Sunday, December 16, 2012



Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), a Harvard University Professor of Psychology, developed a widely accepted theory on the stages of our moral development in the 1970s.  Basically, he believed that people progressed in their moral reasoning and ethical behavior through a series of six identifiable stages:

Level 1: Pre-Conventional

1. Obedience and Punishment orientation—a primary school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because they are told to do so; they’re rewarded for their good behavior and punished for their bad behavior.

2. Self-Interest orientation—a middle school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because it’s in their own self-interest.

Level 2: Conventional

3. Social norms orientation—a high school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave in order to gain the approval of others.

4. Law and Order orientation—a mature adult level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because they want to be dutiful, law-abiding citizens.

Level 3: Post-Conventional

5. Social Contract orientation—a personally intrinsic level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others.
6. Principled Conscience orientation—a universal principled level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because of their individual conscience.

Dr. Kohlberg believed that people cannot skip from one stage of moral development to another, but that we can only progress through each stage one at a time.  In order to get to the next higher stage of moral development, we must comprehend a moral rationale for going to the next higher level.  In fact, most all of us often will regress to earlier stages of moral development and have to relearn the rationale for getting back on track (e.g. people issued tickets for moving violations, convicted criminals, those who are trying to overcome addictions like alcohol, those suffering the consequences of bad behavior, etc.)  He also didn’t believe the majority of us ever get to the last stages of moral development.  In the past century, maybe only Mahatma Gandhi or Saints like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa ever achieved these levels.

Contemporary Psychologist and author, Dr. David Lieberman in his book Make Peace with Anyone makes a compelling argument that to be happy, have good relationships, and be psychologically balanced, a person must feel good about themselves.  Feeling good about ourselves is called self-esteem or self-respect or self-love.  And self-esteem is a byproduct of how we live our lives.  If we do not respect ourselves then we cannot truly love ourselves nor respect and love others.

In order to have self-esteem, Dr. Lieberman argues, we must consistently make wise and morally good choices.  In other words, if we do what is right we’ll (more often than not) feel good about ourselves and improve our self-esteem; but if we do what is wrong, we’ll feel guilt, embarrassment, and shame and lose our self-esteem. 

Furthermore, our personal freedom and independence allow us to make choices; so if we’re coerced into making certain choices, it’ll rob us of our personal freedom and harm our self-esteem.  This is what sparks many human conflicts, writes Dr. Lieberman.

Dr. Lieberman explains that there are three underlying motivations behind our choices: 1) We can choose what feels good (Dr. Kohlberg’s level one); for example, overeating, laziness, abusing drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or any immoderate, unwholesome, behavior; 2) We can choose what makes us look good (Dr. Kohlberg’s level two); for example, not living for ourselves but for our image; any behavior that projects a worldly, materialistic, self-centered image; being consumed with money, power, control, or vanity; or 3) We can choose what is good! (Dr. Kohlberg’s level three).  Only the third alternative of choosing responsibly and wisely will give us true freedom, self-respect, improve our self-esteem, and allow us to live at peace with others.

Reverend Robert Fulghum in his famous book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten eloquently describes the wisdom we all learned as children:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday school. These are the things I learned:
             Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup—they all die. So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all—LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere: The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation; ecology and politics and equality and sane living. Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. And it is still true, no matter how old you are—when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

In short, the keys to living well are really quite simple: if we wouldn’t allow our children to behave in certain ways towards others, why would we behave that way towards others?

In a popular motivational fable by an unknown author there was once an old man who had a habit of walking along the beach every morning.  One morning when he went to the beach he discovered there had been a strong storm the previous night that had washed thousands of starfish up onto the beach.

Then at a distance, he spotted a young man dancing along the beach. How odd the old man thought to himself; the beach is littered with soon to be rotting starfish and this young guy is dancing?  So he ran up to him to see why he was dancing.  As he got closer he saw that the young man wasn’t dancing at all but instead was reaching down and picking up starfish and very gently throwing them back into the ocean.

The old man asked him, “Good morning! What are you doing?”

The young man replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean!”

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” the old man asked.

The young man replied, “The sun is up, and the tide is going out; and if I don’t throw them back in the ocean they’ll surely die!”

“Young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach, and there must be thousands and thousands of starfish along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely, then bent down and picked up another starfish and gently threw it back into the ocean and said, “It made a difference for that one!”

The old man paused a bit and contemplated the enormity of the task and then bent down, picked up a starfish and gently threw it back into the ocean....

Each of us has the innate ability to learn from experience and make free choices in our lives.  This is what sets us apart from the animals.  We’re not locked into certain behavior patterns.  Each of us has the freedom to choose to become better people: more honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good people.  We can choose to continue to live self-centered lives, or we can choose to live others-centered lives.

Bill FitzPatrik of the American Success Institute ( wrote, You do not need to prove your might at the expense of others.  You do not need diplomas, awards or the acclaim of others to know who you are.  You do not need an audience to do the right thing.  You do not need a lot of money or many physical possessions to be happy.  You do not need stand first in line.  You do not need coaxing to fulfill your religious obligations.  You do not need lesions to act civilly.  You do not need prompting to help someone in need.  
When we live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives, we make life more meaningful and better not only for ourselves but for everyone else around us.  When we change for the better we help make the whole world a little better.  The Greek and Jewish philosophers all believed this, the science of psychology affirms this, and deep down inside we all know this to be true (natural law).  Mahatma Gandhi said: We must become the change we want to see.  So if we want to make our world a better place to live in, then, individually, each one of us must change for the better.   Change yourself and you’ll change the world.

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