Kohlberg’s Stages and Theory of Moral Development Explained

Kohlberg's Stages and Theory of Moral Development

Moral development refers to the development of children’s behaviour and attitude towards people in society, according to the various social and cultural values, norms, and laws. Every parent concern about the moral development of their child, they always try to teach their child about the right or wrong moral behaviour and to behave appropriately in society. The concept of moral development has always been discussed by various philosophers, psychologists, and cultural theorists. Many renowned psychologists have tried to examine the moral development process in a scientific way. In 1938, Jean Piaget explored the development pattern of moral reasoning in children, he said that children can not be forced to learn moral values, instead, they develop their moral values by dealing with various judgmental situations in their daily life. Lawrence Kohlberg was inspired by Jean Piaget’s work of moral reasoning, and he further extended Piaget’s idea and developed the theory of moral development in 1958.

Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg

On October 25, 1927, Lawrence Kohlberg was born in New York. In 1945, he completed his graduation from Phillips Academy, Massachusetts, and later, he served in the United States Marines for about two years, and then he completed his PhD in Psychology from the University of Chicago in 1958. During his doctoral studies, he developed his interest in Jean Piaget’s work on the moral reasoning of children that motivated him to develop his six-stage theory of moral development. He taught at various institutions after completing his PhD, and finally, in 1968, he settled as a professor at Harvard University. In his later years, he suffered from a parasitic infection, and due to his physical illness, he went into major depression issues, and he committed suicide on January 17, 1987, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Method of Kohlberg’s Theory

Kohlberg believed that the moral growth of children develops if they face moral dilemmas as it widens their thinking and helps them in progressing from one level to other levels of moral development. Kohlberg used Piaget’s method of storytelling technique as a method to develop his theory, he used different stories that involved various moral dilemma questions to understand the morality level of the children by analyzing their responses to these questions. One of his famous moral dilemma stories is about a European man named Heinz who faced a moral dilemma conflict between two moral values, i.e., saving one’s life or obeying the law, this story is as follows:

Heinz’s wife was diagnosed with a rare type of deadly cancer, and there was only one drug available in the market that could save her life. It was a kind of radium that a pharmacist had recently invented. The pharmacist reserved all the rights of manufacturing this drug, he decided to sell this drug at a very high price than its actual amount, in fact, he was charging ten times higher ($2000) than its original amount ($200). Heinz did not have that much amount, so he decided to take the help of everyone he knew, but he managed to gather $1000 only. Heinz went to that pharmacist and explained to him the situation of his wife and told the pharmacists to sell the drug at a cheaper price, or he’ll pay the remaining $1000 later. Heinz begged a lot, but all went in vain. The pharmacist denied it straight away and told him that he wanted to make a profit because he invented the drug. Heinz had less time as his wife was near death and needed the drug. Later, out of desperation, Heinz decided to break into the pharmacist’s shop to steal the drug.” Heinz's Dilemma Story of Kohlberg's Moral Development Theory

Based on the above story, Kohlberg asked various questions to the sample of children such as Was Heinz right or wrong? Will Heinz dare to steal the drug if it was some other person in place of his wife? Should the police intervene in the case to arrest the pharmacist if Heinz’s wife died? Kohlberg was not interested in the answers, instead, he was more interested to analyse the reasons that children gave for their particular answers. The responses of the children went on to become the basis of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Kohlberg also studied that how does the morality of children changes as they grow up. He studied the sample interviews of 72 boys of age 10-16 years in which every boy in the sample was given ten dilemmas, and they had to answer that which moral value or rule they would follow between the two moral dilemmas and why; the duration of the interviews was two hours. This gave Kohlberg an understanding of changes that occurs in the moral reasoning of children at different periods of their age. By deeply analyzing the thought processes of the children through his ‘moral dilemmas story’ technique, he proposed that there exist three levels of moral reasoning, i.e., pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, and each level has two stages. He said that these levels couldn’t be skipped, and every individual developed his/her moral development by mastering each level in the sequence, and their moral development was closely linked to their cognitive development. These three levels are discussed below.

Three Levels of Kohlberg's Moral Development Theory

Level 1 – Preconventional Morality

It is the first level of moral development, and it lasts up to 9 years of age. At this level, the moral decision-making abilities of children are somewhat largely influenced by external factors as by this stage, they have not themselves developed their personal code of moral principles, and the concepts about right or wrong behaviour according to society’s norms are not yet internalized among them. Their moral decisions are based on the standards of their parents and teachers and on the consequence of breaking rules and norms of society. This stage is called Pre-conventional as children in this stage do not develop moral values themselves, instead, they think that moral values or ethics are implemented by society, and they must follow them. Two stages of pre-conventional morality are:

Pre-Conventional Level of Kohlberg's Theory

Stage-1 Punishment-Obedience Orientation

At stage one, obedience to rules and punishments for breaking the rules determine the morality of the children. According to Kohlberg, the children at this stage believe that the rules set by their parents or teachers are fixed, and they will get punishment if they won’t obey these rules, so to avoid the punishment, they follow these moral rules. At this stage, children focus only on the consequence of their actions, and they perceive their actions as morally wrong or right based on the fact that whether they would get punishment or not for their actions. For example, they think that they should not steal the candy, otherwise the police may catch them and put them in jail, and in the case of Heinz’s dilemma example, the children, at stage 1, will think that Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is against the law, they won’t consider the fact that his wife is near to death.

Obedience and Punishment Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Stage-2 Individualism-Exchange Orientation

At stage 2, children start understanding that there is not a single way of seeing any situation, it can be viewed from different perspectives as every individual has his/her own viewpoints. Children begin to look for their own benefit in doing any action and focus on getting incentives or fulfilling their own needs in exchange for doing that action. For example, if their parents ask them to do any house chores, they ask for incentives like chocolates or other snacks in exchange for doing house chores. During this stage, children mostly become self-centred, and they only look for their own benefit while performing any task. Children become more concerned about equitable justice at this stage, they have a mentality like

You spoiled my painting, and I’ll spoil yours too.”

Individualism and Exchange Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Level 2 – Conventional Morality

The conventional morality stage starts at around 10 years of age and may last up to adulthood. At this stage, children focus on being accepted by society and maintaining good relationships with others. They start internalizing the values and norms of the society and rigidly follow them as they think that these norms are for their betterment as well as for society. After internalizing the social norms, they seldom question the appropriateness of the norms, and their moral reasoning pattern is largely influenced by their surrounding people or society. It is seen that most adults remain at the conventional morality stage and do not progress towards the next or the final stage of moral development, i.e., post-conventional morality. This level consists of stage 3 (good impersonal relationship) and stage 4 (system-maintaining orientation) that are discussed below.

Conventional Level of Kohlberg's Theory

Stage-3 Good Impersonal Relationship

At stage 3, the children/people are concerned about their public image and want to be seen as a good person in society, which is why this stage is also called the “good boy-good girl orientation stage.” They start understanding the concepts of loyalty, faith, and gratefulness. Their behaviour and moral decisions are as per the values, norms, and approval of society. In Heinz’s dilemma example, people, at this stage, will say that Heinz did not do anything wrong because he had good intentions, he is a good person who saved his wife’s life. The moral behaviour of people at stage 3 is mainly dependent on the mentality “what they think about me?” The people at this stage mainly follow general trends and norms that are followed by the majority of the population. For example, a student named Sam sees that some senior students are bullying the juniors, he wants to intervene to stop the bullying, but he sees that nobody is coming for their help, and all are just watching the bullying, he too decides to stay away because he wants to fit in with the majority.

Good Impersonal Relationship Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Stage-4 System-maintaining Orientation

Children/People at stage 4 also focuses on their behaviour being approved by their close relationships or surrounding people like stage 3, but their perspective of looking at a situation becomes wider at this stage because they judge different situations by considering the collective view of society. Their moral behaviour is determined by the rules and regulations of society instead of their personal relationships. They think that social norms and laws should be maintained, and we should respect authority. They strongly believe that everyone should obey these laws and norms in every condition because if one person fails to obey the rules, then, perhaps, other people will also do the same. Most people remain stuck at this stage throughout their life, and they blindly follow these conventions because of their belief that these are important and valuable for the smooth functioning of society. People at this stage strictly follow the rules, though they consider these rules as a burden to them. Let’s understand this with Heinz’s example, suppose if Heinz’s had followed the rule of not stealing the drug, then he might have lost his wife, but stage 4 people will argue that they understand that although Heinz wants to save his wife’s life, stealing the drug is against the law, and he should obey the law because other people also might not obey the law if they will think that they have valid reasons to break them.

System Maintaining Orientation Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Level 3 – Postconventional Morality

Postconventional morality is the last stage of moral development, and it is also known as the principal level of morality. At this level, People believe that individuals are part of society, but they also have their separate entities. If the rule is good at the society’s level that does not mean that it is also good for the particular individual. They argue that social rules or norms are important in society, but that does not mean they can not question those rules, instead, they believe in disobeying certain rules that they think are unjust or are not in accordance with their own principles. At this stage, an individual’s morality is not based on society’s perspective, instead, his morality is based on the abstract principles or rules that can be applied to every situation from the individual level to the society, and they believe in ‘self before others’ mentality, which is why this level is often confused with the first level (pre-conventional) of moral development. Many theorists have stated that very few people (around 10-15%) are progressed to this stage as most people lack the understanding of morality based on abstract principles, which is needed at this stage. These people stay at level 2 as their morality is based on the views of their surrounding people instead of their own ethical principles.

Stage-5 Social Contract Situation and Individual Rights

People at stage 5 begins to understand that every individual has his/her own viewpoints, values, and opinions. They view rules as a social contract rather than a strict order that must be followed. They believe that norms should be followed only if they make sense to them and serves the well-being of both society and the individual. The rules and norms that are set by the society are for the goodwill of the people, but if they are not in the interest of the individuals, and they only consider the welfare of the society as a whole, then, according to stage 5 people, these laws should be modified/amended accordingly. The law should be modified in accordance with the majority of the people. In fact, the principles of the democratic government are based on the moral reasoning pattern of this stage.

Social Contract Situation Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Stage-6 Universal Ethical Principles Orientation

It is the final stage of moral development, and very few people reach this stage. People at this stage follow their own moral rules or principles, these principles may or may not be in accordance with the law. They believe in following basic human rights such as the right to life, liberty, freedom, free speech, and justice, and they won’t hesitate to go against society’s laws to defend these principles even if they are going to face any criticism or legal action. For example, People at stage 6 will argue that Heinz could take the drug without paying because his wife’s life was more important than the money. Kohlberg developed the sixths stage as he discovered that the opinions of the majority of people do not guarantee that it will be the absolute or best decision for every individual. People at this stage decide the behaviour as morally wrong or right according to the universal moral principles like justice, fairness, and respecting everyone’s opinions, and they usually develop a sense of guilt if they fail to obey the universal principles that they believe in. Kohlberg, in his study, found it very difficult to identify the people whose behaviour was constantly in accordance with the six-stage moral reasoning.

Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Applications of Kohlbergs’ Theory in Classroom and Learning

From kindergarten to high school, the morality level of the students keeps on changing. Kohlberg’s moral development theory starts from the stage of ‘morality dependent on authority’ and ends with the stage ‘morality based on universal ethical principles.’ By understanding each stage of this theory, teachers can apply the following strategies in the classroom to develop the moral character of the children.


Implementation of Punishment

The morality level of most children in preschools or kindergarten is as per stage 1 (punishment-obedience orientation) of Kohlberg’s theory. At this stage, children obey the rules to avoid punishments. Understanding this stage can help the teachers implement strategies that motivate the children to follow rules and good moral values. A certain set of rules or proper code of conduct that are implemented in schools, to be followed by every student, is a prominent application of Kohlberg’s first stage. The child will get the punishment if he/she fails to follow these codes of conduct; punishments can be in the form of taking away some privileges of the student that may include reducing their playtime, or not giving them their favourite food item for a while.

Punishment Obedience Orientation Stage of Kohlberg's Theory

Implementing the Concept of Rewards

The early elementary children’s moral decisions are usually based on Kohlberg’s stage 2 of moral development (individualism-exchange orientation). They, now, understand that their behaviour is “bad” if they are getting punished for a particular action, and it is “good” if they are rewarded for that action. Implementation of the reward system for the students who obey the school code of conduct is an important application of Kohlberg’s second stage of moral development. At this stage, students understand that other students will treat them in a good way if they are behaving well with them, so they start relating morality with helping others but that is primarily for their own selfishness of getting back the respect. Teachers should conduct various classroom activities or games that motivate children to help each other to succeed in that task. This encourages the students to work for mutual benefit and increases their team skills and strengthens moral reasoning.

Involving Students in Making Classroom Rules

By the age of 10 to 13 years, most of the children reach the third stage of moral development (good impersonal relationship). Children at this stage become very conscious about how their behaviour affects their surrounding people, and what others think about them. Children’s moral character can be strengthened by introducing various activities that give them the opportunity to understand each other’s perspectives and improve their moral character. Towards the end of middle school, some students begin to reach stage 4 (universal ethical principle orientation), at this stage, they care less about following the rules, instead, some of them even start breaking the rules according to their ease and wish. To make students follow the rules, teachers can involve the students in the process of making the classroom’s rules. When they themselves are involved in the process of making rules, they more willingly follow the rules.

Developing Children’s Moral Character

The six-stage theory of Kohlberg describes the moral development of children at different stages of life. Unlike Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg has not divided the different stages of moral development according to the fixed age groups. He only emphasized the sequential structure of moral development, i.e., the person reaches the next stage only after mastering the previous stage of moral development. Teachers can strengthen the moral character of the students by understanding each stage of Kohlberg’s theory, and by analyzing the current stage of the student, they can help students reach the next stage of moral development.

Interactive Study

Teachers should encourage students to involve in group studies instead of letting them sit idle and listen to lectures. Children should be encouraged to ask questions about the concepts that they did not understand or don’t believe in. This can only be achieved by a collaborative or interactive study. This concept is in accordance with stage 5 of Kohlberg’s theory (social contract situation), where regular teaching methods can be modified for the better learning of the children.

Role-Play Activities

Kohlberg’s method of developing his theory involved various dilemma stories, which encouraged the students to think and choose the right moral decisions by imagining these dilemmas. Similarly, teaching patterns may involve role-plays or brief skits based on the curriculum or general moral conflicts. This helps the children understand the concepts better and make their decisions not only from their own perspective but also from the perspective of the other.

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Drawbacks of Kohlberg’s Theory

Kohlberg’s theory provides a detailed view of children’s moral development and is very helpful in the field of psychology and the education sector. However, his theory also received criticism from many psychologists because of the following drawbacks:

Age Biases

Kohlberg’s dilemma stories were quite abstract for the children to understand. For example, Heinz’s dilemma story involved a married man (Heinz), who decided to steal the drug for his wife. Kohlberg’s sample of the study included subjects of age 10 to 16 years, they were not married and had never been in Heinz’s situation, it’s difficult for them to relate to Heinz’s situation. Hence, the answers that they gave about stealing the drug or not have less ecological validity because these moral answers might be different if the dilemma stories were more relatable to them and to their everyday situations.

Gender Biased Sample

Kohlberg’s sample of study involved only males, he had a belief that the moral reasoning abilities of the females are less than that of the males because females’ moral decisions are largely based on the principles of welfare, care, compassion, and the social relationships. Many critics, including American psychologist and feminists Carol Gilligan, have strongly argued the fact that Kohlberg observed only the moral development pattern of boys, whereas girls thinking pattern of facing moral dilemmas is different than that of boys. Womens’ morality decisions are based on interpersonal relationships, but males’ morality decisions are based on equal rights and justice, which does not mean that females are deficient in moral reasoning than males, but Kohlberg did not take this under consideration.

Gender Biases in Kohlberg's Theory

Moral Reasoning and Moral Behavior

Kohlberg, in his research, studied the moral thinking of children, and he suggested that moral thinking influences moral behaviour. However, there is a big difference in what people say and what they do, and he did not take this under consideration in his research. Berk, in his book on child development that was published in 1994, suggested that the difference in moral thinking and moral behaviour should be taken into account as the moral behaviour of the person is not only defined by their moral thinking but also by other social factors like peer pressure and relationships.

Overemphasize Justice

Many psychologists have pointed out that Kohlberg considered justice as the most important principle in making moral decisions and skipped other important factors like social relations, compassion, care, and respect for others’ feelings; however, apart from justice, all these factors are considered equally important while making moral decisions.

Cultural Biases

Kohlberg’s research sample included the American boys as subjects, so the results of his research are also based on the moral thinking of the Americans, while the moral thinking of the eastern population may be different than that of the western population. The final moral development stage of Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes the role of freedom, liberty, and justice for the individuals (individualist culture), while in some countries the morality of the people may be highly influenced by the well-being of the society (a collectivist culture). Various critics have argued that Kohlberg’s theory is biased against the non-western population where less emphasis is given to the concept of individualism.

Individualist Vs Collectivist Culture

Hypothetical Dilemmas

Kohlberg’s method consisted of moral conflict questions based on hypothetical stories. The answers that the children gave in the relaxing environment of the study do not mean their answers would be the same in the actual situation too. Their decisions may vary in the case of real-life situations because real-life actions have real consequences that directly impact the person, so these artificial responses question the validity of Kohlberg’s research.

Problem with Distinct Stages

According to Kohlberg, there are three distinct levels of moral development, and every child passes to the next level of moral development after mastering the previous level, but there is no proper evidence to support it. It is commonly observed that individuals’ decisions sometimes depend on their personal benefit, sometimes on their closed relationships, or sometimes considering the society’s perspective. So, the moral decisions of the person may fall into any one of three levels (pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional), depending upon the situation rather than these three distinct levels. Moreover, sequential moral growth is also not always true. For example, if a person is making a decision by considering the universal ethics in view (post-conventional) for a situation, then he may also take the decision by considering the society’s well-being (conventional) in other situations.

Lack of Longitudinal Research

To study children’s moral development at different ages, Kohlberg studied children of different ages. It may not be the best approach to study the sequential moral growth of the children as every children’s morality growth is different from the others, which is why longitudinal research is the better method than Kohlberg’s; in this method, the moral growth of the same children is analyzed over a span of time. However, Colby et al. (1983) supported the conclusions drawn by Kohlberg’s study as she further carried out Kohlberg’s research and studied 58 out of 72 boys (subjects) of Kohlberg’s original research for around 27 years with three-year intervals in between.

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