A Green Perspective on Rights and Wrongs


In the early 1950s, graduate student Lawrence Kohlberg became inspired by the works of a clinical psychologist named Jean Piaget. With the help of Piaget’s foundational theory, Kohlberg proposed a series of six stages that would one day be taught in every introductory psychology course. If you have taken one of these courses, you know that this theory was a key component to what we now know as moral development.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

According to Kohlberg, children progress through stages that indicate growth in their moral development. At a young age, thought processes reflect the question, “How can I avoid punishment?” As children develop, the desire to avoid negative consequences morphs into recognition of universal ethical principles. Hitting others is no longer bad because it results in a “time-out”, but because a human being has the right not to be harmed unjustly.


Aldo Leopold

Though we are traditionally taught that Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning is specific to psychology and child development, similar discussions of moral reasoning have already occurred surrounding the conservation of natural resources. In his 1949 nonfiction A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold argued that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

By bringing ethics into human involvement with nature, the conversation begins to change. Instead of seeing nature as a human resource, it becomes an entity worthy of respect. In this mindset, trees are no longer meant to make paper. Water is no longer meant to spring from our sinks. It is simply right to preserve nature out of connection and respect. In the words of Aldo Leopold, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Realistically, it is unavoidable to use natural resources for human benefit. However, the mentality in which we approach that utilization is key in influencing behavior. If we allow for input from an ethical perspective, our treatment of the world around us can then stem from one of deeper respect.

This week, I challenge you to assume a perspective of Leopold and Kohlberg when you look outside. Make note to yourself; do you feel a shift in respect? Respond to this blog post at the end of the week and let me know!


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About Sarah Ann Coffin

Sarah is an undergraduate student at California State University, Monterey Bay. In fall 2017, she will graduate with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Statistics. After graduation, Sarah plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Psychology to further study how psychological concepts can be applied to encourage environmental care. By understanding what encourages individual environmental concern, Sarah hopes to provide communities with effective methods to promote daily environmentally friendly behaviors and overall improved environmental care. After gaining experience in the field, Sarah looks forward to returning to the university system as a professor in psychology.

2 thoughts on “A Green Perspective on Rights and Wrongs

  1. Thank you for that glimpse into introductory psychology! As someone who has never taken a psych class, I found that extremely interesting and I can certainly see how that could be applied to conservation as well. I will try my best to think of all things in the stage of “principled conscience” for the rest of the week!

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