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Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands even more, he or she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends. He or she is therefore more likely to encounter disagreements about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order , in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what the majority of society believes. Now, an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from ethical mistakes. A community or society may agree, for example, that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect, or that a factory owner is entitled to dump waste water into a commonly shared lake or river. To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these require further stages of moral development.

Postconventional justice: social contract and universal principles

As a person becomes able to think abstractly (or “formally”, in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from acceptance of what the community does believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed. The new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract . Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that respect the rights of the people affected. Consider, for example, the laws in some areas that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In what sense are the laws about this behavior ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? Were cyclists consulted and did they give consent? Or how about doctors or the cyclists' families? Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes should be. In focusing on the processes by which the law was created, however, individuals are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of the position they take about wearing helmets. In this sense, beliefs on both sides of a debate about an issue can sometimes be morally sound even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it should help to avoid mindless conformity to conventional moral beliefs. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to the content of what gets decided. In principle (and occasionally in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, for example, but would deciding this by due process make it ethical? The realization that ethical means can sometimes serve unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), but also other principles, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or the sacredness of the natural environment. At Stage 6, the universal principles will guide a person’s beliefs even if the principles mean disagreeing occasionally with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).

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Source:  OpenStax, Educational psychology. OpenStax CNX. May 11, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11302/1.2
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