Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Let me introduce Lawrence Kohlberg and his model of moral development to explore hedonism in a more nuanced manner. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development delineates six stages, organized into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

Pre-conventional Level: In the initial stage of moral development, individuals operate predominantly from a self-centered perspective. Their decisions are guided by obedience and fear of punishment (Stage 1) or self-interest and personal gain (Stage 2). At this stage, people’s choices are often driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, aligning with the hedonistic principle of seeking immediate personal gratification.

Conventional Level: In the second level, individuals begin to consider societal norms and expectations when making moral decisions. They aim to meet social and interpersonal obligations. Stage 3 focuses on seeking approval and nurturing positive relationships, while Stage 4 emphasizes the importance of following rules and laws to maintain social order. Though these stages may appear less hedonistic on the surface, they still involve a degree of seeking pleasure (approval, harmony, order) and avoiding pain (disapproval, conflict, chaos) as motivations for moral behavior.

Post-conventional Level: The third level of moral development introduces more intricate and abstract moral principles. In Stage 5, individuals recognize the significance of social contracts and the necessity to uphold them for the greater good, even if it means personal sacrifice. In Stage 6, the highest level, people adhere to universal ethical principles, even if they conflict with societal norms. While these stages may seem less hedonistic, they involve a different form of seeking pleasure: the satisfaction of moral integrity and a sense of purpose derived from adhering to deeply held ethical principles. For astute readers, you’ll notice that this description aligns with eudemonic pleasure, which is rooted in the pursuit of meaning and virtue.