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Moral Development

To a great extent, obedience to the law stems from a sense of moral obligation, which is the product of socialization. Only relatively recently, however, has there been some awareness of moral codes that are not necessarily linked to conventional external standards of right and wrong behavior but represent internally consistent principles by which people govern their lives.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1964, 1967) identified six stages of moral development. The first stage is described as an “obedience and punishment” orientation. This stage involves a “deference to superior power or prestige” and an orientation toward avoiding trouble. The second stage, “instrumental relativism,” includes naive notions of reciprocity With this orientation, people will attempt to satisfy their own needs by simple negotiation with others or by a primitive form of equalitarianism. He calls these two stages “premoral.” The third stage, “personal concordance,” is an orientation based on approval and pleasing others that involves conformity to perceived majority beliefs. Such people adhere to what they consider to be prevailing norms. Stage four is the “law and order” stage. People with such orientations are committed to “doing their duty” and being respectful to those in authority. Stages three and four combine to form a conventional moral orientation.

Stages five and six indicate the internalized-principle orientation. Kohlberg calls stage five the “social contract” stage; it involves a legalistic orientation. Commitments are viewed in contractual terms, and people at this stage will avoid efforts to break implicit or explicit agreements. The final and highest stage of moral development is “individual principles.” This emphasizes conscience, mutual trust, and respect as the guiding principles of behavior.

If the development theory proposed by Kohlberg is correct, the law is more or less limited depending on the stage of moral development of individual members of a society. In this context, David J. Danelski (1974:14-15) suggested that both qualitative and quantitative considerations are important. We would need to know the modal stage of the moral development of elites, of “average” citizens, and of deprived groups. If most members of a society were at the first and second stages, institutional enforcement would be essential to maintain order and security. Law would be least limited in a society in which most people were at the third and fourth stages of development. Law at the last two stages is probably more limited than at stages three and four, “but it might be otherwise if it is perceived as democratically agreed upon and consistent with individual principles of conscience. If it is not, it is likely to be more limited” (Danelski, 1974:15). The limits of law, in other words, appear to be curvilinear with respect to moral development.

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