Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (Full Guide)

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (Full Guide)

Consider the following moral dilemma. A man named Heinz has a wife who is dying of a rare form of cancer. Heinz learns that a local chemist had invented a new drug that might save his wife's life. But he can’t afford the drug. Although he tries to borrow money from his friends and family, the amount is still not enough. The chemist is not ready to lower the price either. After having tried everything he could think of without any success, Heinz decides to break into the chemist’s office and steal the drug. Was this the right thing to do? 

Heinz’s dilemma is the most famous example used by Lawrence Kohlberg to assess the level of moral development. 

Lawrence Kohlberg's Discovery

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist and developmental theorist, best known for his comprehensive theory of moral development. 

Kolhberg’s theory of moral development describes six stages of moral thinking that build on our cognitive development. Moral development proceeds in a linear manner between these stages.

Kohlberg expanded on and revised the ideas of cognitive theorist Jean Piaget. Piaget’s work suggested that children’s morality changes over time as they move through stages of mental development.

Kohlberg employed Piaget’s method of questioning participants in his interviews about different moral dilemmas. He would tell stories with conflicting ideas that represent two moral values and ask children whether they thought these were right or wrong. Kohlberg was less interested in the answers themselves than in understanding the thinking process behind them. 

Based on the children’s responses, Kohlberg classified their moral reasoning into three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. He further divided each level into two distinct stages.

Stages of Moral Development

Similarly to Piaget, Kohlberg believes that moral development occurs in stages, but he argues that it is a continuous process that occurs throughout a person's life. 

Let’s have a look at the characteristics of each one of Kohlberg’s stages.

Preconventional Level

At the lowest level of moral development, children under the age of nine have not yet internalized society’s conventions as to what is right or wrong. The moral standards of young children are fully determined by adults. They accept the rules made by authority figures, parents or teachers, for example. They base their moral reasoning on the external consequences of their actions such as punishment. 

A child faced with Heinz’s dilemma at this level would say that the man shouldn't steal the drug because stealing is wrong and he will end up in prison.

1) Obedience and punishment

The obedience and punishment stage is based on children’s desire to follow the rules created by authority figures. Their motivation is simply to avoid being punished. If an action is perceived as morally wrong, it is because there is a possibility of punishment. Morality is at this stage external to the self. Children suppose that rules are fixed and must be respected.

2) Self-interest

The right behavior is conditioned by what children think is in their best interest. This stage of moral reasoning is self-centered and shows little or no consideration of the needs of others. Children start realizing that rules are not absolute. People can have different perspectives, and there is more than just one correct point of view.

Conventional Level

The conventional level of morality is typical of adolescents and adults who internalize moral standards. An individual’s sense of morality is increasingly based on interpersonal relationships. At this level, children continue to conform to the rules of authority figures. But although they understand that there are conventions dictating how they should behave, following the rules is not necessarily related to the prospective punishment. Above all, they wish to ensure good relationships with others.

When asked how Heinz should go about getting the drug, older children who have reached the conventional level of moral development might respond that he should steal it. He will save his wife’s life, however, he still needs to go to prison for his crime. 

Stage 3. Conformity

During the conformity stage, children’s actions are motivated by the approval of others. Morality arises from living up to the standards of a group such as family or community. Older children will often do their best to be good members of a group. Their moral decisions are based on whether they would win the approval of individuals whose opinions matter to them. The intentions of their actions are important regardless of the outcomes. 

Stage 4. Law and order

This stage is characterized by accepting rules because they are important in maintaining a functional society. Rules are the same for everyone and it is essential that all members of society obey them. Moral reasoning goes beyond the need for individual approval of the conformity stage. Instead, morality is being determined by what is best for most people. Individuals who obey law and authority and don’t challenge the established social order are perceived as being good. 

Kohlberg believes that most individuals don’t develop their reasoning beyond this stage of moral development in which morality is still predominantly dictated from the outside.

Postconventional Level

According to Kohlberg, only 10-15% of the population is capable of achieving the postconventional level of moral development because the sense of morality is defined in terms of abstract principles and values. 

Those individuals who attain the highest level of moral development question whether what they see around them is good. There is an increasing sense of individuals being separate entities from society. Morality on this level comes from self-defined principles. Laws that are seen as unjust should be removed or changed. Disobeying rules is not necessarily wrong when they are incompatible with personal principles. 

Participants in Kohlberg’s experiment who have reached the postconventional level would believe that stealing the drug from the chemist’s office was not wrong. For them, saving a life is more important than the law itself.

Stage 5. Social contract 

Individuals at this stage of moral development understand that society is full of contrasting opinions and values that should be respected. Laws are regarded as flexible social contracts. Laws that are not in everyone’s best interest should be changed to meet the needs of most society members. In this context, morality and individual rights take precedence over established laws.

Stage 6. Universal ethical principles

In the last stage of moral development, individuals construct their own principles of morality that may be in conflict with society’s laws. Moral reasoning has become more abstract and relies on universal ethical principles including equality, dignity, and respect. Laws are valid only when they are fair, and unjust laws can and should be disobeyed. Kohlberg maintained that there were not many individuals who could consistently operate at this level.

Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory

With its elaborate description of children’s moral development, Kohlberg’s theory has been highly influential in psychology and education. At the same time, several aspects of Kohlberg's theory have come under scrutiny from psychologists, in particular ethicist and Kohlberg’s research assistant Carol Gilligan.

Kohlberg’s theory has been largely criticized for its gender bias toward the white male American population. For his experiment, Kohlberg interviewed 72 boys in suburban Chicago, all of them between 10 and 16 years old. His research was, therefore, inevitably influenced by upper-middle-class male values and perspectives. 

What’s more, Kohlberg’s theory does not take into account the role cultural differences might play in the development of moral reasoning. For example, Western cultures may have different moral philosophies than societies that give more importance to the community than to personal rights. 

Some researchers have had doubts about Kohlberg’s conclusions in general after he questioned the fact that older children and adolescents could attain the latest stages of moral reasoning. In fact, some recent studies have shown that children as young as six years old can already understand vague concepts of universal ethical principles. 

Kohlberg had not always focused his experiments on dilemmas that are relevant to the participants. The Heinz story might not be relatable to individuals who had never been married. As a result, Kohlberg’s findings might have been different if the situations the participants were asked to analyze were more age-appropriate. 

Lastly, Kohlberg’s theory appears to suggest that certain types of moral reasoning are superior to others. Kohlberg supposes that justice is the most fundamental moral principle. He has been reproached for emphasizing the concept of justice while overlooking other values such as compassion and care for others.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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