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Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

How do children develop morality and moral reasoning? Kohlberg’s stages of moral development describe a fixed process through which children develop moral reasoning abilities. The stages represent an expansion of an earlier theory of moral reasoning proposed by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.

Kohlberg’s theory suggests that there are six stages of moral development that can be split into three distinct levels. Moral reasoning, Kohlberg believed, is centered around the concept of achieving justice. 

The three levels of moral development, the pre-conventional level, the conventional level, and the post-conventional level, are each divided into 2 stages.

Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development

The three levels and six stages of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development are:

Pre-Conventional Level

The pre-conventional level is the earliest stage of moral reasoning in Kohlberg’s theory. This period typically lasts up until around age nine.

During this period, moral judgments are based on children wanting to obey authority figures and avoid punishment. As moral reasoning develops, children begin to base their moral judgments more on self-interest and rewards. This level is divided into two stages:

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment

During the first stage of moral development, kids view authority figures as the source of absolute power. They obey rules to avoid punishment and seek to follow rules to maintain their own physical well-being.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange

At this stage, children begin to recognize that there is not just one right view handed down by authorities. They understand that different individuals have different viewpoints. Their moral reasoning is based on the notion of reciprocity: they follow rules to serve their own interests, but they also recognize that others have their interests too.

Conventional Level

The conventional level represents the second stage of moral reasoning. It typically emerges during adolescence and into adulthood. 

At the conventional level, moral judgments are influenced by societal norms, expectations, and the desire to fulfill roles within various social groups.

At this level, individuals begin to internalize societal standards and norms, and their moral judgments are based on maintaining social order and conforming to the expectations of others.

The conventional level consists of two stages:

Stage 3:  Good Interpersonal Relationships

At this stage, individuals value interpersonal relationships and strive to be perceived as good and caring by others. They adhere to social norms and rules to gain approval and maintain positive relationships with others. Conformity to societal expectations becomes important as individuals seek to fulfill their roles within various social groups.

Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order

In this stage, individuals uphold societal laws and conventions. They recognize that maintaining social order and stability is important. Moral decisions are based on fulfilling duties, obligations, and laws set by society. Individuals consider the overall welfare of society and understand the importance of social institutions in maintaining order and harmony.

Post-Conventional Level

The post-conventional level of morality represents the highest stage of moral reasoning. It is typically observed in late adolescence and adulthood. However, Kohlberg believed that not everyone reaches this stage of moral development.

At this level, people move beyond conventional societal norms and rules to develop their own ethical principles and values based on universal moral principles.

Moral judgments are based on abstract ethical principles and values that transcend specific cultural or societal norms. Individuals demonstrate a high level of autonomy. At this point, they reflect critically on moral concerns. Reasoning is often based on universal moral principles designed to create a more just world.

Researchers have found that people at the post-conventional level of moral development experience greater blood flow in a part of the brain called the frontostriatal system. Past research has suggested that this part of the brain is linked to moral judgments and prosocial behaviors.

The post-conventional level consists of two stages:

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

At this stage, individuals recognize that societal rules and laws are social agreements that promote the greater good. They understand that laws can be changed if they are unjust or do not serve the best interests of society. Individuals at this stage value democratic principles, human rights, and equality under the law. They seek to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of society as a whole.

Stage 6: Universal Principles of Ethics

In this final stage, individuals develop a deep understanding of universal ethical principles, such as justice, equality, and human dignity. They base their moral decisions on these principles, regardless of societal expectations or legal constraints. Individuals at this stage are willing to disobey laws that conflict with their deeply held moral beliefs and are prepared to accept the consequences of their actions.

Their moral reasoning transcends cultural and societal boundaries, guided by a commitment to justice and human rights.

The Heinz Dilemma

One tool that Kolberg used while developing his theory was a moral problem known as the Heinz dilemma. It involves a scenario where a man named Heinz must decide whether to steal an expensive drug to save his dying wife or let her die because he cannot afford the medication.

Kohlberg used this dilemma as a tool to study moral reasoning and development in individuals. It wasn’t the answer to the question that interested Kohlberg. Instead, he wanted to understand how people reasoned about the morality of their choice.

At the Pre-conventional Level:

In stage one, people focus on avoiding punishment, saying that Heinz should not steal the drug because he might go to jail.

In stage two, people consider the benefits to Heinz himself, saying that he should steal the drug because it’s good for him to save his wife.

At the Conventional Level:

In stage three, people might emphasize maintaining social order and meeting the expectations of others, saying that Heinz should steal the drug because it’s the right thing to do according to societal norms.

In stage four, people are more likely to appeal to obeying laws and respecting authority, saying that Heinz should not steal the drug because it violates social norms and expectations.

At the Post-conventional Level:

In stage five, a person might emphasize social contract and individual rights, saying that Heinz should steal the drug because saving a life is more important than respecting property rights.

In stage six, a person might focus on universal ethical principles, saying that Heinz should steal the drug because it’s the morally right thing to do regardless of laws or societal norms.

Through studying responses to the Heinz dilemma, Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development, which suggests that individuals progress through these stages as they mature and encounter more complex moral dilemmas.

Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development had an important impact on our understanding of moral development, but it is not without criticism. Some of these critiques tend to center on the following concerns:

Cultural Bias

Critics argue that Kohlberg’s stages of moral development reflect a Western, individualistic perspective and may not apply to individuals from non-Western cultures or collectivist societies where different cultural norms and values influence moral reasoning.

Gender Bias

Some critics contend that Kohlberg’s theory is biased toward males. Kohlberg’s research primarily focused on boys, and his stages of moral development may not fully capture the moral reasoning of females, who may prioritize care-based ethics over justice-based reasoning.

Lack of Predictive Validity

While Kohlberg’s theory describes the stages of moral development, it has been criticized for its limited ability to predict actual moral behavior. Some individuals may exhibit higher stages of moral reasoning in hypothetical dilemmas but behave differently in real-life situations.

Ignores Context, Emotions, and Social Dynamics

Critics argue that Kohlberg’s theory over-emphasizes cognitive processes and abstract moral reasoning, neglecting moral decision-making’s emotional and contextual aspects. 

Real-life moral dilemmas often involve complex emotions, social dynamics, and situational factors that Kohlberg’s theory may not fully address.

Kohlberg’s theory suggests a linear progression through stages of moral development, but research has shown that moral reasoning can be more fluid and context-dependent. Individuals may not always progress through all stages, and moral development may plateau or regress under certain circumstances.

Compared to Other Theories

Several other notable theories of moral development exist, each offering unique perspectives on how individuals develop their moral reasoning:

Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development

Gilligan proposed an alternative to Kohlberg’s theory, emphasizing care-based ethics over justice-based reasoning. She argued that girls and women often prioritize caring relationships and interpersonal connections in moral decision-making, in contrast to Kohlberg’s emphasis on abstract principles of justice.

Social Learning Theory

Developed by Albert Bandura, social learning theory suggests that moral development occurs through observational learning, modeling, and reinforcement. Individuals acquire moral values and behaviors by observing the actions and consequences of others, particularly significant role models in their social environment.

Moral Domain Theory

Proposed by Elliot Turiel, domain theory suggests that moral reasoning develops in specific domains, such as moral, social-conventional, and personal domains. Individuals differentiate between moral rules (based on notions of harm, justice, and rights) and social conventions (based on societal norms and expectations) as they navigate various social contexts.

Ethics of Care Theory

Building on Gilligan’s work, the ethics of care theory emphasizes the importance of empathy, responsiveness, and interconnectedness in moral decision-making. Developed by feminist scholars such as Nel Noddings, ethics of care theory highlights the moral significance of relationships, caregiving, and contextually-situated judgments in ethical dilemmas.

Key Points to Remember

  • Kohlberg’s theory proposes six stages of moral development categorized into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, each representing different levels of moral reasoning.
  • Kohlberg believed that individuals progress through these stages sequentially, with moral reasoning becoming more complex and abstract as they mature.
  • Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes the role of cognitive development and reasoning in shaping moral judgments and decision-making processes.
  • The theory has been criticized for its cultural and gender biases, lack of predictive validity, and limited consideration of emotional and contextual factors in moral development.


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