The Moral Stages of Why Nations Obey International Law
In Europe, a woman was near death from a very bad disease, a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was 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 make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2000 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 $1000 which was 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.” Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that? Was it right or wrong?
That famous question was the basis for a theory Lawrence Kohlberg developed to test the stages of moral development. These stages are outlined in his book, Essays on Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981), and I summarize them briefly below. (You can also find Kohlberg’s theory of moral development numerous places on the Internet). Depending on how a person responded to this so-called “Heinz dilemma,” you could map his or her stage of moral development.
At the lowest level of moral development, a person is motivated to (1) obey rules to avoid punishment, or (2) conform to obtain rewards or have favors returned. Power and reciprocity define the parameters of right action.
At the middle level of moral development, a person is motivated to (3) conform to avoid disapproval and dislike by others, and (4) conform to avoid censure by legitimate authorities. Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. Persons seek to conform to stereotypical images of what is majority or “natural” behavior.
At the highest level of moral development, a person (5) conforms to maintain the respect of the impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare, and (6) to avoid self-condemnation. In the fifth category, right action is a social contract, and persons define their behavior in terms of standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. In the sixth category, right action is defined by self-chosen principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency.
That, in a nutshell, is Kohlberg’s theory. So what does this have to do with international law? I am not aware of any scholarly attempts to apply these stages of moral development to the question of why nations obey international law. But I think it would be quite interesting to examine Kohlberg’s theory as it might to apply to the question of conformity to international law.
In the recent book symposium with Andrew Guzman, his rational choice theory focused on the three R’s of compliance with international law: retaliation, reciprocity, and reputation. (Notice the similarities with the early stages of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.) Guzman also conceded during the book discussion that from a rational choice perspective, human rights treaties are puzzling because “it is devilishly hard to figure out just what it is signatories think they are getting.” That comment has really stuck in my mind and I have been thinking about it ever since.
I don’t pretend to have an answer, but perhaps focusing on Kohlberg’s stages of moral development might begin to help address the question of what nations think they are getting when they comply with human rights obligations. If we just focus on punishment, reciprocity, and reputation, then we may be missing a significant part of the picture of why nations obey certain international laws. To be continued.