Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

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Lawrence Kohlberg began his career as a developmental psychologist but changed his interests to moral education, something that was not very popular in psychology at the time. His change may have been due to the field of psychology’s tendency to avoid research having anything to do with value judgements, because it was felt that anything involving terms such as “good” and “bad” were loaded in bias (Boeree, 2009). Whatever the reason, Kohlberg’s primary interest was in the study of morality, and the way in he did this may have been a bit controversial because he asked his research subjects, both adults and children, to attempt to solve moral dilemmas found in stories while reading them aloud so that Kohlberg could better understand their reasoning. As Boeree (2009) states about Kohlberg’s particular research method, “It wasn’t the specific answers to the dilemmas that interested him, but rather how the person got to this or her answer” (para. 1). Using such responses as a guide, Kohlberg was eventually able what was to become the cornerstone of his work: His stages of moral development.

Kohlberg’s theory on the stages of moral development was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget, John Dewey and James Mark Baldwin, who all believed that all philosophical and psychological development occurred progressively. Moral reasoning for Kohlberg did the same thing, it progressed or developed in stages and through his research he was able to classify them in three levels containing the two stages each, with each stage determined by what Kohlberg described as their “social orientation,” descriptors identifying each development stage (Barger, 2000). The following briefly describes the moral stages of development which will be followed by a more detailed explanation:

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• The pre-conventional level includes two stages, the first refers to obedience and punishment, while the next one is described by individualism, instrumentalism and exchange.
• The conventional level is marked by the first stage of “good boy/girl” and, next, law and order.
• The post-conventional stage is defined by the social contract and then the principled conscious. (Barger, 2000).

The first stage of the pre-conventional level is generally viewed during the elementary school years. Because it is associated with obedience and punishment, the initial stage is marked by being told which behaviors align with social norms. Children learn to adapt their behaviors through orders coming from authority figures, like their parents and teachers (Barger, 2000). Behavior is viewed as either good or bad which is determined through punishment and reward. A child might think that it would be fun to take a toy belonging to a peer at school, but would avoid this out of fear of being punished by the teacher (Flemming, 2011). The second stage, which is associated with individualism, instrumentalism and exchange, is generally characterized by the determination that appropriate behaviors are in the best interest of the individual. As development continues children learn about the exchange principle, an understanding that if other are treated fairly then they will treat us fairly as well and may even help when needed. The young person might think that if a peer is nice to them then they will reciprocate the gesture, otherwise they won’t necessarily feel bad if the person turns out to be mean (Flemming, 2011).

The conventional level refers to moral issues typically found in society, and the first stage (stage 3), “good boy/girl,” is defined as the attitudes which are cultivated when seeking the approval of others (Barger, 2000). Children try to meet with others’ expectations, and begin to learn about trust, gratitude and loyalty. Kohlberg referred to this stage as he did because children during this stage tend to adhere to the so-called “Golden Rule,” a concrete notion of the idea of reciprocity they had discovered during the 2nd stage of development of the pre-conventional level (Boeree, 2009). During adolescence, a teen who just earned their driver’s license would consider not drinking alcohol and then driving for fear of disapproval from peers and, in turn, they would think less of themselves (Flemming, 2011). The 4th stage, or 2nd stage of the conventional level, concerns adherence to laws and appropriately responding to obligation. Children at this stage take a much broader view of society and are concerned about rules which form their understanding between what is right and wrong. An integral part of this is duty and respect for authority (Boeree, 2009). A college student may disagree with a social issue, but because they feel obligated to respect authority they would never consider public protest as an appropriate way of demonstrating their feelings or beliefs (Flemming, 2011).

The post-conventional level, which is the 3rd and final level, has to do with moral thinking. Kohlberg believed that most adults do not reach this level perhaps because he understood how difficult it was to continually behave in moral ways that had been established by social standards (Boeree, 2009). This is somewhat easy to understand after Kohlberg had developed the 5th stage, or 1st in terms of this particular level, because it deals in the idea of social mutuality, that everyone is on the same page in terms of morality, and all members of society are vested in the welfare of others (Barger, 2000). This stage seems idealized, for example the person who believes that it isn’t fair that some corporations do not pay taxes would be surprised that others believe that it is a good thing (Flemming, 2011). The 2nd stage (or 6th) of the post-conventional level is defined by a personal respect for universal principles that are related to equal rights, which to Kohlberg was far more important than social contracts or norms (Boeree, 2009). Using the example of the college student who would not dare participate in public demonstrations, they may now reconsider their position because they now feel that certain populations are being treated unfairly, as if they are second-class citizens (Flemming, 2011).

  • Barger, R. N. (2000). Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Retrieved from https://www.csudh.edu/
  • Boeree, C. G. (2009). Moral development. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/
  • Flemming, L. (2011, April 11). Kohlberg’s six levels of moral judgment. Retrieved from http://www.laflemm.com

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