Moral Decisions; Is it Ever Okay to Steal?

Sylvia is dying from a rare form of cancer. There is one drug the doctors think might save her recently developed by a druggist near her. The drug is expensive to make, about $400 for a small dose, but the druggist is charging ten times what it costs him to make the drug, about $4,000.

Her husband Heinz went to everyone he knew to borrow money to buy this drug for her, but he could only raise about $2,000. He told the druggist his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper, or let him pay for it later, but the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make all the money I can right now.” Heinz is desperate, and considering breaking into the man’s store and stealing the drug for his wife. Do you think it is okay for Heinz to steal the drug? How come?

Social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg often used stories like this to investigate the development of moral reasoning in people. He wasn’t as interested in whether people answered “yes” or “no”, to his questions as he was in the process they used to make the decision. Based on his research, he concluded that there are three distinct levels of morality, and each is based on the degree to which we conform to the conventional standards of society.

When Kohlberg talks about Conventional Morality, he means we define right or wrong based on what we have seen other people do, particularly people we respect. We want the approval of the people with whom we associate. For example, we might say, “I won’t have sex before marriage because the church says it’s bad.” Or, “I never cheat on my taxes because in our family we never lie about anything, even taxes.” If the people Kohlberg interviewed responded to the above dilemma with replies such as “Heinz should try to steal the drug because it is the job of a husband to take care of his wife.” Or, “Heinz should not steal the drug because it is against the law.” They were thinking in terms of Conventional Morality. Upholding the law, simply because it is the law is typical of someone with a Conventional Morality mind set.

Preconventional Morality is thinking that hasn’t reached the Conventional stage yet. It is pretty simple and doesn’t’ require the ability for abstract thought. We follow the rules, either to obtain reward or avoid punishment. Children under the age of ten will typically answer the Heinz questions from this level of moral development. “Heinz should steal the drug because he likes his wife and wants to have her around.” Or, “Heinz should not steal the drug because if he got caught he could go to jail.”

I must admit that there are many times when I behave at the Preconventional level and most of them involve my car. Here’s the truth, if I’m late and I decide to speed it’s because I want the reward of getting to my destination on time, and if I decide to drive the speed limit it’s because I don’t want to get a ticket. I’d like to say that I drive the speed limit because society as a whole benefits, but that’s just not the case. Driving the speed limit does not inspire my weak little brain to higher levels of moral development.

Finally, Kohlberg identifies what he calls Postconventional Morality, and this type of thinking is not so much a function of what others around us believe to be correct, but what we have decided is right or wrong. This means that we have an internalized set of moral values that we believe protect the rights of all members of society, and underscore our ability to appreciate such abstract ideas as sanctity of human life, nonviolence, equality and human dignity. Someone functioning from this level of moral development might say, “Heinz should steal the drug because the value of human life is more important than the right of property ownership.”

Think about your answer to the Heinz question. At which level did you respond? Just for fun, if you have access to a child, tell them the story and see how they respond. Kohlberg thought that morality evolved as we gained life experience, and that the majority of us are rather conventional in our thinking. I hope he’s right, because in the end, “Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice.” Leon Blum, and those choices affect us all.