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7 levels of moral development


7 levels of moral development

Each of us has our own personal sense of morality. People in conflict can have a clean conscience and a pure belief that they are right, yet completely disagree. In an argument, many people secretly believe that the other person is “bad” or “stupid”. We adults don’t usually verbalize this sentiment as children often do, but we think it!

How can we make true peace within ourselves and with others?

It helps to understand the 7 levels of moral development. Each level must be experienced before one can move to the next level. We are usually content to stay at our current level because it is familiar, but life delivers painful experiences to us that challenge our current belief system and push us to the next level. While we can easily look back and recognize the levels that we have already passed through, it is quite difficult to conceive of those levels that are higher.

What level are you?

Level 1: Reward and Punishment.

"If something is rewarded, it must be right. If something is punished, it must be wrong". It doesn’t even require a brain to operate at this level. Even plants and bacteria move toward reward. This level may be used to teach a toddler, but far too many adults still operate this way in their adult relationships.

Level 2: Marketplace Exchange. (Quid pro quo)

Motivation to do something is to get a reward. “I’ll do this for you, however, I expect you to do that for me”. This belief system leads straight to misery. Sadness from unmet expectations reveals that the motivation for behaving nicely was truly selfish; “What’s in it for me”?

Level 3: Social Conformity.

Motivation to do something is to fit in. Cults operate at this level, bringing new people into an environment where everyone else has unified beliefs. When caught doing something wrong, children at this level will justify their behavior by pointing out the bad behavior of others. Adults too.

Level 4: Law and Order.

Motivation to do something right relates to fairness. Everyone has to follow the same rules, and if violated, must pay the same penalty. It is designed to prevent bad behavior, and is powerless to inspire good behavior. If good behavior is legislated, a person may do the good behavior, but only to avoid punishment.

The operational motivation with levels 1-4 is selfishness. Our compliance enhances our own well-being. Even animals operate this way. God gave humans a spirit, so let’s move on to maturity.

Level 5: Love for others.

Motivation to do something right comes from love for that person. This may sometimes come into conflict with the law and inspire civil disobedience. It requires little cognitive ability, but does require emotional intelligence.

Level 6: Principles.

Motivation to do something right is driven by understanding cognitively why it is important. The prior level asks the question “What is the loving thing to do”, while level 6 asks the question “Why is this the loving thing to do”.

Level 7: Understanding friend of God.

In God’s perfect original design, He related to Adam and Eve as a friend. They walked and talked in the Garden of Eden and God cheerfully gave them every good thing. Satan’s temptation challenged the idea that God was a loving friend, (Level 7) and mankind took the bait. Sin then caused mankind to regress to base animal morality and behavior; (Levels 1-4). God sent Jesus to restore and heal us, and now calls us “Friends” again. Mankind now has the experiential knowledge of sin, but also has seen how loving and kind our Creator is. At level 7 we are mature and cooperate with His purposes, in love and understanding. This is the level of spirituality, motivated by love. It is love in action.

Examples of the 7 stages:

Child brushing teeth:

  1. I’ll brush my teeth ‘cause if I don’t mommy will yell at me.

  2. I’ll brush my teeth so mommy reads me a bedtime story.

  3. I’ll brush my teeth so the other kids won’t make fun of me.

  4. I’ll brush my teeth because everybody who gets caught not doing it has their phone taken away.

  5. I’ll brush my teeth because I love mommy and know that she loves me. I don’t know what difference brushing makes, but she would not ask me to do anything bad.

  6. I’ll brush my teeth because I don’t want mommy to have pay my dental bills to fix them. I love her too much to do that to her.

  7. I’ll brush my teeth so that I stay healthy and undistracted from God’s service.

Being married:

  1. I don’t want my wife to yell at me.

  2. If I give her everything she wants, she will have sex with me.

  3. Treating my wife nice in public makes me look good.

  4. As long as she gives her 50%, I’ll give my 50%. It’s only fair.

  5. I love my wife.

  6. I understand that giving loving care to my wife is good for both her and me.

  7. I freely express my love for my wife because I respect and admire her, plus she’s hot! Our kids see our example and are modeling love and respect to others.

Being a Christian:

  1. I don’t want to go to hell.

  2. If I give money to the church, I will get rich.

  3. I will go to church so that others will think well of me.

  4. By following God’s law, I will have a good life. I will avoid negative consequences and earn favor with God and man.

  5. I love God.

  6. I understand what God is up to on Earth and want to do my part.

  7. My love for God motivates me to walk with Him every day, listening for how I can express His love to others for His glory.

How God walked mankind through to maturity:

Level 1: Reward and punishment:

Gen 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Level 2: Marketplace Exchange / quid pro quo:

Mal 3:9-10 You are under a curse-the whole nation of you-because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.

Level 3: Social Conformity:

Num 12:14 The LORD replied to Moses, "If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back."

Level 4: Law and Order:

Deut 11:26-28 I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse — the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God

Col 2:22-23 regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, …but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Level 5: Love for others:

1 Cor 13:1-2 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Level 6: Principles:

1 John 2:4-5 The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him.

Level 7: Understanding friend of God:

John 15:15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends.

What do you think?

  • What level do your parents operate at when they talk to you?

  • Are you operating at a level that is appropriate for your children’s age and development? Are you moving them on to their next level?

  • At what level do you approach your spouse? Better question: What level is your dialog when you are arguing with your spouse?

  • What level is the company culture where you work? How can you be a change-agent to move the company dynamic to the next level?

  • Do you recognize that you may operate at several levels at once? For example, you may operate at one level at work, but another level at home. You may also operate at different levels with different people in the same environment. Comment on this.

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