Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

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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 and that moral logic is primarily focused on seeking and maintaining justice.

Here we discuss how Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development and the six stages he identified as part of this process. We also share some critiques of Kohlberg's theory, many of which suggest that it may be biased based on the limited demographics of the subjects studied.

What Is Moral Development?

Moral development is the process by which people develop the distinction between right and wrong (morality) and engage in reasoning between the two (moral reasoning).

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.

Kohlberg extended Piaget's theory, proposing that moral development is a continual process that occurs throughout the lifespan. Kohlberg's 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 for 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.

Levels of Moral Development Age Stages Included in This Level 
Preconventional Morality 0 to 9 Stage 1: Obedience and punishment Stage 2: Individualism and exchange
Conventional Morality Early adolescence to adulthood Stage 3: Developing good interpersonal relationships Stage 4: Maintaining social order
Postconventional Morality  Some adults; rare Stage 5: Social contract and individual rights stage 6: Universal principles

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 of 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.

Applications for Kohlberg's Theory

Understanding Kohlberg's theory of moral development is important in that it can help parents guide their children as they develop their moral character. Parents with younger children might work on rule obeyance, for instance, whereas they might teach older children about social expectations.

Teachers and other educators can also apply Kohlberg's theory in the classroom, providing additional moral guidance. A kindergarten teacher could help enhance moral development by setting clear rules for the classroom, and the consequences for violating them. This helps kids at stage one of moral development.

A teacher in high school might focus more on the development that occurs in stage three (developing good interpersonal relationships) and stage four (maintaining social order). This could be accomplished by having the students take part in setting the rules to be followed in the classroom, giving them a better idea of the reasoning behind these rules.

Criticisms for Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

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.

Other Theories of Moral Development

Kohlberg isn't the only psychologist to theorize how we develop morally. There are several other theories of moral development.

Piaget's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory is an expansion of Piaget's theory of moral development. Piaget described a three-stage process of moral development:

  • Stage 1: The child is more concerned with developing and mastering their motor and social skills, with no general concern about morality.
  • Stage 2: The child develops unconditional respect both for authority figures and the rules in existence.
  • Stage 3: The child starts to see rules as being arbitrary, also considering an actor's intentions when judging whether an act or behavior is moral or immoral.

Kohlberg expanded on this theory to include more stages in the process. Additionally, Kohlberg believed that the final stage is rarely achieved by individuals whereas Piaget's stages of moral development are common to all.

Moral Foundations Theory

Proposed by Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph, and Jesse Graham, the moral foundations theory is based on three morality principles:

  1. Intuition develops before strategic reasoning. Put another way, our reaction comes first, which is then followed by rationalization.
  2. Morality involves more than harm and fairness. Contained within this second principle are a variety of considerations related to morality. It includes: care vs. harm, liberty vs. oppression, fairness vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation.
  3. Morality can both bind groups and blind individuals. When people are part of a group, they will tend to adopt that group's same value systems. They may also sacrifice their own morals for the group's benefit.

While Kohlberg's theory is primarily focused on help vs. harm, moral foundations theory encompasses several more dimensions of morality. However, this theory also fails to explain the "rules" people use when determining what is best for society.

Normative Theories of Moral Behavior

Several other theories exist that attempt to explain the development of morality, specifically in relation to social justice. Some fall into the category of transcendental institutionalist, which involves trying to create "perfect justice." Others are realization-focused, concentrating more on removing injustices.

One theory falling into the second category is social choice theory. Social choice theory is a collection of models that seek to explain how individuals can use their input (their preferences) to impact society as a whole. An example of this is voting, which allows the majority to decide what is "right" and "wrong."

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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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.