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Revisiting the Heinz Dilemma

How gender and age may or may not play a role in moral development

Picture this: A woman was near death. 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?

If he steals the medicine, he saves his wife. However, he would also be doing something immoral: taking something that does not belong to him. Would the two cancel each other out? Talk about a dilemma!

This moral and ethical dilemma is known as the Heinz dilemma, coined by Lawrence Kohlberg in order to analyze the different psychological thought processes in different stages of life. Though Kohlberg mainly used the dilemma to analyze what a person, mostly male, would do in such a situation, psychologist Carol Gilligan used the dilemma to compare the psyche of males and females. What she discovered was that females tend to focus more on connections with people and the way they deal with the moral ethic to seek to care for those people; this being the opposite of males who have more separation from those around them and have an ethic that deals more with the idea of justice and justification (Huff, 1998).

So, I decided that I would test this thesis by asking a few people I know what they would do. My younger sisters, Lorie (aged 15) and Ashley (aged 14), both responded that the man should steal the medicine. Lorie responded that he should do it because “He should do anything he can to save her, since it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Ashley responded similarly, saying “I think I’d be fine if he stole medicine for her if she wanted to live cause he’s trying to save her and he wouldn’t be hurting anything as long as he got the right prescription.”

I also asked a family friend, Brandon, aged 14, what he would do in the situation as well and he said “I would do the exact same thing because it saves the person I love. I wouldn’t care if I went to prison. You do what you have to in certain circumstances.” Another response given by Noah, aged 16, was that it was good of him to do that for his wife. What originally seemed to be an issue of gender psyches seemed to become moot.

Instead, these responses coincide with the post-conventional stage of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. In this stage, people display a principled conscience, which is a combination of a development of a concept of human rights and universal human ethics. This stage focuses on more philosophical and moral elements of human nature versus the other two stages (pre-conventional and conventional), which focus more on superficial reasons for actions, including obedience to social law, self-interest/selfishness, conformity to demands of others, and a concept of law-and-order.

It was interesting to see that what each person answered had less to do with gender and more to do with age. As a person grows older, it is obvious that they gain more life experience, but to see it in such a young demographic was what surprised me. I figured that these kids would pick these answers, but I did not expect such intelligent and moral reasonings why because morality is not typically focused on in secondary education, but remains a subtopic to be briefly brushed upon, not discussed. This thus gives me hope for children growing up in this era and leaves me with this conclusion: while times may change, morality and ideas of right/wrong remain stable despite gender and new life experiences.


Huff, C. (1998, September 8). Gilligan’s in a Different Voice. In St. Olaf. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from

Jessica Clanton
I am a contributing writer for Psych2Go and I am studying English and Secondary Education with a Creative Writing minor. I hope to contribute articles that are interesting and relatable while encouraging broader discussion.

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