11/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Stages of Moral Development

You may have seen the recent installment of advertisements for HSBC bank. Titled "Different Values," these new ads feature three pictures of the same object with three different captions. The most compelling of these ads features the picture of a lost wallet lying open on the sidewalk, with the captions "Misfortune," "Obligation," and "Temptation." These captions describe very different types of values: An apathetic person sees the lost wallet as simply someone else's misfortune. A caring person sees an obligation to find the owner and return the wallet, and a narcissistic person sees an opportunity to enrich himself through someone else's loss.

The HSBC ads remind us that although we may think that our view of a person or event is objective, these views are really quite subjective. Based on our experiences, education, upbringing, culture, personal inclination, and level of self-investigation, we all see the world through our own individual lens, which creates our model for understanding our experiences. These models can often be discerned by the language that a person uses to describe "how things are."

One person may declare, Look, it's every man or himself. Given the opportunity, others will take what they want, so I'll take mine while I have the chance.

Another may confidently tell us, My culture/religion/ethnic background/country is the only true way. Others are incomplete, inaccurate, or, at worst, harmful. Ideally, everyone should come to my group's way.

Or, The only avenue to knowledge is rational investigation and measurement. Any other approach is either wishful thinking or superstition.

Or, Hey, whatever works for you is fine. It's all relative anyways, so who are you to say what's right or wrong? In the end, we should all simply do what feels right for each of us...

Or finally, I want it. Give it to me!

Although the HSBC ad presents these different viewpoints with the implication of equal worth, all are not equal; that is, different viewpoints create different consequences. We know that diligently returning a lost wallet to its owner is a higher impulse than indifferently passing by, or than happily keeping the wallet for yourself.

We can say, then, that our view of the world grows in stages. Just as life grew evolutionarily, and human beings grow physically, socially, mentally, we also grow in how we interpret what occurs in our lives -- in our morality. Psychologists have studied moral development from this perspective, and have discovered that humans grow through identifiable and necessary levels. The simplest model of these levels was created by researcher Lawrence Kohlberg in his famous 1958 study of morality development. He identified three specific levels:

  1. Pre-conventional. This may also be thought of as Egocentric. A person at this level focuses primarily on personal gratification, and decisions are based on expectation of reward or punishment, detached from any personal sense of morality. In other words, if you can get away with it, do it! This level is found mainly in small children before their teen years, but of course can also be found in an adult who, for a variety of possible reasons, has stopped growth here. The person who sees a lost wallet as a temptation for personal gain is at this level.
  2. Conventional: This may also be thought of as Ethnocentric. At this level, one's view of the world is based on the agreed-upon values of the group to which you belong, preserving personal relationships, receiving approval, avoiding disapproval, and maintaining social order. This level usually begins once one becomes a teenager, (although, again, one can stay here for life) and stems from realizing that the Pre-conventional view is destructive to society. At this level, one's morality is determined by external authority, and embraced as unchallengeable doctrine. The person who sees a lost wallet as simply someone else's misfortune is probably at this level.
  3. Post-conventional, or Worldcentric: Finally, in adulthood, an individual sees that Conventional morality can be limiting and even harmful (think of repressive governments, dogmatic religions, or abusive work environments), and begins to ask questions about what is good for humanity and the world. A person at this stage will challenge the black and white delineations of Ethnocentric views, and will work towards creating a just society. The person who sees a lost wallet as an obligation operates at this level.

Later psychologists and philosophers identified an additional level, often referred to as Integrated, Universal, or Mystical. This level recognizes that all the previous levels contain value, and sees the journey of growth in the context of ultimate concerns: the very purpose of our existence.

Regardless of our culture or background, we all must move through these stages. As levels ascend, the focus on "things" shrinks as concern for others grows. Most people, however, can not imagine the next level, since we tend to believe that our interpretation is factually objective. We become open to a new point of view through the example - or conscious mentorship -- of someone who operates at the next level, and who helps us to see the possibility of growth to a new view.

These levels have a dramatic and direct impact on our lives - on our happiness, effectiveness, and success. We know that our views tend to create the results that we expect. If we truly believe that life is unfair, that we are helpless, or that others will take advantage of us, we will respond accordingly, and will attract others who share our orientation, reinforcing our self-defeating view. We can, however, choose to ascend to higher levels.

Human beings have the capacity and desire to grow, and this desire for growth is an inherent drive embedded in all creation. Most wisdom traditions teach that our primary purpose here is to travel this path of growth in order to raise the level awareness, thereby improving the world for everyone.