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(HOST) In the wake of events in New Orleans, commentator Allen Gilbert has been thinking about a course he once took on moral development.

(GILBERT) If you’ve ever taken a sociology or psychology course, there’s a good chance you’ve run into Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

Kohlberg worked in the years following World War II. Along with many others at the time, he wanted to understand how people made moral choices. His research told him that we react differently to moral dilemmas. Some people essentially make the choices they’re told to make, by political leaders or other powerful persuaders. Some people follow the law no matter the consequences — because it is the law. Other people make choices based on a firm, unyielding respect for human life and people’s individual dignity.

Kohlberg said that as we grow we move from one level of moral development to another. A child starts on a simple level, listening to his or her parents. When we can make decisions for ourselves, we may move to a higher level. Kohlberg said that there are six levels of development, but that not everyone progresses through all six. Some people stop at level two, three, or four. Few actually reach level six, he said.

Pretty theoretical stuff. But here comes the interesting part. Kohlberg devised a simple test to determine a person’s level of moral development. The test involves responding to a hypothetical situation. A man’s wife is sick. She will die unless she gets some special medicine that a doctor has developed. The doctor is charging an exorbitant amount, however. The man tries every legal means to get the money he needs. He even visits the doctor to ask for a discount or a chance to pay later, but the doctor refuses. Should the man break into the doctor’s laboratory and steal the medicine to save his wife’s life? Why or why not?

The reasons you give to justify your decision show the level of moral development you’ve reached. You might say that the man shouldn’t steal the medicine because then he’ll be put in prison. Or maybe you’ll say that he should because his wife expects him to. Or you might say that saving a life is more important than protecting someone’s right to make a profit.

I’ve thought a lot about Kohlberg’s levels of moral development since hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’ve all heard the stories of looters breaking into stores to steal goods – sometimes essentials such as water, food, and medicines, and sometimes other things. Maybe you’ve also heard the stories told last week on Ira Glass’s NPR show, “This American Life,” stories about police who shot at refugees trying to flee the city, because the police didn’t want “those” kinds of people in their towns across the river.

It hasn’t been easy to tell who have been the bad guys and who have been the good guys in this hellish drama. But there’s no doubt that the forces of chaos that impelled Kohlberg to study moral reasoning in the first place were at play in New Orleans. We have a lot of soul searching to do as a nation to try to understand how moral choices were made during this disaster.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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