The Illusion of Stage Six

Journal of Moral Education 9 (2):103-109 (1980)
Abstract Kohlberg's developmental theory of moral reasoning postulates a supremely adequate form of moral thinking to which all other stages are tending, labelled Stage Six. Kohlberg identifies this with a principle of justice, though without adequately justifying the elimination of other autonomous universal principles. The claim that this principle provides consistent, reversible and universalizable moral judgements is criticized: by itself a purely formal principle of justice can provide no particular moral judgements at all; for that we need independent values, such as the value of life which Kohlberg appeals to, but does not justify, in his discussions of the Heinz dilemma. More generally there is no reason to expect that any form of moral reasoning will be supremely adequate in Kohlberg's sense, providing a solution to all moral problems and dilemmas. The principle of justice is merely one among the many specifically moral principles which Kohlberg locats at Stage Five, albeit the one which he personally happens to favour. Perhaps the most striking feature of Lawrence Kohlberg's many accounts of his cognitive?developmental theory of moral reasoning is the crucial importance which he attaches to the form of reasoning labelled Stage Six, when it is a stage of development that only a tiny minority of individuals actually attain. Indeed it appears that even that number has had to be revised downward in the light of changes to the theory and scoring system, until it begins to seem that only a handful of saints and heroes, such as Socrates or Martin Luther King, remain. In fact so slender is the empirical evidence for a separate form of Stage Six reasoning that the official scoring manual (Kohlberg et al., 1977) prefers to ignore it altogether. Clearly, then, the case for Stage Six must be almost wholly theoretical, not to say philosophical, as the supremely adequate form of moral thinking to which all other stages are tending. And by the same token it may seem that criticisms of Kohlberg's claims for Stage Six will leave the rest of the theory untouched. But that, I think, is to underestimate the significance of Stage Six. It is the apogee of his system, providing both a focus and a rationale for the stage?development that allegedly leads to it; it is as crucial to the theory as Kohlberg's own writings make it. Without Stage Six the cognitive?developmental account stands in need of radical re?thinking, to put it no higher
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DOI 10.1080/0305724800090204
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