Kohlberg's Level Three
Postconventional Morality

... so-called because the moral principles that underline the conventions of a society are understood.

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society ... with an emphasis upon the possibility of changing law in terms of rational consideration of social utility (rather than rigidly maintaining it in terms of Stage 4 law and order)." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern is social utility or public interest. While rules are needed to maintain social order, they should not be blindly obeyed but should be set up (even changed) by social contract for the greater good of society. Right action is one that protects the rights of the individual according to rules agreed upon by the whole society.

Possible Stage 5 responses to Heinz Dilemma:

         Heinz should steal the drug because everyone has the right to life regardless of the law against stealing. Should Heinz be caught and prosecuted for stealing then the law (against stealing) needs to be reinterpreted because a person's life is at stake.

         The doctor scientist's decision is despicable but his right to fair compensation (for his discovery) must be maintained. Therefore, Heinz should not steal the drug.

Note: Opposite responses could be given at each stage or different reasons could be given for the same response.

Inadequacy of Stage 5 reasoning: How do we arrive at a consensus on the rules that are good for society? Should a majority group impose their preferences on a minority group? What if you disagree with the decision of the majority? Would you then disobey "their" rules?

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the golden rule, the categorical imperative) and are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Explanatory Notes:

         The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

         The Categorical Imperative: "Act so as to treat any rational being as an end-in-himself and never merely as a means." In other words, a moral law that is unconditional or absolute and which does not depend on any ulterior motive or end. Compare "You shall not steal" with "Do not steal if you want respect in the community." The former is an end-in-itself ... a categorical imperative.

Summary: The concern is for moral principles ... an action is judged right if it is consistent with self-chosen ethical principles. These principles are not concrete moral rules but are universal principles of justice, reciprocity, equality and human dignity.

Possible Stage 6 response to Heinz Dilemma: Heinz should steal the drug to save his wife because preserving human life is a higher moral obligation than preserving property.

Inadequacy of Stage 6 reasoning: Our conscience may not an infallible guide to behaviour if it works only according to the principles we have adopted. This raises the question: who or what determines these universal principles?