Lawrence Kohlberg devised a theory of moral development which postulates that moral reasoning passes through six stages from early childhood to adulthood.
Kohlberg’s stages are sorted into three discontinuous levels: preconventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality.
Each stage involves a more advanced level of reasoning that coincides with cognitive development and life experiences.
Kohlberg’s theory focuses on a person’s logic about what is (and is not) moral behavior. The actual behavior is not that important. The emphasis is on how a person reaches their conclusion of what is right and wrong.
To understand a person’s level of moral development, Kohlberg would describe a situation that presents a moral dilemma. By carefully analyzing the reasoning and thought processes of the person’s response, Kohlberg could identify their level of moral development.
Stages of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
Level 1: Preconventional Morality
The preconventional morality level is at the most basic level of moral development. In this level, moral reasoning is based on externally controlled rules that are handed down from authority figures.
The goal in a moral dilemma is to avoid punishment or receive an award. So, if a behavior leads to punishment, then it is bad. If the action leads to a reward, then it is good.
Preconventional morality lasts until around the age of 8 or 9. There is a great deal of variation about when it ends due to the fact that children’s’ cognitive skills develop at different rates and they can have vastly different experiences with adults and other children.
Stage 1: Obedience/Punishment Orientation
At very young ages children define the morality of a behavior as a direct function of its consequences.
In this childish reasoning, behavior that is punished is not moral, and behavior that is rewarded is moral. Children believe that people should obey rules so they can avoid punishment. Rules are absolute and inflexible.
Extraneous factors involved in a situation have no relevance because children simply don’t have the cognitive skills to conduct that reasoning.
In this stage, behaviorist approaches to teaching such as operant conditioning and negative reinforcement are highly effective.
Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange
At this stage, children will begin to understand that different people may have different perspectives regarding the same situation.
Rules are not absolute because there isn’t just one correct point of view. Actions in moral dilemmas are based on self-interest, not just strict adherence to external rules.
Children also begin to understand the benefits of cooperation and positive social relations. By doing something nice for another child, they could benefit by means of reciprocity.
Go Deeper: 10 Preconventional Morality Examples
Level 2: Conventional Morality
Conventional moral reasoning begins to emerge around the age of 10 or 11 and is characterized by accepting the rules of various social groups.
People begin to internalize moral standards from society and respected adults, in addition to various social groups to which the person belongs. Children will stay at this level until they are around 15 years old.
Stage 3: Establishing Good Interpersonal Relationships
At this stage, moral decisions are based on how they affect interpersonal relationships.
There is an emphasis on meeting the expectations of social groups and being seen as a “good” member of that group. People at this stage consciously engage in prosocial behavior. Conformity and receiving the approval of others are highly valued.
Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order
Individuals now become less concerned about interpersonal consequences and more focused on a broader perspective of maintaining social order.
Rules and laws are seen as valuable because they allow a society to function smoothly. Laws to maintain social order are now considered more important than how behavior affects interpersonal relations.
Children begin to embrace the concept of social roles and start to see where they fit in a social hierarchy.
Go Deeper: 10 Conventional Morality Examples
Level 3: Postconventional Morality
This level of moral reasoning is defined in terms of abstract principles that have much broader relevance to civilization.
The rationale underlying morality is not confined to his or her own society and takes into account the perspective of individuals outside of society.
An understanding of universal ethical principles begins to form. This stage of moral reasoning may emerge in early adulthood, but not all individuals will reach either stage 5, and certainly not stage 6.
Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
Laws are regarded as a social contract for the greater good, but are not perfect.
A higher-order conception of morality and individual rights may override specific laws.
People begin to consider the different values and beliefs of others when defining morality. If laws violate human rights, then alternatives should be devised.
Stage 6: Universal Principles
In this final stage of moral reasoning, people develop their own concept of morality based on abstract reasoning and universal ethical principles.
Society’s laws may or may not be consistent with, or uphold, those universal principles. When they do not, a person at this stage may be willing to go against society and pay severe negative consequences to defend universal principles to see that they are equally applied to all.
Go Deeper: 10 Postconventional Morality Examples
Strengths of Kohlberg’s Theory
1. Consistent Stage Progression
There have been many studies that have examined moral reasoning from childhood to early adulthood.
Generally speaking, those studies have supported the contention that people progress through the stages in the same sequence prescribed by Kohlberg.
Kohlberg’s own follow-up studies and those of colleagues (Colby et. al., 1983) also supported his contention that most people passed through stages consistently, although most people did not reach stages 5 and 6.
2. A Consistent Research Technique
Kohlberg relied on one particular research technique for a great deal of his work.
This involved reading a description of moral dilemmas and then asking research participants to respond to a series of questions. Although this technique is not perfect and is often described as a flaw, it is also a valuable tool.
By keeping the stories the same across several of his own studies, and by providing those stories to other researchers, Kohlberg’s technique allows for a comparison of results across studies by different researchers. This is a crucial need for scientific replication that should not be overlooked.
3. Supported by Brain Research
There has been a substantial amount of research linking moral behavior with deficiencies in areas of the brain responsible for executive function, located in the frontal lobe (see Han, 2002 for a review).
Individuals with neurological issues are more likely to commit crimes due to having poor control over their behavior. There is also a clear link between hyperactivity, attentional control disorders, and disruptive behaviors in school settings.
These lines of research support the notion that moral reasoning, or impairment of moral reasoning, is linked to anti-social behavior.
Related: 5 Types of Childhood Development
Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory
1. Western Cultural Bias
Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is heavily influenced by an individualistic cultural bias that values individual rights over broader societal norms.
These values are ingrained in many Western cultures. However, Eastern cultures are more collectivist and value the whole of society over the rights of individuals.
Collectivist cultures have different perspectives on morality which are not consistent with Kohlberg’s theory.
2. Gender Bias
Kohlberg only included males in his studies on moral development. This means the sample was biased and not representative of the population.
That is a significant methodological flaw. Furthermore, as Gilligan (1977) has pointed out, men and women have different priorities when making moral decisions. Men base their conception of morality on abstract principles centering on law and justice.
However, women are more likely to make moral decisions based on principles of compassion and social welfare.
3. Moral Reasoning may not lead to Moral Behavior
Providing rationale for a behavior in the safety of a room where someone describes a moral dilemma is far different from actually being in a situation.
What we think we would do in a situation and what we might actually do in a real situation where emotions are much more intense may be different.
Moral reasoning does not always lead to moral behavior. In the words of Han (2022), “The most fundamental critique is that the result of moral reasoning per se does not necessarily result in moral motivation, and finally, actual moral behavior” (p. 2).
Similarities between Kohlberg and Piaget
There are a number of similarities between Kohlberg’s and Piaget’s theories.
Firstly, both identify moral reasoning as developing in a sequential order where the thinking of younger children is simpler and more concrete than older children and young adults. Both postulate that this sequence is fixed and stable.
Secondly, both scholars relied on similar research techniques that involved analyzing a child’s reaction to a moral dilemma. This is a technique that provides standardization of the research methodology that allows for the comparison of research from various scholars.
Thirdly, both Kohlberg and Piaget are more interested in the rationale and logic that underly the child’s response than the actual behavior they say should be engaged. It is not so much the action chosen that is important as the reason given to justify the action.
In this way, both researchers were able to understand the child’s moral reasoning and develop a much deeper understanding of moral development.
Fourthly, both found similar patterns of moral reasoning across age. For example, Kohlberg’s preconventional level describes the child’s reasoning as being influenced by external rules from authority figures, namely parents and teachers. Similarly, Piaget’s stage of heteronomous morality describes a child’s moral reasoning as being defined externally.
Both scholars found that young children determine morality based on the consequences of an action. A behavior is good if it is rewarded and it is bad if it is punished, regardless of the actual act.
Differences between Kohlberg and Piaget
There are some differences between the two stage-based theories as well.
For instance, Kohlberg believed that very young children internalized rules given by authority figures such as parents and teachers.
However, Piaget stated that internalizing rules and morality does not come until a later age. Younger children simply accept rules as absolutes that must be followed, but do not necessarily accept the rules as their own.
Piaget’s study of the “moral behavior” of children is sometimes described as starting with toddlers, while Kohlberg’s theory of moral development does not begin until the age of 5.
Although Piaget includes this very early age in his discussion of morality, he does not believe the term “morality” is reflective of a toddler’s actions. In fact, he states clearly that the practice of behavior which looks moral occurs long before the consciousness of morality (Piaget, 1932).
Another difference is in regard to the degree of detail between the two theories. While Piaget identified two stages of moral reasoning, Kohlberg’s theory identifies a total of six.
In this way, Kohlberg’s theory is more elaborate and offers a more nuanced understanding of how moral reasoning develops through the years.
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