This essay was taken from my book, “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life,” which you can download for free.
KOHLBERG’S THEORY OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT
A scientific way to begin explaining the logic of morals is to look at it through a framework developed by psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. My theory picks up where his ends, but before I get to that, I’ll explain Kholberg’s theory.
Kohlberg argued that part of growing up involves developing morals. No doubt we can all agree with that, but what he specifically focused on in his research was how our morals develop. In order to find that out he performed a study where he asked people of all ages what they thought the right thing to do would be in the following theoretical situation:
“A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, ‘No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.’ So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?”
Kohlberg didn’t care whether you answered yes or no. He just wanted to know why you gave your answer. Go ahead and answer this question for yourself and see what Kohlberg had to say about your level of moral development.
He found that humans (have the potential to) progress through six stages of moral reasoning. Pay special attention to the last two words of the previous sentence, “moral reasoning.” Morals aren’t just answers to be remembered. Morals are a thought process, a formula to be calculated.
The first level of moral reasoning is most common in young children. They do what they’re told by authority figures because if they don’t they’ll be punished. That’s as far as their reasoning goes.
The second stage is basically defined by selfishness. Children at this stage believe that they should do what’s best for them even at the expense of others. The only time they’ll help someone else is if there’s something in it for them.
The third stage develops in adolescence. Here the individual is primarily concerned with social approval. If everyone else is doing it then it’s okay. In addition to basing morals on social standards people at this level of moral reasoning also tend to think that good intentions justify destructive behavior.
In the fourth stage, the individual believes the world has rules, and it’s responsible to follow those rules because those are the rules, and the rules are good because…those are the rules. This level of thinking is typical of older high school students.
The fifth stage is a little more abstract and is easily spotted among college students. People at this level believe that laws are social contracts we make to keep us safe, but rights are more important than laws, and laws can be changed if we change them in a democratic way. People at this level of moral reasoning also say laws should do the greatest good for the greatest number.
Kohlberg said very few people, if anybody, reaches level six, which involves abstract thinking and a commitment to following rules only because they’re true and not because the outcome will have any empirical consequence to the individual. This level of reasoning also follows that rules are made for people; people are not made for rules, and if a rule ceases to help people, then the rule is no longer valid and can be morally broken.
So what’s the secret to reaching the highest level of moral reasoning? Sure, you have to think logically and abstractly, but that statement is basically vague to the point of being useless. We can be more precise than that.
In order to think at level six you need a logical, systematic, empirically valid measuring stick. The ultimate measuring stick is the meaning of life since the value of everything you do can be measured relative to how it helps/hurts you/others fulfill the meaning of life.
Once you decide what the purpose of life is then you can judge any action relative to whether it helps or hinders accomplishing that goal. Even if you can’t figure out the meaning of life, the fact still remains that an objective system of ethics must be built relative to a goal. If you can’t decide what the objective meaning of life is then you can still decide for yourself what you think the value of life is and what you believe is the most important goal to accomplish in life. Once you have that you can reverse engineer a system of ethics around it. Without that, you’ll never be able to build a coherent, logical system of ethics.
I can’t prove that my theory on the meaning of life is the end-all truth, and my goal isn’t to convince you it is. My goal is to demonstrate how you can reverse engineer a system of ethics relative to a proposed meaning of life.
My theory is built on the assumption that the meaning of life is to fulfill your potential. Let’s see what kind of ethical measuring stick we can reverse engineer out of that.
MY MEASURING STICK
My system of ethics is based on four principles:
1. A living creature’s worth comes from the fact that it’s alive. All living things are equally valuable.
2. The meaning of life for every living thing is to fulfill its potential.
3. Every living thing needs to eat other living things to survive. Every living thing must vie for the same resources to survive.
4. The most basic need in life is survival. The second is safety. The third is self-actualization. The fourth is free will.
Let’s take each of these four principles and look at them a little more in-depth.
1: A living creature’s worth comes from the fact that it’s alive. All living things are equally valuable.
Every living thing is infinitely valuable, period. This also means that every person is equally valuable regardless of what they’ve done, what level of education they have, or what rank anyone has bestowed upon them.
One implication of this is that murder is inherently immoral as is the death penalty as long as the option exists to keep a murderer in prison. This rule also validates the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If everyone is equal then whatever you do to one person is morally equivalent to doing it to anyone else, including yourself. If you hurt someone else it’s the same as hurting yourself. If you kill someone else it’s the same as committing suicide.
2: The meaning of life for every living thing is to fulfill its potential.
If the meaning of life for every living thing is to fulfill its potential, and everyone is equal then preventing or helping someone else fulfill the meaning of life is the same as preventing or helping yourself fulfill the meaning of life.
This means you’re morally obligated to fulfill the meaning of life for yourself, and to the extent that you’re obligated to do that you’re equally obligated to help everyone else fulfill the meaning of life.
An action is only responsible if it helps you accomplish the goal of surviving and fulfilling the meaning of life in the long run. An action is only moral if it helps other people accomplish the goal of surviving and fulfilling the meaning of life in the long run.
Every society has rules that have no relationship to morality. For example, cuss words have no effect on fulfilling your potential as a living being. This means there’s no logical justification for considering cuss words immoral or punishing people who say cuss words on television or radio. The only basis for the supposed immorality of cuss words is cultural ignorance. The same thing goes for the taboos against masturbation, nudity, homosexuality, polygyny, etc.
3: Every living thing needs to eat other living things to survive. Every living thing must vie for the same resources to survive.
It sounds very idealistic to say that all living things are infinitely valuable, and we should help everyone and everything achieve its potential, but those ideals hit a snag when applied to the real world because every living thing needs to eat other living things in order to survive. Every living also needs to compete for the same resources to survive. This means we’re acting immorally every time we take a bite of food or collect a paycheck. How can we ever in good conscience go on living knowing someone or something else has to die so we can live?
In order to get past this, we need to take emotions out of the equation for a moment. The fact is this is the world we live in, and the survival of the fittest is one of the rules of the game. If every living thing is equal, then it we all have an equal right to consume each other in the fight to survive and grow. In cases where one living thing must die for another to live the one that should live is the one who is able.
Remember, this philosophy applies only to cases of life and death. Saying that the strong should survive is different from saying the strong should exploit the weak. Remember, we’re all equally valuable. This means we’re equally obligated to help those we can when there’s no immediate conflict for survival. Regardless of how strong you are, it’s still immoral to needlessly hurt or exploit those less powerful than you.
Look at how this applies to war and self-defense. If it’s wrong to kill then what do you do if a mugger or an army attacks you? Given that both your lives are equally valuable you would be justified in either defending yourself or allowing them to kill you. However, if you knew that your attacker was going to kill someone else after you then you would be obligated to try to disarm them by the least violent method possible. If it’s impossible to disarm them without killing them then they’ve forced your hand and made it moral for you to kill them in self-defense.
What about abortion? According to this concept, abortion would be wrong if your only reason for getting one was avoiding the responsibility of being a parent. However, if having a baby threatened the mother’s life, or if food were so scarce in the local environment someone else would have to starve in order to feed the baby, then you would be justified in aborting it.
Let’s apply this to stealing. Why is stealing inherently wrong? There has to be a more concrete reason than “because God said so” or “because it’s against the law.” Why would God or the lawmakers say it’s wrong? It all comes down to resources. You traded your infinitely valuable time to work for the money you have and the things you’ve bought. Stealing money or possession is the same as stealing life. However, this means there’s no inherent immorality in stealing what has been stolen. Furthermore, you would be morally justified to steal if it were the only way for you to survive. However, that doesn’t mean the law should let you steal either. The law has to protect people’s rights. Of course, if we all managed and shared our resources wisely in the first place nobody would need to steal.
4: The most basic need in life is survival. The second is safety. The third is self-actualization. The fourth is free will.
When a conflict of interest exists between two living things the one who should be allowed to proceed with their interest is the one whose interest addresses the most basic need. When the conflict of interest is equal then the creature who should be allowed to proceed with their interest is the one that can. If there’s ever a conflict of interest where it’s possible for both beings to be reasonably accommodated without one trumping the other, then they should take the path of accommodation.
Let’s apply Kohlberg’s moral dilemma to this list. Is Heinz right to steal the medicine from the crooked doctor to save his spouse’s life? That depends.
1. The most basic need in life is survival.
If the doctor was overcharging so he could buy medicine to save his own life from another terminal illness then the doctor was right to overcharge, but Heinz would also be right to try to steal the medicine.
2. The second is safety.
Suppose the doctor was overcharging solely to secure his retirement. Even though this still equates to a battle for survival the wife’s immediate survival would trump the doctor’s future safety. Thus, Heinz would be justified in stealing the medicine. However, stealing the medicine would only be justified as long as his wife’s illness was terminal. Even then, if he had to take money out of his own retirement fund to heal his non-terminally ill wife then he would be justified in stealing for the sake of his and his wife’s future safety. However, if Heinz ever came across an abundance of money in the future he would be morally obligated to pay back the doctor so he could secure his precarious retirement as well.
3. The third is self-actualization.
The doctor is as morally obligated to achieve self-actualization as he’s also morally obligated to help everyone else achieve self-actualization. Regardless of whether or not Heinz’s wife was terminally ill, by the doctor overcharging patients for his medicine he’s limiting the resources they can use to help themselves achieve self-actualization. If the doctor is merely overcharging to hoard profits he’s guilty of theft with no excuse and should be held accountable. If nothing else he should be forced to charge a fair amount for his medicine.
As for Heinz, he should steal the life-saving medicine and leave enough money in the doctor’s office to pay for the true cost of the medicine with maybe a little bit extra if he can afford it.
4. The fourth is free will.
The case of the Heinz V.S. the greedy doctor doesn’t extend this far into morality since it’s only about life and death. But once someone has secured their survival and achieved self-actualization their only obligation in life is to exercise their self-actualization by doing whatever it is they want to do (as long as that doesn’t break any of the previous three tenants of morality). Though if anyone else around you is suffering or in need, their plight takes precedence over your fancies.