Conventional morality is level 2 in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. It begins around the age of 10 or 11 years old and lasts until the age of 15.
Examples of conventional morality include volunteering, paying taxes, and being the teacher’s pet.
Conventional morality comes after preconventional and before postconventional morality:
- Preconventional morality ages: Up to ages 9-10
- Conventional morality ages: Ages 10-15
- Post conventional morality ages: Ages 15 and up
Definition of Conventional Morality
In the conventional morality stage, the child is becoming more oriented toward social acceptance and following the definition of morality as prescribed by society.
Adolescents begin to internalize those definitions and adopt them as their own.
This is also a period of time when definitions of morality can come from role models and various social groups, which may or may not be the same as those from the broader society.
This can become a point of internal conflict when there is a disparity between the rules of a particular social group and the rules of society.
Sub-Stages of Conventional Morality
There are two sub-stages of moral reasoning within the conventional stage.
Sub-Stage 1: Good Interpersonal Relationships
In this sub-stage, a person’s morality is influenced by their desire to receive social approval from others.
Morality-related decision-making is considered in the context of interpersonal relationships and how one’s actions will affect those relations. Winning the approval of key role models is paramount.
This stage is also characterized by a more complex analysis of a given situation. The cognitive development of teenagers allows for a deeper understanding of other people’s intentions and motives.
This results in a complex analysis and understanding that was previously quite limited.
Sub-Stage 2: Maintaining Social Order
At this stage, individuals begin to give greater consideration to the broader needs of society rather than solely focused on receiving approval from others.
The focus is on ensuring that social order is supported through one’s actions. A person is good because they respect society and participate in a positive and constructive manner.
In later writings, Kohlberg stated that this stage did not become the dominant way of thinking for most people until reaching their 20s and even 30s.
Kohlberg’s Conventional Morality Examples
1. The Teacher’s Pet
Obtaining the approval of role models is an essential concern in stage 3.
This can be readily observed in many middle school classrooms as some students strive to win the approval of their favorite teacher. Offering to help at every opportunity or reminding the teacher to collect homework are common behaviors.
Although the teacher’s pet can be on the receiving end of their classmates’ rolling-eyes, those objections have little impact. The main goal of the student is to gain the approval of the teacher and the reactions of other students pales in comparison.
2. Pressure to Cheat
Depending on the social group, there may exist a great deal of pressure to cheat on a school exam.
The consequences of refusing to cheat, or help others cheat, can mean disapproval from valued members of a social group. Non-compliance can lead to being rejected from the group and ostracized by others.
This is an example of the kind of conflict that can exist in stage 3. Individuals are confronted with the conflicting demands of key figures in their life.
The approval of parents and key members of a social group are both important. How to resolve the conflict is a common quandary for children in this stage.
3. Exploring Fashion Choices
Stage 3 begins during the pre-teen years and continues into adolescence. This can be a time when young boys and girls experiment with different styles of clothing.
Some of those choices may be questionable in the eyes of parents and teachers.
However, the dominant influence at this age comes from social groups. Therefore, children may make fashion choices that are objectionable by some, such as wearing unusual hairstyles or very short skirts.
The key consideration as to what is morally acceptable, or not, is defined by the social group. The need to conform to these norms can be much more important than norms prescribed by society or parents that are old, like being almost 40.
There are many ways to volunteer: working in soup kitchens, animal shelters, or helping the elderly with household chores.
There are also many reasons that a person could choose to do volunteer work.
For example, one person might help out at the local animal shelter because they feel very compassionate about helping animals. Another person might work at the same shelter because they want to put it on their resume and think it will look good when they apply to vet school.
Still another person might volunteer because they want to be prosocial and hope that people will see them as a kind and warm-hearted person.
Each one of the scenarios above represents a different stage of moral reasoning. Can you guess which one represents stage 3?
5. The Office Brown-noser
Determining what is right and wrong behavior arises in many work environments.
There are various ways to reach a determination, such as relying on written company policy or going along with the informal rules that exist in most companies.
However, there are times when one can question if company policy is directly relevant. In these situations, there may be one employee that always ignores the unwritten informal rules that everyone else accepts, and instead chooses to engage in a behavior they believe will win the boss’s approval.
Case in point: Three employees are conducting an assignment in the field. They finish 30 minutes early, at 4:30. Two of the workers suggest going home instead of taking 20 minutes to drive back to the office and then wait 10 minutes to clock-out. The third worker decides to call the boss to inform her they finished early.
This is an example of stage 3 reasoning that is focused on winning the approval of an authority figure.
6. Paying Taxes
Paying taxes is never pleasant and most people would avoid the grueling process if they could.
Everyone likes to keep their money for their own lives rather than allocate a significant percentage to the government. It might be an easier pill to swallow if we could see more benefits, like better universal healthcare and free college tuition.
Unless you are ultra-rich and can hire a team of accountants to whittle your payment down to the single digits, everyone must pay.
But remember, from Kohlberg’s perspective, it’s not the act that counts so much as the reasoning. If you pay taxes because you don’t want to get caught, that’s one thing.
If you pay taxes because it helps maintain social order by funding law enforcement and building infrastructure, that is completely different. Paying taxes because it is a social obligation that maintains order is moral reasoning at stage 4.
7. Cleaning Trash from the local Beach
Unfortunately, a lot of what we use in our daily lives ends up in the ocean. Sometimes that debris can accumulate along the shore, especially in areas where the currents take a specific pattern.
This is one reason why you can often see groups of volunteers on weekend mornings walking along the beach and picking up trash. It’s not a very pleasant job and might even be a bit dangerous because of broken bottles and other sharp objects.
Cleaning up these public areas is a great service for the common good. Many of those volunteers might not even use the beach often, but they want to help for the benefit of others and society in general. This is an example of stage 4 reasoning; doing something for the broader needs of society.
8. Being a Volunteer Poll Worker
A poll worker helps voters during the voting process. They work at a polling station and perform many tasks, such as helping voters check-in, answering questions, issuing ballots, and other tasks that help the voting process function smoothly.
Being a poll worker is a vital service that helps ensure that a democracy thrives. They play an essential role in supporting the strength and integrity of the democratic process and strive to make sure every vote counts, regardless of their own political orientation.
Many people live in a country where they are not allowed to vote for their leaders. Being a poll worker to help serve the greater good of a democratic society is a noble example of stage 4 reasoning.
9. Turning in Your Best Friend for Cheating
The transition between stage 3 and stage 4 reasoning can be dramatic, especially during the teen years when social approval is so key to one’s self-identity.
We can see this play out in a scenario in which one student has discovered that their best friend cheated on the SATs.
The punishment for cheating may include being banned from attending many universities. Moreover, turning in one’s friend can also inflict extreme personal damage. Not only will the personal relationship be destroyed, but one’s reputation in school will also be affected.
For a person at Kohlberg’s stage 4 level of moral development, the course of action is clear. The friend must be turned in to maintain the integrity of university education and fair access.
If the system breaks down, then those that worked hard, for years, to secure their seat in the classroom may be cheated out of something they truly deserve. Therefore, maintaining social order takes precedence over personal relationships.
10. Wanting to become a Police Officer
The teen years often involves dreaming about future careers. Some will want to be models, movie stars or Tik Tok influencers, while others may hope to one day become doctors and lawyers. There can be a variety of motives behind each of those aspirations.
However, some may seek a career that has a higher purpose than just fame and fortune. Being a police officer is a profession that protects people from harm and helps maintain social order. Yes, it can also be dangerous.
But when a person chooses to put themselves in danger and risk their lives for the good of society, it is an admirable example of stage 4 reasoning.
Piaget’s Stages at Same Age
Piaget’s stage of autonomous morality is most similar to Kohlberg’s conventional level.
Piaget used the term moral relativism to highlight the key feature of a child’s reasoning that there is no absolute right and wrong. Children begin to recognize that the determination of what is moral or not depends on intentions, not just consequences.
According to Piaget, around the age of 8 or 9, children escape the confines of egocentrism and are now able to see situations from the perspective of others.
This allows for an understanding of intention. Therefore, doing something wrong, but with good intentions, should not always lead to punishment.
As children grow out of egocentrism, they also begin to realize that rules can be arbitrary. Rules are not absolutes, but they can and should change, depending on specific circumstances.
This kind of understanding represents a gradual progression into Kohlberg’s next level of moral reasoning, the postconventional level.
Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Lapsley, D. K. (2006). Moral stage theory. In Handbook of moral development (pp. 55-84). Psychology Press.
Malti, T., Gasser, L., & Buchmann, M. (2009). Aggressive and prosocial children’s emotion attributions and moral reasoning. Aggressive Behavior, 35(1), 90–102. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.20289Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.