Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Kohlberg's theory of moral development is a theory that focuses on how children develop morality and moral reasoning. Kohlberg's theory suggests that moral development occurs in a series of six stages. The theory also suggests that moral logic is primarily focused on seeking and maintaining justice.

What Is Moral Development?

How do people develop morality? This question has fascinated parents, religious leaders, and philosophers for ages, but moral development has also become a hot-button issue in psychology and education. Do parental or societal influences play a greater role in moral development? Do all kids develop morality in similar ways?

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed one of the best-known theories exploring some of these basic questions. His work modified and expanded upon Jean Piaget's previous work but was more centered on explaining how children develop moral reasoning.

How did the two theories differ? Piaget described a two-stage process of moral development. Kohlberg extended Piaget's theory, proposing that moral development is a continual process that occurs throughout the lifespan. His theory outlines six stages of moral development within three different levels.

In recent years, Kohlberg's theory has been criticized as being Western-centric with a bias toward men (he primarily used male research subjects) and with having a narrow worldview based on upper-middle-class value systems and perspectives.

How Kohlberg Developed His Theory

Kohlberg based his theory on a series of moral dilemmas presented to his study subjects. Participants were also interviewed to determine the reasoning behind their judgments in each scenario.

One example was "Heinz Steals the Drug." In this scenario, a woman has cancer and her doctors believe only one drug might save her. This drug had been discovered by a local pharmacist and he was able to make it for $200 per dose and sell it for $2,000 per dose. The woman's husband, Heinz, could only raise $1,000 to buy the drug.

He tried to negotiate with the pharmacist for a lower price or to be extended credit to pay for it over time. But the pharmacist refused to sell it for any less or to accept partial payments. Rebuffed, Heinz instead broke into the pharmacy and stole the drug to save his wife. Kohlberg asked, "Should the husband have done that?"

Kohlberg was not interested so much in the answer to whether Heinz was wrong or right but in the reasoning for each participant's decision. He then classified their reasoning into the stages of his theory of moral development.

Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory is broken down into three primary levels. At each level of moral development, there are two stages. Similar to how Piaget believed that not all people reach the highest levels of cognitive development, Kohlberg believed not everyone progresses to the highest stages of moral development.

Level 1. Preconventional Morality

Preconventional morality is the earliest period of moral development. It lasts until around the age of 9. At this age, children's decisions are primarily shaped by the expectations of adults and the consequences for breaking the rules. There are two stages within this level:

  • Stage 1 (Obedience and Punishment): The earliest stages of moral development, obedience and punishment are especially common in young children, but adults are also capable of expressing this type of reasoning. According to Kohlberg, people at this stage see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a way to avoid punishment.
  • Stage 2 (Individualism and Exchange): At the individualism and exchange stage of moral development, children account for individual points of view and judge actions based on how they serve individual needs. In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best served Heinz’s needs. Reciprocity is possible at this point in moral development, but only if it serves one's own interests.

Level 2. Conventional Morality

The next period of moral development is marked by the acceptance of social rules regarding what is good and moral. During this time, adolescents and adults internalize the moral standards they have learned from their role models and from society.

This period also focuses on the acceptance of authority and conforming to the norms of the group. There are two stages at this level of morality:

  • Stage 3 (Developing Good Interpersonal Relationships): Often referred to as the "good boy-good girl" orientation, this stage of the interpersonal relationship of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles. There is an emphasis on conformity, being "nice," and consideration of how choices influence relationships.
  • Stage 4 (Maintaining Social Order): This stage is focused on ensuring that social order is maintained. At this stage of moral development, people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments. The focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty, and respecting authority.

Level 3. Postconventional Morality

At this level of moral development, people develop an understanding of abstract principles of morality. The two stages at this level are:

  • Stage 5 (Social Contract and Individual Rights): The ideas of a social contract and individual rights cause people in the next stage to begin to account for the differing values, opinions, and beliefs of other people. Rules of law are important for maintaining a society, but members of the society should agree upon these standards.
  • Stage 6 (Universal Principles): Kohlberg’s final level of moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.

Kohlberg believed that only a relatively small percentage of people ever reach the post-conventional stages (around 10 to 15%). One analysis found that while stages one to four could be seen as universal in populations throughout the world, the fifth and sixth stages were extremely rare in all populations.

Criticisms

Kohlberg's theory played an important role in the development of moral psychology. While the theory has been highly influential, aspects of the theory have been critiqued for a number of reasons:

  • Moral reasoning does not equal moral behavior: Kohlberg's theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what we ought to do versus our actual actions. Moral reasoning, therefore, may not lead to moral behavior.
  • Overemphasizes justice: Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg's theory of moral development overemphasizes the concept of justice when making moral choices. Factors such as compassion, caring, and other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning.
  • Cultural bias: Individualist cultures emphasize personal rights, while collectivist cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern, collectivist cultures may have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg's theory does not take into account.
  • Age bias: Most of his subjects were children under the age of 16 who obviously had no experience with marriage. The Heinz dilemma may have been too abstract for these children to understand, and a scenario more applicable to their everyday concerns might have led to different results.
  • Gender bias: Kohlberg's critics, including Carol Gilligan, have suggested that Kohlberg's theory was gender-biased since all of the subjects in his sample were male. Kohlberg believed that women tended to remain at the third level of moral development because they place a stronger emphasis on things such as social relationships and the welfare of others.

Gilligan instead suggested that Kohlberg's theory overemphasizes concepts such as justice and does not adequately address moral reasoning founded on the principles and ethics of caring and concern for others.

A Word From Verywell

While Kohlberg's theory of moral development has been criticized, the theory played an important role in the emergence of the field of moral psychology. Researchers continue to explore how moral reasoning develops and changes through life as well as the universality of these stages. Understanding these stages offers helpful insights into the ways that both children and adults make moral choices and how moral thinking may influence decisions and behaviors.

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10 Sources
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