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Conflict and Psychological Development: “Six Stages of Conflict Reasoning”

In the 1960’s the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) listed six stages of moral development which are broken down into three main stages: Pre-conventional, Conventional and Post-conventional. Kohlberg says these stages can’t be jumped, you have to go through them in order. And they are universal, they apply no matter what culture you’re in.

With a little thought we can link these to conflict and conflict resolution. Kohlberg’s stages don’t only tell us about a person’s moral reasoning, they also tell us what kind of conflict they get into and how we can help them to deal with it.

Pre-Conventional Conflicts
In “Pre-conventional” moral reasoning a person thinks about a moral problem in terms of reward and punishment (Stage One) or loss and gain (Stage Two). An example of Stage One would be if a person believes it’s wrong to kill because they will go to prison. Or, if asked why they should work hard at their job, they answer “because my employer will be pleased with me if I do”.

In Stage Two a person sees others only in terms of what they can get from them. An example of this would be when someone is in trouble, a person with Stage Two moral reasoning is not motivated by the desire to help out, but rather by the desire to benefit from helping. If they help this person for example, they view it as an opportunity to “trade in” the favour at a future point for their gain.

Kohlberg said that pre-conventional moral reasoning is most often found in children. We can see pre-conventional conflicts play out in children every day. Children argue over the literal interpretation of their parent’s rules. They refuse to play with one another unless their game is played. These are what I’m calling “pre-conventional conflicts”.

Our world is full of pre-conventional conflicts between adults. The courts and the internet are replete with people who have a pathological devotion to the rules as they see them. As any adult knows, it’s useless to tell young children to “grow up” or to try to resolve a conflict between them by saying they should be more mature. You first have to start where they are. As a conflict resolution professional, trying to get two parties to agree by using higher moral reasoning will likely be useless. Bringing conventional conflict terminology to a pre-conventional conflict will be like asking people to read before they can write the alphabet.    

Conventional Conflicts
In “Conventional” moral reasoning the person becomes aware of social roles (Stage Three) and the importance of a stable society stable (Stage Four). Other people’s expectations of them are very important to a person at Stage Three. An example of Stage Three would be if we help someone in need because that is how people think we are supposed to behave in the role we have (friend, family member and so on). We are aware of the relationship and this tells us what we should do. Typically you’ll hear Stage Three talk when someone says “I had to do it, it’s what family does”, or “that’s unacceptable to me as an American (or other nationality)”.

In Stage Four, our focus is beyond the role we are in and moves into our understanding of the world as a whole. Here fixed rules and social order are important. An example of Stage Four moral reasoning is if someone said that they should help “because what would the world be like if nobody helped each other?” Religious and political fundamentalists often think in a stage-four way because they want to keep the world a certain way and punish those who see it differently.

Kohlberg said that conventional moral reasoning is most often found in adolescents and young adults. Again, we can see any number of cases of conventional conflicts around us. People on the right deciding anyone who disagrees with them is “unpatriotic”, people on the left alienating anyone who doesn’t buy into the latest politically correct jargon. These are both conventional conflicts. As with pre-conventional conflicts, there’s no point in trying to come at these from a more “evolved” or “mature” perspective. These conflicts are tribal and territorial and the parties to them pretty much need to punch themselves out. When they get sick of that, they’ll move up. Until then though….

Post-Conventional Conflicts
In post-conventional moral reasoning, we move to recognising that people have individual preferences separate to our own these should be respected and protected (Stage Five). Beyond that (Stage Six) they explore what abstract and unifying principles any rules should come from. An example of Stage Five moral reasoning would be when a person decides to help someone else because they recognise that the person is valuable irrespective of their opinions or view of the world. A Stage Five person would help them, perhaps even if they didn’t agree with what the person wanted.

An example of Stage Six Moral reasoning comes when a person thinks deeply about what fundamental principles any rule should come from. Kohlberg suggested that Stage 6 is rare and hard to test for. Stages Five and Six are found in some adults. (He has also speculated about a possible stage Seven, in which the person integrates spirituality, morality and a cosmic vision of the word, but he has said this is impossible to test for).

But how can there be post-conventional conflicts? Surely “evolved”, self-aware, psychologically integrated and cosmically attuned people don’t get into conflicts? I know there’s an army of people out there who believe conflict is a deficiency of some kind, but it’s entirely possible to be in an advanced cognitive stage of development and be in conflict. The bitter disputes between groups on the scope of human rights are post-conventional conflicts (Stage Five) is a case in point. See for example, the differences in Quebec regarding “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs.

And Stage Six? We’re currently witnessing raging debates about the place of “privacy” in a world of digital tracking and the place of “security” in a world that claims to respect fundamental freedom. These clashes aren’t only about competing rights (freedom vs protection, stage five), they are also based on fundamentally different pictures of what’s needed for a human being to flourish (though most people in these conflicts aren’t thinking of it this way). To put yourself in the middle of a Stage Six post-conventional conflict, just log-on and get thinking.

Kohlberg gives us a template. His work helps us to understand not what kind of conflict people are having (power, information, recognition etc.) but what level the conflict is at. Knowing that will help you develop level-appropriate strategies. Not knowing that will ensure a frustrating time trying to get people to be “at your level”.


Donal O’Reardon

Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as… MORE >

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