Where do you draw the moral line?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg expanded on Jean Piaget’s research to form a theory that explains the development of moral reasoning. He presented dilemmas to children and had them explain their reasoning behind their answers. The responses were classified into various stages of reasoning that make up Kohlberg’s theory.

We had an interesting discussion about moral development in class Wednesday. We were presented with one of Kohlberg’s dilemmas and then discussed our reactions.
The following is one of Kohlberg’s dilemmas.

Heinz Steals the Drug
“In Europe, 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 make. 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 the husband have done that?” (Kohlberg, 1963).

As is to be expected, opinions in class varied greatly. Many had no problem admitting they would certainly steal the drugs, and deal with the consequences later. Many indicated that they had concerns about the consequences and how this might affect the children, if there were any. Others stated that killing or shooting the pharmacist would not align with their values.

The scenario is likely purposefully vague. If given details about the family and method of obtaining the drug, this information would likely cause individuals to answer differently, as they would have more factors to consider, rather than going with a gut instinct, or immediate reaction to the scenario.

As counselors, we will need to be aware that each person has their own set of “rules” that constitute criminality and morality. I have rules for myself, just as you have rules for yourself. We do not develop morally at the same pace, so what is acceptable for me may not be acceptable for others, even if they are in my age group. For example, I saw an interview with a confessed murderer who was in jail. He was discussing facts about his case, and the interviewer questioned him about recent developments that were apparently untrue. The young man immediately stated that the information was incorrect, adamantly stating “I am not a liar!” This struck me as odd. He is a confessed murderer, but lying was obviously unacceptable for him. Lying was his line that he would not cross. This made me think about what my line is.

It will be important to determine where our clients are in their moral as well as emotional and cognitive development. Just because something is right or wrong for me doesn’t mean that others agree. Determining the reason behind a person’s decision may be more important than the decision itself. Counselors must always try to “see” from our clients’ perspectives, rather than our own. Doing this will ensure that our clients feel heard and not judged.

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