas because they are agreed upon by the community, as a whole, and are created to help everyone. Infractions are accepted if the rules become harmful or if another party breaks the legal contract. Kohlberg suggested, however, that individuals would eventually reason using universal principles established through individual reflection—not legal standards or individual values—but there is little evidence to demonstrate that this stage of reasoning exists.

Evolutionary biologists criticize the validity of Kohlberg's last three stages because, unlike the first three stages, they do not foster the adaptation and cooperation necessary for species survival. Others assert that his moral reasoning levels do not reflect various religious beliefs, cultural values, economic circumstances, social situations, or individual interpretations of moral dilemmas. For example, replies to moral dilemmas frequently reflect either a care for others' perspective or a justice and rights perspective. Morality of care perspectives consider more responsibility toward, interest in, and nurturance of others. Morality of justice perspectives do not consider personal ideas of right and wrong, but reflect theoretical, visionary, and complex notions of morality. When assessing replies to moral dilemmas, some researchers have found that females more than males reflect a morality of care and that males more than females reflect a morality of justice. On the whole, however, Kohlberg's stages reflect a range of human possibility in moral reasoning and have provided a foundation for future theory and research.

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