By Bill Frayer

The “Heinz Dilemma” and Ethical Development


For the last couple of months, I’ve been writing about ethics. I’ll continue this topic this month with ethical development. You may be familiar with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Children, according to Piaget, go through predictable stages when learning to think and conceptualize abstract concepts. These stages occur from infancy through adolescence. Similarly, Lawrence Kohnberg theorized that we also go though stages in our ethical thinking. His research was based on children’s responses to the “Heinz Dilemma:”

A woman was near death with cancer. There was a drug that the doctors thought might save her—a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife?  

Kohlberg asserted that our development, in terms of ethical thinking, goes through six stages, from black and white to complex thinking. At each stage, it is the reasoning the child uses to defend his choice, not the choice itself, which determines the stage:

Stage one, obedience: Children in this stage conceptualize moral decisions as very clear. Obedience is the primary value. She might think Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would be put in prison, which would mean he is a bad person.

Stage two, self-interest: Children in this stage consider their own self interest. They might recommend he steal the drug because it would make him happy to have his wife alive, even if it meant prison.

Stage three, conformity: A child in this stage might recommend that Heinz should steal the drug because it is the role of the husband to protect the wife, and she would expect him to do it. You cannot blame him; he tried to talk to the pharmacist.

Stage four, law-and-order: In this stage children see the value of laws and rules to society. To steal the drug would involve breaking a law set up to protect society, so he should not steal the drug. The alternative would be anarchy.

Stage five, human rights: Here, the child places the value of human life as more important than following the law. Heinz should steal the drug because his wife has a right to live, even if he goes to jail.

Stage six, universal human ethics: Kohlberg sees this stage as the most abstract and mature. Sometimes, a universal ethical value will require a person to break the law to uphold a more worthy universal principle. Heinz should steal the drug because preserving human life is more important than the property rights of an individual.

As you might imagine, Kohlberg’s scheme of moral development is not universally applauded. Some contend it is skewed to a collectivist, rather than an individualistic sensibility. It justifies actions like civil disobedience, which some may consider unethical, and maybe skewed against the concept of individual freedom. Nevertheless, it does present the interesting idea that we develop as ethical beings.

Next month, I’ll take a final look at ethical thinking.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Ojo Del Lago
Latest posts by Ojo Del Lago (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *