The Five Stages of How to Treat Others

The mid-20th century psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed the most widely known model of moral development. Kohlberg’s three levels and six stages of morality begin with the motivation to avoid punishment and end with acting upon universal principles of ethics that transcend human laws. Though people can be stuck at any stage, it’s common to find oneself in more than one stage at a time. By trying to reach toward higher stages and stay there consistently, we can raise our consciousness and benefit society. I propose a model that is perhaps easier to remember. My five stages of moral development directly describe how we treat other people in the context of community.

Eric’s Five Stages of Moral Development:

1. Treat others in a way to maximize benefit for yourself.

2. Treat others indifferently.

  • Don’t exploit others directly, just look out for yourself.

3. Treat others the way you want to be treated

  • “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

4. Treat others the way they want to be treated.

5. Treat others as valued parts of the larger community.

The first, lowest, stage, is the realm of the narcissist. This person views others as tools for their own benefit. There is no empathy here, and the result is inauthentic relationships.

The second is the realm of the small child. Though toddlers can think about the needs of others, especially when making no distinction between themselves and others, they tend to play side-by-side instead of engaging empathetically with their friends.

The third is the most commonly espoused by adults. It’s a first step. While not intentionally cruel to others, it does not recognize that different people have different needs. I may not care if you smoke next to me, but someone else has a right to not have your smoke imposed on them. You may not care what pronouns people use for you, but imposing that attitude on others is disrespectful and does not acknowledge their autonomous humanity. Treating everyone exactly the same falsely implies that everyone is exactly the same. There is a touch of the narcissist in stage three: The belief that everyone is, or should be, a copy of you.

The fourth stage opens up a world of equity and compassion, the beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of. It recognizes that while we are all interconnected, we are also different individuals who deserve a shot at reaching our pull potential in life.

Treating someone the way they want to be treated requires putting your ego aside to really see people and try to understand their point of view. It takes work. Sometimes, the way somebody else wants to be treated conflicts with the way you want to treat them. In that case, you need to step outside both your point of view and the other person’s. Trying to analyze their motivations for why they want to be treated a certain way can be fruitless — you’re not in their head, and you are probably not equipped to psychoanalyze them from afar. But you can look at your reactions. It’s OK if you don’t initially understand why someone wants to be treated differently than you. But, instead of dismissing the way other people want to be treated, you can help to create a better world by respecting other people’s needs as just as valid as your own. You may be able to choose to limit your engagement with them or to look at the bigger picture: Stage Five.

Stage Five challenges us to see every individual as an invaluable part of a larger group. There is me, you and us. For the success and wellbeing of us — the group — we want to eliminate any individual succeeding at the expense of another. This runs counter to many cultures of the world, where competition is valued and it is assumed that some people are more worthy of success than others, by nature or effort.

So how can we get our heads around Stage Five? Try this thought experiment. Imagine watching two of your children playing a game. You don’t root for one child to win and the other to lose; you want them both to have fun and grow. For that to happen, you may want to set up the game so that both of them can be winners.

So how big is this group that we want to thrive and have the needs of its members met? Is it just your immediate family? The family of all human beings? I suggest that the entire living planet is the group we want to maximize the potential of.

What distinguishes my Stage Five from Kohlberg’s highest stage of moral development is that my Stage Five eliminates much of the ambiguity of what the Universal Moral Principles are that should guide our behavior. While many of us believe in broad principles of justice, fairness and compassion, some may think that God has chosen their tribe above others and that this is a high moral principle. Others may think that the Universe has declared human beings to have colonizing dominion over the Earth. Because no one has proof that their idea of universal moral principles is truer than anyone else’s, I have narrowed it down to the principle of what is good for the planet and simultaneously good for all life on the planet.


My fifth stage includes a potential internal conflict. When human beings manage forests, they often decide it is their job to “cull the herd” of deer, for example, in order to ensure the balance of nature and the health of the forest. How do we consider the overall health of the planet without resorting to measures that are cruel to individuals or groups within the larger whole?

The answer must come in maintaining a respect for and compassion for every single individual on Earth, as if they were you and you were they. Solutions to problems must come with the axiom that what is of benefit of the group must be of benefit of all members of the group.

This highest stage of moral development requires not only stepping outside of our self-ego to fully appreciate the needs of others, but stepping outside of our cultural ego to let go of values and beliefs that we may hold dear. I suggest that we are now at a stage in the evolution of life on our planet where this difficult step is necessary for our survival and to reach a true beloved community on Earth.



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Essays, stories & poetry about OCD, culture and society, by Eric