Levels of development of morality in Kohlberg's theories (2023)

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 focuses primarily on seeking and upholding justice.

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

What is moral development?

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

How do people develop morality? This question has intrigued parents, religious leaders, and philosophers for centuries, but moral development has also become a hot topic in psychology and education.Do parental or societal influences play a greater role in moral development? Do all children develop morals in a similar way?

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg has developed one of the most well-known theories that examines some of these fundamental questions.His work modified and expandedby JeanPiagetprevious work, but focused more on explaining how children develop moral thinking.

Kohlberg expanded on Piaget's theory by proposing that moral development is an ongoing process that takes place throughout life. Kohlberg's theory describes six stages of moral development at three different levels.

In recent years, Kohlberg's theory has been criticized for being western-centric, with a male bias (he used mostly 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 participants. Participants were also interviewed to determine the reasons for their judgments in each scenario.

An example was "Heinz steals drugs". In this scenario, a woman has cancer and her doctors believe only a drug can save her. This drug was discovered by a local pharmacist and he was able to manufacture it for $200 per dose and sell it for $2000 per dose. The woman's husband, Heinz, was only able to raise $1,000 to buy the drug.

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

Kohlberg was not so interested in whether Heinz was right or wrong, but thatArgumentationfor the decision of each participant. He then placed his argument in the stages of his theory of moral development.

stages of moral development

Kohlberg's theory is divided into three main levels. At every level of moral development there are two stages. Much like Piaget believed that not all people attain the highest levels of cognitive development, Kohlberg believed that not everyone attains the highest levels of moral development.

(Video) Kohlberg’s 6 Stages of Moral Development

levels of moral developmentAgeSteps included in this level
vorkonventionelle Moral0 bis 9Level 1: obedience and punishment Level 2: individualism and sharing
conventional moralityEarly adolescence to adulthoodLevel 3: Developing good interpersonal relationships. Level 4: Maintaining social order
Postconventional Moralitysome adults; roughLevel 5: Social contract and individual rights Level 6: Universal principles

Level 1. Preconventional morality

Preconventional morality is the initial phase of moral development. Lasts up to about 9 years. At this age, children's decisions are largely shaped by adult expectations and the consequences of breaking the rules. Within this level there are two levels:

  • Stage 1 (Obedience and Punishment): The first stages of moral development, obedience and punishment, are particularly common in young children, but adults are also capable of expressing this type of reasoning. According to Kohlberg, people in this phase see rules as fixed and absolute.Following the rules is important because it is a way to avoid punishment.
  • Level 2 (individualism and exchange): In the individualism and exchange phase of moral development, children respond to individual viewpoints and judge actions based on how well they meet individual needs. In the Heinz dilemma, the children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best met Heinz's needs.reciprocityit 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 about what is good and what is moral. During this time, young people and adults internalize the values ​​they have learned from their role models and from society.

This period also focuses on accepting authority and conforming to group norms. At this level of morality there are two stages:

  • Level 3 (development of good interpersonal relationships): This interpersonal relational phase of moral development, often referred to as the “good boy-good girl” orientation, focuses on living up to itexpectations and social roles.There is an emphasis onconformityto be "cool" and to think about how decisions affect relationships.
  • Level 4 (maintaining social order): This step focuses on maintaining social order. At this stage of moral development, people begin to look at 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. Post-conventional morality

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

  • Level 5 (social contract and individual rights): The ideas of a social contract and individual rights, in the next stage, cause people to consider other people's different values, opinions, and beliefs.Rules of law are important to sustain a society, but society members must agree to these standards.
  • Level 6 (Universal Principles): Kohlberg's ultimate level of moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles and abstract thinking. In this phase, people follow these internalized principles of fairness even when they come into conflict with laws and rules.

Kohlberg believed that only a relatively small percentage of people reach the postconventional stages (about 10 to 15 percent).Analysis found that while stages one through four can be considered universal in populations around the world, stages five and six are extremely rare in all populations.

Applications of Kohlberg's theory

Understanding Kohlberg's theory of moral development is important because it can help parents guide their children in developing their moral character. parents withyounger childrenFor example, they can work on following rules while teaching 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 can help improve moral development by providing clear class rules and the consequences of breaking them. This helps children in the first stage of moral development.

A high school teacher might focus more on the development that occurs in stage three (developing good interpersonal relationships) and stage four (maintaining social order). This can be achieved by having students participate in defining the rules to be followed in the classroom to give them a better idea of ​​the rationale for those rules.

Criticism of Kohlberg's theory of moral development

Kohlberg's theory played an important role in the development of moral psychology. While the theory was highly influential, some aspects of the theory have been criticized for a variety of reasons:

  • Moral thinking is not the same as moral behavior: Kohlberg's theory deals with moral reasoning, but there's a big difference between knowing what we should do and our actual actions. Moral considerations must therefore not lead to moral behavior.
  • justice overemphasized: Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg's theory of moral development overestimates the concept of fairness in moral decision-making. Factors such as compassion, caring, and other interpersonal feelings can play important roles in moral reasoning.
  • cultural trip:individualistic culturesemphasize personal rights whilecollectivist culturesemphasize the importance of society and community. Eastern collectivist cultures may have different moral perspectives that Kohlberg's theory fails to take into account.
  • age distortion: Most of his subjects were children under the age of 16 who obviously had no experience of marriage. Heinz's dilemma may have been too abstract for these children to comprehend, and a scenario more appropriate to their day-to-day concerns might have yielded different results.
  • gender bias: Kohlberg's critics, including Carol Gilligan, have suggested that since all subjects in his sample were male, Kohlberg's theory was gender biased.Kohlberg believed that women tended to stay at the third level of moral development because they placed more emphasis on things like social relationships and the well-being of others.

Rather, Gilligan suggested that Kohlberg's theory overemphasizes concepts such as justice and does not adequately address moral considerations grounded in the principles and ethics of caring and concern for others.

Other theories of moral development

Kohlberg is not 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 extension ofPiaget's theoryof moral development. Piaget described a three-stage process of moral development:

(Video) Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

  • stage 1: The child is more concerned with developing and mastering their motor and social skills without concern for morality in general.
  • Level 2: The child develops unconditional respect for authority figures and existing rules.
  • level 3: The child begins to see the rules as arbitrary and also considers the actor's intentions when judging whether an action or behavior is moral or immoral.

Kohlberg extended this theory to further stages of the process. Furthermore, while Piaget's stages of moral development are common to all, Kohlberg believed that the last stage is rarely attained by individuals.

theory of moral foundations

The theory of moral foundations proposed by Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham is based on three principles of morality:

  1. Intuition develops before strategic thinking🇧🇷 In other words, our reaction comes first, followed by rationalization.
  2. Morality involves more than harm and justice🇧🇷 There are several moral considerations contained in this second principle. Includes: caring versus harm, freedom versus oppression, justice versus trickery,loyaltyagainstTreason, authority versus subversion, and holiness versus degradation.
  3. Morality can unite groups and blind individuals🇧🇷 When people are part of a group, they tend to adopt the same value systems as that group. They can also sacrifice their own morale in favor of the group.

While Kohlberg's theory focuses primarily on helping versus harm, moral foundations theory encompasses several other dimensions of morality. However, this theory also fails to explain the "rules" people use to determine what is best for society.

Normative theories of moral behavior

There are several other theories that attempt to explain the development ofMoral, particularly in relation to social justice.Some fall into the category of transcendental institutionalists, which involves attempting to establish "perfect justice." Others are performance-oriented and more focused on righting injustice.

A theory that falls into the second category is social choice theory. Social choice theory is a collection of models that attempt to explain how individuals can use their input (preferences) to influence society as a whole. An example of this is voting, where the majority can decide what is 'right' and 'wrong'.

A word from Verywell

Although 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 thinking develops and changes throughout life, and the universality of these stages. Understanding these stages provides useful insights into how children and adults make moral decisions and how moral thinking can influence decisions and behavior.

11 fonts

Verywell Mind uses only quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to back up the facts in our articles. Read ourseditorial processto learn more about how we fact-check our content and keep it accurate, reliable, and dependable.

  1. Lapsley D.Moral agency, identity and narrative in moral development.Hum Dev. 2010;53(2):87-97. doi:10.1159/000288210

  2. Elorrieta Grimalt M.A critical analysis of Lawrence Kohlberg's moral education.education and educators. 2012;15(3):497-512. doi:10.5294/edu.2012.15.3.9

  3. Govrin A.From Nursing Ethics to Nursing Psychology: The Reconnection of Nursing Ethics to Contemporary Moral Psychology.Front Psychol. 2014;5:1135. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01135

  4. American Psychological Association.Heinzs Dilemma.

  5. American Psychological Association.Kohlberg's theory of moral development.

  6. Kohlberg L,Essays on Moral Development. Harper & Row; 1985.

  7. Ma HK.Children's moral development: an integrated model.Public Health Front. 2013;1:57. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2013.00057

  8. Gibbs J.Moral development and reality🇧🇷 4th ed. Oxford University Press; 2019

  9. Gilligan C.With a different voice🇧🇷 Harvard University Press; 2016.

  10. Patanela D.Piaget's theory of moral development.Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. 2011. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2167

  11. Dubas KM, Dubas SM, Mehta R.Theories of Justice and Moral Behavior.J Questions of legal ethics in regulation. 2014;17(2):17-35.

(Video) Kohlberg moral development | Individuals and Society | MCAT | Khan Academy

Levels of development of morality in Kohlberg's theories (1)

ForKendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

See Our Editorial Process

Get to know our judging panel

share comments

Was this page helpful?

Thank you for your feedback!

(Video) Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development Explained!

What's your feedback?

(Video) Kohlberg's Moral Development Theory - Simplest Explanation ever


1. Human Development: Kohlberg's Morality Theory
(ETSU Online)
2. Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Theory Explained in 5 minutes!
(Dr. Dan's Genius Coaching)
3. Moral Development: Kohlberg vs Gilligan
(Professor LaMarr)
4. Theoretical Foundations (Kohlberg, Maslow, Erikson, Piaget) - Fundamentals of Nursing Principles
(Level Up RN)
5. Kohlberg's Stages of Morality
(Mr Cognito)
6. Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development (Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Aron Pacocha

Last Updated: 08/09/2023

Views: 5921

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (68 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Aron Pacocha

Birthday: 1999-08-12

Address: 3808 Moen Corner, Gorczanyport, FL 67364-2074

Phone: +393457723392

Job: Retail Consultant

Hobby: Jewelry making, Cooking, Gaming, Reading, Juggling, Cabaret, Origami

Introduction: My name is Aron Pacocha, I am a happy, tasty, innocent, proud, talented, courageous, magnificent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.