Are You Trapped At Stage 4 of Kohlberg’s Scale of Moral Reasoning?

The majority of people can’t get past the idea that the law is the law and must be obeyed without question – which makes things hard for people who need medicinal cannabis

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg had a lifelong obsession with morality and moral reasoning, and the best-known result of his research was his six-point scale of moral reasoning. A continuation of the child development studies of Jean Piaget, the theory suggests that people develop through discrete stages of moral reasoning, with each stage more sophisticated, effective and enlightened than the previous ones. This article discusses the tremendous number of people trapped at stage 4 of the scale.

Kohlberg’s scale suggests that moral sophistication develops over the course of a person’s life, with entry into each new stage marked by a brand new perspective which is different to the old one but still a derivative of it, in the sense that the individual holding it has “grown up” and become more of a functioning adult.

Essentially, most people start out with a similar level of moral reasoning to that of a wild animal. Kohlberg euphemistically referred to this stage as “Pre-conventional” and it consists of the wretches who do nothing but try to avoid punishment in stage 1, and the narcissists and psychopaths who are only interested in personal advantage in stage 2.

Conventional reasoning is where most people are. In this stage, moral decisions are justified with reference to what other people in society do or believe. Stage 3 of this involves an effort to display good intentions as defined by social approval, and a person here tries to be good and be thought of as good, wanting to earn a pat on the head.

In stage 4, a person comes to appreciate the value of the law. In this stage it becomes possible for a person to reason to themselves the need to follow a law or social convention despite that the people around them are not doing so. Someone here is capable of overcoming being induced by peer pressure into doing something immoral or criminal.

This is not the most sophisticated stage of moral reasoning, but in the same way that most people are intellectually unremarkable they are also morally unremarkable. In other words, most people just follow the herd and are neither vicious nor Buddha-like, and so they develop to here and no further.

It is speculated that most people never reach stages 5 and 6 of moral reasoning – collectively known as “Post-conventional” reasoning – on account of that they have neither the courage to stand out from the herd nor the intelligence to determine when it might be correct to do so. At these stages a person is willing to break the law if doing so would uphold a higher moral principle.

Kohlberg used to test the participants in his studies with something called the Heinz dilemma. This is a thought experiment in which the participants are invited to ask themselves if they might consider it morally permissible to steal a medicine if this was necessary to afford the medical treatment of a loved one.

New Zealanders often find themselves faced with something that we might call the Renton dilemma, after Rose and Alex Renton, who faced it. The Renton dilemma could be described as whether or not to act in order to help a sick person get hold of medicinal cannabis despite that the medicine has been prohibited by whatever local ruling power has claimed the authority to do so.

If a person was stuck at stage 4 of Kohlberg’s scale of moral reasoning, at which point they put the importance of the law above everything else, they would argue that Rose Renton should not have tried to get hold of medicinal cannabis without the relevant government approval, because laws like this must be obeyed for the sake of social cohesion.

The reason why this is dilemma is because a person who follows the law would not help a sick person get hold of medicinal cannabis, ergo they would let a sick person suffer needlessly for the sake of upholding the law.

A person at stage 5 of Kohlberg’s scale might not reason in such a manner, perhaps deciding instead that acting to reduce the sum total of human suffering in the world was more important than mindless obedience to a law that the people never consented to, and which was forced upon them on false pretenses and supported by lies.

Anyone who can’t get their head around the idea that the law can be wrong is likely stuck at stage 4 of Kohlberg’s moral reasoning scale, and it’s on issues at the forefront of cultural change, like cannabis law reform, where they get the most confused. Unfortunately, these people are by far the majority and the herd rules under the laws of democracy.


Vince McLeod is the author of the Cannabis Activist’s Handbook.

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