If you are studying Lawrence Kohlberg and his stages of moral development, you are in the right place! This article will take you through each stage, the ages at which children are in each stage, and how this theory applies to everyday life.
What Are Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development?
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development is a theory proposed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), which outlines the different levels and stages of moral reasoning that individuals go through as they develop their understanding of right and wrong. There are 6 stages of development, divided into 3 levels.
Lawrence 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 and Ages
Similarly to Piaget’s theory of moral development, 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.
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.
Heinz’s dilemma is a moral dilemma often used in the study of moral development, particularly in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. The dilemma goes something like this:
Heinz’s wife is dying from a rare form of cancer, and the only medication that can save her is extremely expensive. Heinz cannot afford to pay for the medication, so he breaks into a pharmacy to steal it. He is caught by the police and brought to court. The judge must decide what to do with Heinz.
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.
Stage 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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on avoiding punishment or seeking reward. They follow rules to avoid physical punishment or loss of privileges, but they don’t yet understand that rules are based on social norms or the need for social order.
Individuals at this stage may also have a limited perspective, unable to see things from another’s point of view, and they may not consider the intentions or circumstances behind someone’s actions. For example, a child at this stage might think that stealing a toy from a store is always wrong, regardless of the reason why the person did it or the consequences that might follow.
To identify Stage 1, look for individuals who are mainly focused on avoiding punishment or seeking rewards, and who may not yet fully understand the concept of social norms or the importance of considering other people’s perspectives. They may also display a rigid and inflexible approach to moral decision-making.
Stage 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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on their own self-interest and the exchange of favors. They begin to understand that others have their own needs and wants and may be willing to negotiate to meet those needs.
Individuals at this stage may also display a more flexible approach to moral decision-making, recognizing that there are different perspectives and that the rules can be changed if it benefits everyone. For example, a child at this stage might think that it’s okay to take someone else’s toy if they offer something else in exchange or if they can convince the other person that it’s a fair trade.
To identify Stage 2, look for individuals who are mainly focused on their own self-interest but who are also aware of others’ needs and wants. They may display a more flexible approach to rules and be willing to negotiate to achieve their goals. They may also be more aware of the social exchange of favors and obligations.
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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on the expectations and approval of others, particularly those who are important to them. They begin to understand that good behavior is seen as what pleases others, and they want to be seen as a good person in the eyes of those who are important to them.
Individuals at this stage are also more likely to take into account the feelings and perspectives of others and may seek to maintain positive relationships. For example, a child at this stage might think that it’s important to share toys with others so that they will like them and want to play with them.
To identify Stage 3, look for individuals who are mainly focused on pleasing others and maintaining positive relationships. They may be more aware of social norms and expectations and may be more likely to take the perspective of others into account. They may also seek approval from authority figures and may conform to social norms to gain approval.
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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on a sense of duty to uphold social order and respect for authority. They begin to understand that social order depends on the rule of law and that laws must be respected to maintain social order.
Individuals at this stage are also more likely to take into account the broader social context and the greater good, rather than just their own personal relationships or interests. For example, a person at this stage might think that it’s important to follow traffic laws, not just to avoid a ticket or to please others, but because it’s necessary for public safety and the greater good.
To identify Stage 4, look for individuals who are mainly focused on upholding social order and respect for authority. They may have a strong sense of duty and obligation to follow the rules and maintain social order. They may also be more likely to take into account the broader social context and the greater good when making moral decisions.
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.
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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on the principles of justice, democracy, and individual rights. They begin to understand that laws and social norms are not set in stone and can be changed if they do not promote the greater good or protect individual rights.
Individuals at this stage are also more likely to take into account the perspectives of different groups and to recognize the need for compromise and negotiation. For example, a person at this stage might think that it’s important to advocate for policies that promote equality and individual rights, even if it means challenging existing laws or social norms.
To identify Stage 5, look for individuals who are mainly focused on the principles of justice and individual rights. They may be more likely to challenge authority and to advocate for change if they see laws or social norms as unjust or unfair. They may also be more aware of the perspectives of different groups and the need for compromise and negotiation to achieve the greater good.
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.
At this stage, individuals make moral decisions based on universal ethical principles, such as justice, compassion, and equality, rather than just social norms or laws. They begin to understand that these principles are more important than any particular law or social norm, and they may be willing to take personal risks to uphold these principles.
Individuals at this stage are also more likely to take a principled, ethical approach to decision-making and may see themselves as part of a larger moral community. For example, a person at this stage might think that it’s important to fight against social injustices such as discrimination or environmental destruction, even if it means going against established laws or social norms.
To identify Stage 6, look for individuals who are mainly focused on universal ethical principles and who are willing to take personal risks to uphold them. They may be more likely to challenge established laws or social norms if they see them as unjust or harmful. They may also see themselves as part of a larger moral community and be motivated by a sense of responsibility to uphold ethical principles. It’s worth noting that Kohlberg believed that few people actually reach this stage, which he saw as the highest stage of moral development.
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development’s Heinz Dilemma
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?
Here is an example of how an individual may behave at each stage in the Kohlberg’s Stages:
Obedience and Punishment Stage 1: An individual may say that Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is wrong and he could get arrested.
Self-Interest Stage 2: An individual may say that Heinz should steal the drug to save his wife because his wife is important to him and he would want others to do the same for him if he were in a similar situation.
Conformity Stage 3: An individual may say that Heinz should steal the drug because he will be viewed as a good husband and will be respected by others for doing whatever he can to save his wife.
Law and Order Stage 4: An individual may say that Heinz should not steal the drug because it’s against the law and breaking the law would undermine social order and respect for authority.
Social Contract Stage 5: An individual may say that Heinz should steal the drug because the right to life and the principle of fairness outweigh the property rights of the pharmacist who owns the drug.
Universal Ethical Principles Stage 6: An individual may say that Heinz should steal the drug because it’s the right thing to do, even if it means breaking the law and risking punishment. They may also argue that the ethical principle of valuing human life is more important than any legal or social norm.
Heinz’s dilemma is the most famous example used by Lawrence Kohlberg to assess the level of moral development.
Is Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development Theory Still Relevant Today?
Today, people reference Kohlberg’s stages of moral development when talking about communication, debate, and even relating to others. But it’s not always accepted in these discussions.
Take this one Reddit user’s take on the Jordan Peterson subreddit:
“This is one psychologist’s take on morality. It uses mortality, ethics and justice interchangeably, and hence lacks cohesion. Which is to be expected as morality is a deeply philosophical topic. It makes sense that a psychologist would have this sort of approach (which everyone acknowledges is just a reformatting of Jean Piaget’s stages of childhood development).
I think Maslow’s heiarchy of needs would have been a better map, looking at the general requirements in becoming moral, rather than treating morality as an ultimate ontological fact.
To put it more simplistically; knowing what people need to become moral – has more value, than judging others by their current stage of moral development as this chart seems to do.
Either way, systematizing morality may not be the smartest idea. Better to pursue ethics.”
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.
Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
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.
Questions about Age
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.