I was having a conversation this morning in which a friend who happens to enjoy the occasional cannabis use was expressing frustration that he had to hide it from his family. His parents and siblings thought smoking cannabis was wrong because it was against the law, and that was all they needed to know. "It is illegal therefore it is wrong."

It reminded me of a framework developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to describe the development of moral reasoning. It's an interesting one to be aware of because it gives a framework for analysing morality, both your own and other people's, whereas without it you just rail in frustration at other people having different ideas about what is wrong. It isn't perfect, and has seen criticism - but still! It's interesting and useful, so I'm going to write about it.

The idea is that there are six stages of moral reasoning, grouped into three "levels." Each stage represents a way to judge things as right or wrong, using different base assumptions and rationality.


Focused on external punishment and rewards, the first two 'pre-conventional' stages are those taken by infants and children. Most people grow out of these in adolescence and adopt a slightly less egocentric view of the world.

1. Blind egoism

The lowest rung on the ladder is the first that we all learn, the first time you do something wrong and get scolded by your parents. There is very little concept of right and wrong beyond avoiding punishment; just a concept of 'If I do this, I will get punished' and the desire to avoid that. Anything that you won't get punished for is fair game, and if you won't get caught it's not wrong.

2. Instrumental egoism

Next comes self interest and the idea 'What's in it for me?'. At this rung of the ladder, children are self serving and seek to benefit themselves - if they show care for others well being, it's only for mutual gain. I do my chores because I get rewarded for it, not because I care about doing my share.


It gets a bit more interesting from here. A large chunk of the population, teenagers and adults, never 'grow out' of this stage.

3. Social relationships perspective

At the third rung of the ladder, you look to social consensus to decide what is right or wrong. In this way, 'right' is now decided based on how something will affect your relationships with others. The golden rule (treat others as you would wish to be treated) becomes a relevant standard, but not in the altruistic sense, in the sense that others prefer it this way.

4. Social Systems perspective

Moral reasoning here now looks beyond personal and interpersonal relationships and starts to look at society as a whole. People at this stage obey the law because it's necessary for society to function. At stage three, you wouldn't steal a friends car, but you might steal a strangers if you thought you wouldn't get punished and wouldn't lose standing in the eyes of your friends. At stage four, society comes into play - you avoid stealing because if you can steal, everyone could steal, and society would break down. At this stage breaking a law is seen as morally wrong.

This is also the stage that is relevant for my friend's anti-drug family; rather than evaluating whether or not smoking a little weed will do any harm to society, it's wrong because the law says it's wrong. Many people never outgrow this stage, where moral wrong is equated with legal wrong. At all the stages we've gone over so far, the concept of morality is in large part governed by external forces.


Also called 'principled,' this stage is called post-conventional because it takes moral reasoning to a level past where society conventionally operates. People at this level acknowledge that individuals are separate from society and at times society's view can conflict with an individuals. The societal view very much conflicted with those of principled individuals in the early days of black rights, women's rights and gay rights, but by now society has mostly shifted to match. Vegetarians and vegans these days (those that do it from principle, not because its trendy or to appear good - that would be rung three) are operating on this level; despite the societal view that killing and eating animals is fine, they instead operate on the principle that life is sacred and suffering is bad, regardless of species.

5. Contractual perspective

On this rung, legal frameworks are seen as social contracts - agreements made to help society function, not moral in and of itself. The needs of the individual can trump the law when the law isn't doing the most good, and if the law isn't doing the most good for all concerned then it can be changed. Democratic government is based upon this reasoning, and allows for the law to change when the majority wants to change it.

6. Mutual respect as a universal principle

In this stage, the highest rung on the ladder, moral reasoning is done by applying universal ethical principles, such as equality and justice. Taking the principle that every human should be treated equally leads to freeing slaves, taking the principle that the world should be just leads to disobeying unjust laws, and as mentioned above, taking the principles 'suffering is wrong' and 'animals can suffer' leads to vegetarianism, for those who are consistent in their beliefs.

This is actually a really hard level to exist at because it means taking actions that totally conflict with your gut. On a personal level, I acknowledge that the state of our farming industry is terrible for animals, but I still eat meat. On a more abstract level, this means pushing your friend in front of a train if it will save 100 lives - or jumping in front of the train yourself if no friend is around. This totally conflicts with the basic self interest we evolved as a species. Even people such as myself, who can acknowledge that this sounds correct from an abstract point of view, find it hard if not impossible to live and breathe on this rung every day.


There are definitely holes in the framework, most obviously that splitting morality into 6 defined stages is probably simplifying things a bit. The human brain is the most complex thing around and it seems unlikely that it follows such a strict path.

Another issue is that people seem to operate on different levels at different times - I know of people who take a hard-line fourth rung mentality against illegal drugs, and yet take a fifth rung mentality when it comes to gun laws, happily disobeying the laws around gun control when they think it doesn't do any harm. Or giving an example in the opposite direction, taking the second rung, egocentric mentality, when it comes to drunk driving.

Still, as the saying goes "all models are wrong, but some are useful". Rather than quibbling over the flaws, what I gain from this is a framework for analysing why someone has a certain moral outlook. To go back to the cannabis example, if your opinion comes from fifth rung reasoning and theirs is from fourth rung reasoning, you will never change their mind until you can elevate them to the fifth rung. A more considered approach to changing their mind is to give examples of their own behaviour that has disagreed with the law - elevate them to 5th rung thinking - and give evidence for why the law is wrong in this case too. This approach did work for said friend - although only on his siblings, not his parents.