Postconventional morality is the third and final stage of moral development in Kohlberg’s theory. It is characterized by morality that is based on universal human rights and respect for individual liberty. It transcends social norms or expectations.
Examples of people who have reached a postconventional morality stage include Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks.
Postconventional morality comes after conventional morality:
- Preconventional morality ages: Up to ages 9-10
- Conventional morality ages: Ages 10 and up
- Post conventional morality ages: From age 15 and up
Postconventional Morality Definition
The postconventional level of morality is characterized by reasoning that balances accepting societal needs and the rights of individuals. It delves into morality that is sometimes contrary to laws and social norms.
As a person’s cognitive abilities develop and they accumulate life experiences, they may begin to devise their own set of ethical principles. These principles are abstract and often based on issues related to human dignity and justice.
Theoretically speaking, the postconventional stage should emerge in the later teen years and early adulthood. However, in Kohlberg’s original research on morality, many people never reached stage 6.
He also concluded that stage 5 level of moral reasoning did not appear until the mid-20s, and even then, it is not very prevalent.
Sub-Stages of Postconventional Morality
There are two sub-stages of moral reasoning within the postconventional stage.
Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
This stage is characterized by two fundamental concepts: that laws are there for the good of society, but there may be times when those laws actually work against individual rights.
Grappling with these tensions occurs at Stage 5.
Different people have different values, opinions, and beliefs, which may be inconsistent with specific laws and societal norms.
Grappling with these competing demands requires more advanced intellectual analysis made possible by a higher level of cognitive development.
Stage 6: Universal Principles
This final stage represents the most advanced level of moral reasoning. At this stage, people develop their own principles of morality.
Those principles may be in direct opposition to existing laws, but there is a belief that these principles are universal and apply to all human beings.
Human rights, justice, and equality are ideals that one must be prepared to defend, even if it means having to pay a great personal sacrifice.
Kohlberg’s Postconventional Morality Examples
1. Rosa Parks Refusing to Move on the Bus
Rosa Parks stood up for what she saw as universal moral principles despite the fact society around her disagreed. She had reached the level of postconventional morality.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was riding a city bus in Montgomery Alabama. The bus was quite crowded so the bus driver told Parks to give up her seat to white passengers and go sit in the back. She refused.
She was arrested and fined a total of $14. The local chapter of the NAACP appealed her conviction.
Shortly thereafter a boycott of the bus company began, led by a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr.
The case sparked outrage across the nation, on both sides of the issue. The boycott lasted 381 days and people all over the country began to protest segregated restaurants, pools, and other public facilities.
Nearly one year later, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court declared segregated seating unconstitutional. Rosa Parks has since been recognized as the “mother of the civil rights movement.”
Her refusal to adhere to a law that violated her rights as an individual is a clear example of stage 5 morality.
2. The Crown Act Protecting School Dress Codes
The Crown Act is a law in the U.S. which makes it illegal for schools or employers to impose dress codes against hairstyles such as afros, braids, twists, or locks.
Democrat Senator Holly Mitchell from Los Angeles introduced the bill and said that:
“This law protects the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms.”
The battle of competing demands that the Crown Act represents is a clear example of Kohlberg’s stage 5 moral reasoning.
It involves the rights of individuals to express their culture and the social norms and values of the public majority.
3. Mahatma Gandhi’s Anti-Colonialism
Mahatma Gandhi is probably one of the best examples of an individual that represents stage 6 morality. He adopted and internalized a set of moral principles regarding the rights of individuals to be treated fairly and respectfully.
He viewed those rights as universal principles that apply to all human beings that could not be blocked by others or a government entity, regardless of the law.
At great personal sacrifice, he fought relentlessly against oppressive governments in South Africa and India. He became the driving force behind revolutions that fought against racism, violence against the oppressed, and colonial rule.
4. Free-Range Poultry
If you ever visited a poultry farm you might not be able to eat a chicken sandwich ever again. The conditions at a poultry farm can be deplorable.
From birth to the end of their lives, most chickens spend their whole lives in a wire cage so small that they can barely move.
They rarely see natural sunlight and are given a diet that consists of antibiotics and steroids to keep them disease-free and meaty.
However, animal rights activists have worked tirelessly to end this inhumane treatment. Through public service campaigns and protests, the general public has gradually become more aware of where their food comes from and have spoken with their wallets.
The demand for free-range chicken has been increasing worldwide and is predicted to keep climbing steadily.
This kind of activism is an example of a stage 6 universal principle extending to other living creatures.
5. Muhammad Ali’s Refusal to be Drafted
Muhammad Ali, born in Louisville Kentucky on January 17th, 1942, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., is one of the greatest boxers and social activists in U.S. history. He was the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times.
He was also well-known for his stance against the Vietnam War. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. army due to his religious convictions as a Muslim. His famous words broadcast around the country stated his opinion clearly:
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
Most Americans condemned his refusal. He was stripped of his championship titles and banned from boxing in the U.S. for many years.
Ali was also convicted for refusing the draft and sentenced to five years in prison, which he spent out on bail during legal appeals. The Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction.
Muhammad Ali paid a tremendous personal and professional price for his adherence to his stage 6 religious principles.
6. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights
The men who created the US Constitution grappled with issues of postconventional morality. Their goal was to create a society that maximized individual rights.
The Constitution of the United States of America establishes the fundamental laws of the U.S. federal government and identifies its main branches.
The Bill of Rights contains the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, which describes the rights of citizens in relation to the federal government.
The primary purpose of the Bill of Rights is to guarantee the civil rights of citizens, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
It could be argued that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees these basic freedoms, is an example of Kohlberg’s stage 6 moral reasoning.
7. Universal Healthcare
Debates over whether society should offer universal healthcare have been dealt with in different nations in different ways.
The debate is a clear example of Stage 5 morality. It’s a balancing act between the good of society and the good of the individual.
Universal healthcare is an overall public good, especially for the poor, oppressed, and homeless. It guarantees healthcare to everyone regardless of income.
However, many people who don’t like the concept argue that it’s a restriction of individual liberty. Healthy and responsible people pay for the healthcare of unhealthy and unproductive people.
People who argue against it highlight that universal healthcare is expensive and restricts people’s access to high-quality care. People who argue for it argue that it’s more affordable and guarantees access to everyone.
While I won’t take a stand on this topic, whichever position you take, you’ll need to grapple with stage 5 moral thinking to reach your conclusion.
8. Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery at a young age. Instead of fleeing to safety, Tubman became a central figure in the underground railroad which rescued slaves.
Tubman’s 13 missions to rescue slaves from the south are said to have freed 70 human beings who were able to make it to safety.
This is an example of stage 6 morality because she came to her moral reasoning about universal human rights and stood for it despite danger to herself, the prevailing laws, and prevailing social norms about black people and women.
9. Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was a central figure in the US Declaration of Independence. The declaration stood against prevailing laws to assert the right of Americans to self-governance.
The declaration meant that America was separated from the King of England and became its own republic.
This declaration is based on enlightenment ideals that focus on individual liberty, democracy, and self-governance. Jefferson argued:
“The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”
Here, he’s grappling with issues of postconventional morality. Specifically, he’s concerned with stage 5, where individual versus social rights are discussed and debated, which affects how much influence a government will have in people’s lives.
Alexei Navalny is a Russian dissident who was imprisoned by the Putin regime for exposing Russian corruption.
Navalny’s activism is an example of Stage 6 morality. He took a stand against prevailing social norms and laws because he knew a fundamental truth: that corruption must be challenged.
Due to his activism, he was poisoned by the KGB, and taken to Germany to be saved. But he then returned to Russia with the full knowledge he would be arrested on trumped-up charges. Nevertheless, he returned, and has been held behind bars ever since.
Piaget’s Stages at Same Age
Piaget’s stage of autonomous morality is most closely linked to stage 5 of Kohlberg’s theory.
Although Piaget believed that this stage begins around the age of 9 or 10, it extends to later years to eventually overlap with the age range of Kohlberg’s stage 5.
Piaget’s notion of moral relativism matches Kohlberg’s stage 5 precisely. Moral relativism is the understanding that individuals can have different perspectives on the same situation, and therefore they can see the conflict between societal norms and individual rights.
Morality is no longer determined by absolutes. As children develop cognitively and can engage in more complex analyses of multi-faceted situations, they begin to understand that rules are derived to benefit the group. However, rules should be negotiated and modified as circumstances may dictate.
The difference between autonomous morality and Kohlberg’s stage 6 maybe be less clear. Piaget’s stage two does not explicitly include the ability of an individual to devise their own set of moral principles that are universal to all human beings.
Chavez, N. & Karimi, F. (2019, July). California becomes the first state to ban discrimination based on natural hairstyles. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/03/us/california-hair-discrimination-trnd/index.html
Herzog, H. A., & Golden, L. L. (2009). Moral emotions and social activism: The case of animal rights. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 485-498.
Karpiak, C. P., & Baril, G. L. (2008). Moral reasoning and concern for the environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(3), 203-208.
Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
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.