The Heinz dilemma is a frequently used to try to measure moral development. One well-known version of the dilemma, used in Lawrence Kohlberg‘s stages of moral development, is stated as follows:

A woman was on her deathbed. 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 produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 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 $1,000 which is 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.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

Very young children will likely choose the “pre-conventional” moral choice, involving obedience & self-interest. Slightly older children will likely choose the “conventional” moral choice, involving conformity and law-and-order. Adolescents and adults will be swayed by the idea of a social contract and the universality of human ethics, “post-conventional” reasoning. The logic here is that saving a human life is more important than money and property.

These studies point to the fact that morality is not necessarily rule-based. That ethical behavior can mean transcending the rules. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus accuses the religious leaders of his day of hypocrisy, pointing out that they tithe their spices while ignoring justice and mercy. In one of the more evocative passages in Christian scripture, he says the religious leaders spend their time swallowing a camel and straining out a gnat.

Following the trial of Adolf Eichmann, research psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments at Yale, which were repeated many times. Participants were instructed by a person in a lab coat to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to another person, actually an actor who mimicked pain. Milgram found that 65% of the participants continued to administer the shocks, even when, if real, they would have been fatal. Authorities make rules, and they are not always humane.

As a society we most definitely need rules and laws or we would quickly descend into anarchy and chaos. However, unless we are a sociopath, we must also recognize the guidance of our conscience. A gut feeling, a still, small voice can override some rules. Love can be difficult, ambiguous, and messy. But love transcends everything else.