The Heinz Dilemma Might Reveal That Morality Is Meaningless

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There's a famous moral thought experiment, the Heinz Dilemma, that is supposed to tell us about a person's moral development. What it might actually tell us is that moral development doesn't matter.

Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in one of the stickier areas of the human mind - morality. As a psychologist, he wanted to know how morality developed over time. To do this he made up a now-famous thought experiment and posed it to children, young adults, and adults.

The Heinz Dilemma

Heinz's wife is dying. There is a medicine that can cure her, but it costs $2000, and Heinz only has $1000. That covers the costs of the pharmacist who makes the medicine, but the pharmacist insists that he discovered the cure, and will charge what he wants for it. Should Heinz steal the medicine, or shouldn't he?


Kohlberg found that people will give different answers, but their reasons for giving these answers are different at different stages.

Only very young children are at stage one or stage two. Stage one is all about obedience. Heinz shouldn't steal because it's against the law or Heinz should steal the medicine because the pharmacist shouldn't be allowed to set a higher price than the money it takes to make the medicine. Stage two involves immediate consequences, like Heinz being happier that is wife is alive, or unhappy because he's in prison for theft.


When people grow into adolescence and early adulthood, they think about larger groups, rather than individual players. Stage three involves thinking about relationships, so Heinz either should steal the medicine to be a good husband to his wife, or he shouldn't because he should not be a criminal. Stage four is more about maintain social order. Heinz should steal because medicine shouldn't be kept from the dying, or not because it would break the law, which keeps society together.


Finally we have full-blown adults thinking about principles, not just social groups. People in stage five are concerned with human rights, either the right to life-saving medicine or the right to determine what happens to one's intellectual property. And stage six is universal ethics. Heinz is right to steal because human life is more important than money. Heinz is wrong because his wife's life is no more important than anyone else who needs the medicine.

The Real Problem

Kohlberg's experiment has drawn criticism, both for the thought experiment itself and the methods he used to collect information. There are certainly problems like this in real life, but Heinz's dilemma feels forced. It's hard not to come up with alternate solutions that Heinz or the pharmacist might have tried. Then again, Kohlberg can be forgiven for not wanting to explain complicated and tragic real-world economics to four-year-olds. Kohlberg's early experiment involved only male children. And when Kohlberg first did the experiment, he surveyed children at different ages, and came up with the idea of moral stages. He didn't ask the same children to think about the problem over a number years, and see whether they progressed from one stage to another.


So much with the methods. But if this finding is true, it seems there are bigger problems with morality. What this experiment seems to say is people can take the same situation, and argue the same principles - social roles, the importance of interpersonal relationships, the likelihood of punishment, and pure humanitarian principles - and come to exactly opposite moral conclusions. And they do this for their whole lives. Sure, it's interesting to see that principles evolve over time, but it's more interesting to see that principles - at least the ones confined solely to the human mind - are irrelevant. There is no method or guiding idea that could possibly allow any group of humanity to come to a consensus. Morality, then, is basically chaos. We can start from the same place, and follow the same principles, and end at diametrically opposite ends of a problem, and there's no way to resolve that.

Top Image: Bradley J

[Via Stages of Moral Development, Simply Psychology.]