There is a theory of moral development which says that people move through six stages. This theory was popularised by Lawrence Kohlberg based on his research studies conducted at Harvard’s Center for Moral Education.
His theory of moral development was dependent on the thinking of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the American philosopher John Dewey. These men said that human beings develop philosophically and psychologically in a progressive fashion as they grow up.
In stage one, people are concerned with obedience and punishment and the immediate results to themselves. The question they ask themselves is, ‘Will I be punished if I do this?’.
In stage two, people are still concerned about the consequences, but have moved on to thinking about what else is in it for them. They think, ‘You do a favour for me and I’ll do a favour for you.’
In stage three, people begin thinking about their social relationships. They want to be a good person so that they can seek approval from others.
In stage four, a functioning society is paramount, and people seek to obey laws and social conventions. If one person violates a law, perhaps everyone would, so there is an obligation to uphold the law.
In stage five, people think in terms of inalienable rights and liberties. Laws are seen as embodying social contracts, and such contracts are open to criticism. People at this level are interested not just in what society’s rules are, but in what makes a good society.
The theory says that people rarely reach stage six. If they did, they would show respect for universal principles and the demands of individual conscience, acting because it is right, not because it was legal or expected of them.
Although this theory of moral development has been criticised for being overly concerned with abstract principles such as justice, and not enough with care, it is still a useful framework for investigating your personal ethics.