The present paper discusses Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development model. The model consists of three levels that are broken down into six stages of development (Kohlberg, 1971). The levels consist of pre-conventional, conventional, and Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled. The stages are the punishment and obedience orientation, instrumental relativist orientation, interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation, law and order orientation, social-contract legalistic orientation, and universal ethical-principle orientation. Research models and theories have continued to grow out of this early model which have each further supported the claims made in Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development model. In order to follow the early model as well as the resulting continued research into this area, the present paper offers a description and critique of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Following the presentation of each level, a commentary is made to explain the basic principles and changes that occur. The paper closes with a summary of the stages.
The way in which an individual develops their moral comprehension and application to the world around them has been a topic of inquiry for many theorists and researchers. According to Thoma and Dong (2014) many of these inquiries have been based on the Kohlbergian model of moral development. The researchers note that this model claims “that moral judgment is developmental and increases rapidly across high school and college years” (Thoma & Dong, 2014, pg. 55). The model consists of three levels that are broken down into six stages of development (Kohlberg, 1971). In order to follow the early model as well as the resulting continued research into this area, the present paper offers a description and critique of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.
According to Kohlberg (1971) the first level of moral development is the pre-conventional level and provides the individual with the cultural awareness of concepts relating to good and bad. During this level, the individual goes through two stages. The first of these is the punishment and obedience orientation which involves the avoidance of punishment more so than a respect for goodness or badness. The second stage is the instrumentalist relativist orientation which involves associating goodness with what satisfies one’s needs and, on occasion, the needs of others. Reciprocity is understood more than loyalty and justice (Kohlberg, 1971). This level suggests that the primary instincts of meeting one’s needs through connecting with others and avoiding negative consequences.
During the second level of moral development, Kohlberg (1971) explains that the individual enters the conventional level. During the first stage of this level, the interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation, the individual begins to seek approval through their actions or intentions. Conformity to stereotypes is achieved to gain this approval and to maintain a sense of family or nationalism. During the second stage of this level, the law and order orientation, a sense of authority and rules establishes the social order. The individual develops a sense of duty to maintain this order and adhere to the rules of the group (Kohlberg, 1971). This level moves the individual from conforming for the purpose of one’s needs to conformity for the purpose of maintaining the larger group.
The third level of moral development is called the Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level (Kohlberg, 1971). This level moves the morals and values from being defined purely in the context of the society and to a true application of good and bad. The first stage in this level is the social-contract legalistic orientation which involves the individual’s awareness that they must follow the law and order but can also work to change these laws based on their own understanding of rights. The individual is free to question the law if the utility of the change is valued as good. During the second stage of this level, the universal ethical-principle orientation, morals and principles are more abstract with an understanding of justice and equality. Laws continue to be essential but right and wrong take over the decision making process and civic involvement (Kohlberg, 1971). This level moves the individual from conformity for the purpose of adherence to the ability to make a difference based on what they have come to know as their truths about good and bad.
To summarize, the six stages of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development model are divided into three levels. Each level consists of changes that occur as an individual learns more about the world around them. The first level teaches a person to meet their needs and consider the needs of others. The second level teaches a person to obey laws and be a part of something larger than themselves. The final level teaches an individual to reach beyond their needs and the laws, when necessary, to ensure that good prevails over bad.