Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory of moral development

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

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?

One of the best-known theories exploring some of these basic questions was developed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. His work modified and expanded upon Jean Piaget's previous work to form a theory that explained how children develop moral reasoning.

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.

The Heinz Dilemma

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 of 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.

Level 1. Preconventional Morality

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. At this stage, Kohlberg says, people see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment.

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

Often referred to as the "good boy-good girl" orientation, the 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.

This stage is focused on maintaining social order. 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

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.

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'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. This is just one of the many criticisms of Kohlberg's theory.

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.

Does Kohlberg's theory overemphasize Western philosophy? 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.

Were Kohlberg's dilemma's applicable? 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.

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.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Piaget J. The Moral Judgment of the Child. Free Press, 1997.