Why do we do what we do?

Ever wonder why you feel some things are wrong, and some are right? It all boils down to how we developed morally through our childhood and adolescence stages. It’s a common notion to just blatantly think “stealing is bad”, but there was a process that occurred to develop these feelings. A process that seems to be overlooked because it’s somewhat natural in its stages.

According to Kohlberg, there are six stages we go through in developing our morals, and each play a vital role in how ethical we’ve become today. These stages are paired into levels, pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional morality, respectively. Below are these levels and stages listed in the order in which they are learnt.

Level 1: Pre-conventional Morality

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange

Level 2: Conventional Morality

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order

Level 3:Post-conventional Morality

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights

Stage 6: Universal Principles

The pre-conventional level is one in which we learn as children, understand the basics of what right and wrong. Stage one maintains that our learning comes from obeying our parents and receiving punishment as conditioning for doing wrong. This is where we learn that “stealing is bad” only because our parents say it’s bad, and that we can be punished for disobeying our parents. Then we begin to grasp the notions of stage 2, where we learn that there are many people with many different views, and each person is entitled to an opinion. For example, we learn that our parents view stealing as bad, but not everyone has the same opinion as our parents. The whole pre-conventional morality level is where we think as individuals but not as members of a society.

Conventional morality begins to teach us how to be members of society, and usually commences during the adolescences years. We learn how to interact with people and how to maintain and foster relationships through not only looking out for our best interests, and not only fearing the consequences of doing wrong but also because of pure goodwill. This concept relates to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, in which something is determined to be morally ethical if the action and motive are truly right. In this sense, you must be doing the right things, for the right reason. After completing stages 3 and 4 of the conventional morality level, we are fully members of society.

A greater moral development emerges from the post-conventional morality level, in which we learn how to keep society function, but also how to improve the ways in which it does function. At the level, ideologies of what is morally right become apparent. Some take the view of a utilitarian, a cultural relativist, an ethical egoist or a virtue theorist. All these views have different ways in which they decide what is morally right, whether it be based on the outcome of an action, the motive of the action, the act itself or the character that performs the action.

So why do these stages matter? Essentially, they allow us to see where we developed our ideas and beliefs on what is considered right or wrong. In turn, we develop an almost existentialist view of our learning process, and become better informed on how people think and resultantly behave.

This deeper understanding about our moral ideologies can also correlate with locus of control theories. Different people have different loci of control, these being either external or internal locus with a strong or weak affect. Our locus of control determines what we feel our success and failures are attributed by, and how much control we have over these outcomes. You can test your locus of control here.

People with an internal locus of control feel that they control their fate through their effort and decisions, and oppositely, people with an external locus of control feel that they have little control over what happens to them, that circumstances and external factors take over in determining their lives.

I found that I have a “somewhat” more internal than external locus of control. This made me realize that I mainly feel that I have the power to change the outcome of my life, and that everything is not predetermined. However, there are a few things, such as the occasional streak of bad luck, which can harm my efforts.

Works Cited:

Johnson, Robert, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/kant-moral/

Larmer, R. A. (2002). Selected Readings in Business Ethics. Wadsworth.

PsychTests. (2011). Locus of Control Test. Retrieved from Discovery Health: cl1.psychtests.com/take_test.php?idRegTest=2974

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. Online Excerpt 


5 responses to “Why do we do what we do?

  1. Reading your blog really got me wondering; where does the breakdown of morals and ethics occurs when it comes to individual development? I am sure all those big corporate CEOs were not raised on the notion that it is ok to steal money, succeed on the fall of others and generally behave in acts that law itself has deemed unethical. If “conventional morality” stage happens during adolescence, during which there is still a lot of parental guidance, then it must be in the “post-conventional morality” stage that these individuals develop their own views and ideas on which ethical practices they might choose to follow.

    From the very first stage we are taught that individually you are fully responsible for your actions. In the second stage we are taught that others might be affected from your individual actions. As a result most individuals will not act immorally during these first two stages, of course there are exceptions to every rule. But, what I think happens is that once we become adults we become aware that you cannot be punished for your actions unless you are actually caught. And, I think, as a result when we become adults and reach the “social contract and individual rights” stage we might feel a greater sense of entitlement; maybe this is why some of these big CEOs seem to have lost all their morals, and just take as much as they want with no regard for consequences.

    I also did the locus of control test and found out that I, too, have a more internal locus of control. I find that I am extremely motivated, and I always feel that there is a direct link between what I do and the results that I achieve.

    I wonder if a more external or internal locus of control exists in individuals who choose to act immorally or unethically. Any thoughts?

    • I think the corruption of morals can happen in the post-conventional morality stage. Looking into different ethical theories allows us to see what other people may consider their basis for their judgement on whats morally right. I think if one chooses the ethical egoist view as a basis of their moral choices, a theory which expresses doing what is in ones own self-interest is what is morally right, then corruption could happen. It is a selfish theory, but a valid theory nonetheless.

      You brought up that the locus of control, whether it be external or internal, may be a factor in morality of ones actions. I agree with this idea, it is a plausible factor. If one is more external in their loci of control, they would feel that they have no real control of what happens to them, that life is almost predetermined or unchangeable in its path. If this is the case, why would one follow moral actions? If you have no control over what happens to you, why do what is right?

      Thanks for the insight!

  2. Interesting topic and well researched. It would have been a even more interesting read if there were some examples of these concepts from your life.
    Morality is a very interesting topic. It seems, some moral decisions are just that, a decision. But the decisions we make day to day, and year to year, collectively, definitely seems to be largely influenced by our upbringing and cultural surroundings.
    If I may attempt to summarize your points, it would be this:
    Moral family = moral people = moral culture.
    I am a big believer that the greatest advantage you can give someone is a strong foundation in the form of a healthy family. This kind of foundation extends beyond just morality. In my on-going observation, a healthy family seems to be the most influential factor in how someone will be in an intimate relationship, a leadership position, a moral dilemma, and the like.

    • Thanks for your input– I’m glad you enjoyed my blog post! I will work on incorporating myself more personally into my posts. I’m trying to do so, but there is always room for improvement. I too think a healthy family context whilst growing up attributes to a positive moral development. Thanks again!

  3. Where do you think the origins of morality spawned from? Obviously we get our first exposure as children from parents which really sets the foundation. However where did morality come from? Is it from nature? http://goo.gl/y4jrq this article argues that animals are “governed by a moral code”. Or is it our humanity, past and present man-made institution. Religion and culture I think have heavy influences. The reason I’m bringing this up is because maybe if we could better understand the root of morality, we could gain deeper understanding into why many do what they do.

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