When faced with the task of making a tough moral decision, how do you determine right from wrong? Dr. Timothy Jennings says there are seven basic levels of moral decision-making.

As we grow and mature, our decision-making moves from level one to level seven along the spectrum. Dr. Jennings uses the action of brushing teeth to illustrate the progression of maturation along the spectrum.

1. Reward and punishment

“The first and most basic level of decision-making is reward and punishment. It’s right to do something because you get a reward for it and it’s wrong because you get punished. Therefore the child brushes their teeth so they won’t get punished and they’ll receive praise.”

Dr. Jennings says that children quickly move from reward punishment decision-making to the second level known as marketplace exchange.

2. Marketplace exchange

This type of decision-making determines that something is right based on what is received in return. In other words, if we receive something good for our action, then the action itself must be good.

“The child will say, ‘Mommy, if I brush my teeth will you read me a bed-time story?’ Now if I don’t brush my teeth, then I won’t get my story.”

3. Social conformity

The third level makes decisions prompted by internal as well as external pressure.

“Right and wrong is determined by the consensus of the peer group. If the peer group thinks it’s right, then it’s right. As a child grows, they brush their teeth so they will have clean teeth and be accepted at school.”

4. Law and Order

The fourth level of decision-making is law and order. Dr. Jennings describes it as a system of rules with prescribed consequences for breaking said rules.

“This often manifests itself as a behavior contract at home. For example, if you don’t brush your teeth you lose your cell phone for a day. Therefore, you are motivated to brush your teeth so you can keep your cell phone.”

5. Love for others

The fifth level of decision-making shifts the emphasis from the best interest of self to the best interest of others.

“Right and wrong is determined by what is actually in the best-interest of others irrespective of the law. We brush our teeth now because we love our parents and we don’t want to be a burden to them and make them pay our dental bills.” 

6. Principal based living

The sixth level involves understanding the actual design laws upon which life is based.

“In level six, we brush our teeth because of the second law of thermodynamics. If you don’t put the energy into the system it decays and we don’t want our teeth to decay, so we brush to keep them healthy.”

7. Understanding friend of God

“In level seven, not only do we love our parents and understand the second law of thermodynamics, but we understand we were created as a spirit-temple and that we have a purpose in God’s cause. As God’s stewards, we want to take the best care of our bodies as we can.”

On all seven levels, people are brushing their teeth, but Dr. Jennings says that only levels five and above can be trusted.

“People operating at level four or below require some external threat or consequence to continue the behavior. Whereas, level five is the first level where it’s written on the heart and it’s internalized and the person does it because it’s in their heart to do it.”

As our decision-making shifts to levels five, six, and seven, Dr. Jennings says we transform from an immature person who makes decisions based on rules and threats to a mature person who is moving towards a loving relationship with God and acts accordingly.

Timothy Jennings, MD, is a board certified Christian psychiatrist, master psychopharmacologist, lecturer, international speaker and author. Dr. Jennings was voted one of America´s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumers’ Research Council of America in 2008, 2010 and 2011. He is a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and president-elect of the Tennessee Psychiatric Association. He also serves on the board of the Southern Psychiatric Association and is in private practice in Tennesse.

How correctly understanding God's love transforms us with Timothy Jennings

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