Moral and ethical thinking

Questioning the way society behaved in the past and the influence of those events and actions subsequently is a moral and ethical challenge. Kholberg’s six stages of moral thinking relate to our capacity to consider others’ viewpoints (Kohlberg 1976) and may help us understand young people and our own ‘internally persuasive dialogues’.

  • At stage 1 only one right view is considered as legitimate, which is generally the view of authority.
  • At stage 2 different interests, viewpoints and perspectives are considered which tend to be relative to individuals and their situations.
  • At stage 3, a more empathic process and concern for other’s feelings is evident.
  • At Stage 4 broader, society-wide perspectives are considered, although in some cases rights are legitimised by the authority and values of a particular social or religious group (e.g., by the Bible) which is used to justify a certain position or line of action.
  • At stage 5 a more idealised view comes to the fore which recognises that different social groups may have different values, but that all have basic rights that should be upheld through the law and by democratic means. In some cases, however the law may be called into question, for example, a majority may vote for a law that hinders a minority.
  • At Stage 6 the claims of all parties are treated in an impartial manner, guiding decisions that are based on an equal respect for all and therefore not implementing laws that aid some people but hurt others.

An issue that distinguishes stage 5 from stage 6 is civil disobedience.

  • At Stage 5 individuals would be hesitant to endorse civil disobedience because of its commitment to the social contract and to changing laws through democratic agreements. But when an individual right is clearly at stake violating the law seem justified.
  • At stage 6, a commitment to justice makes the rationale for civil disobedience stronger and broader and requires civil disobedience (Kohlberg, 1981, p. 43). . Martin Luther King, for example, argued that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. At the same time he recognized the general need for laws and democratic processes (stages 4 and 5), and therefore was willing to accept the penalties for his actions.