The preconventional level of moral reasoning is the first of three levels in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. In this stage, children have a very basic and egocentric understanding of what is good and bad behavior.
For young children, that external definition comes from their parents and teachers. An action is moral if it is rewarded and it is not moral if it is punished.
In this stage of moral development, reasoning is quite simple. The goal in any situation is to avoid punishment or to receive an award, there are no other considerations.
Most children adhere to this definition of morality until the age of 8 or 9 years old. After this, the progress to the conventional morality stage.
This coincides with their level of cognitive development which becomes progressively more advanced. As children grow and their brain matures, so does their moral reasoning.
There are two sub-stages of moral reasoning within the preconventional stage.
Stage 1: Obedience/Punishment Orientation
In this stage, children believe that the morality of a behavior is a function of its consequences. Individuals should obey rules so they can avoid punishment.
Rules are absolute and inflexible and the consideration of extraneous factors involved in a situation have no relevance.
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.
Rules can also be modified based on the possibility of reciprocal exchange. That is, children may understand the concept of cooperation and that by giving, they can also receive.
Kohlberg’s Preconventional Morality Examples
1. Not Leaving the Classroom
A child in a kindergarten is told by their teacher that students are not allowed to leave the room. If they do so, there will be a punishment, such as not being able to play during recess or having a black mark put next to their name on the board.
Given this rule has an associated punishment, most children obey and stay in the room.
Children in stage 1 do not engage in any consideration given as to why the rule is important, such as being safe or staying in the room so that they can learn.
Issues related to personal desires are not relevant either. Being a good student simply means following the rule, a very stage 1 outlook.
2. Being at Work on Time
Office workers that are always on time for work may do so because that is the rule stated by their employer.
They obey the rule because that is the rule. The reason why the rule exists is irrelevant and any exceptions to the rule do not factor into an analysis of the rule’s value or legitimacy.
Obeying the rule for other reasons, such as having all employees working their full schedules allows the company to prosper, are not important.
The only issue that matters is that the employer has given the rule. This is stage 1 reasoning. Adults can, and often do, exhibit this low level of moral reasoning.
3. Obeying the Speed Limit
Most people obey the speed limit because that is the law. Disobeying the law can lead to punishment in the form of a ticket. In stage 1, obeying the law is done to avoid punishment.
An interesting result of this level of moral reasoning is that since compliance with the law is dependent on punishment, then when the driver is absolutely sure they will not be caught, they perceive no need to obey the law.
Under this condition, the driver will go over the speed limit and not experience any remorse for breaking the law. In this scenario, stage 1 reasoning allows one to disobey the rule if there are no negative consequences.
4. Sharing Crayons
One little boy asks another student if he would share his crayons. At first, the student says no, resolutely, and continues coloring. Then the teacher steps in and states that “we share with others in this classroom, that’s the rule.”
At that point, the student relinquishes some of their crayons. He is praised by his teacher and told that he is a good boy because he obeyed the classroom rule for sharing.
In the boy’s mind, he is good because he obeyed the rule. However, he does not consider that he is good because sharing is a nice thing to do or that it is good to help others. This is not part of his analysis. He followed the rule, therefore he is good (stage 1 reasoning).
5. Not Cheating on an Exam
When asking a student why they should not cheat on an exam, they may simply say that if you get caught you will fail and maybe be kicked out of the school.
Their reasoning is totally based on the consequences of getting caught. This is a clear example of stage 1 reasoning.
There can be different reasons for not cheating on an exam. One reason might be that it is unfair to those that studied hard. They worked hard and deserve the high grade they earn.
However, at the preconventional level of moral reasoning, stage 1, there is no application of the concepts of fairness or deserving.
Children are still in the preconventional morality stages in preschool. As a result, the best methods to get them to respect one another rely on reward and punishment.
For example, a preschool teacher may make a big deal about getting stickers whenever a child shares their tows. The child will get a big reward when they receive ten stickers.
Here, the child’s self-interest and desire for a reward is the sole reason for their prosocial behavior. They don’t understand more complex stages of moral development yet.
This is why teachers of young children rely on behaviorist teaching methods like operant conditioning to get children to do the right thing.
7. Attendance Certificate
Attendance certificates are most effective for people in the preconventional morality stage, when they do things to receive reawards.
Many companies offer all kinds of awards to encourage productive employee behavior. At one company for example, an award is offered for not missing any days of work and never being late.
If this behavior is maintained, then an Employee Attendance Certificate is given to those that accomplished that goal.
One employee states that they will work to receive the certificate because it will look good in their annual performance review. The rule is followed because it serves an individual need.
So, the reason behind following the rule has nothing to do with helping the company maintain productivity, or showing one’s loyalty and respect to the organization.
The reasoning is based on a desire to enhance one’s annual performance evaluation. This is an example of reasoning at stage 2.
8. Gift-Giving for Expected Reciprocal Acts
If you give gifts only because you hope to receive gifts in return, then you’re exhibiting preconventional morality.
A primary school teacher has observed that one of her students has started to give stickers and candy to their classmates. They never did this before, but now all of a sudden, each week starts with a distribution of highly valued gifts to all the boys and girls in the class.
This goes on for several weeks in a row. Then one day, the teacher decides to ask the youngster “why are you giving out stickers and candy today?” The young child looks up at the teacher with a big grin and explains that she will have a birthday soon and she hopes to get lots of good gifts from her classmates.
This is an example of some very clever stage 2 preconventional reasoning. A behavior is engaged in the hopes of benefiting from a reciprocal act of generosity.
9. Pushing to Score a Goal
When a girl playing soccer is very close to the goal, she pushes an opposing player out of the way and scores.
Of course, the teacher/referee disallows the goal and later asks the young budding star why she disobeyed the rule. The girl responds by explaining that she wanted to score but the other player was in the way.
As simple as this situation is, it offers a good example of Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning at the preconventional level, stage 2. The player is not obeying the rule because their individual desire to score was more prominent in that moment than doing the intrinsically right thing.
Children can be just as competitive as adults. They like to win and will sometimes resort to cheating, just like adults. This can be seen on the playground when students are playing soccer.
10. Taking Another Child’s Toy
If a child takes another child’s toy, they may be doing this out of selfish individual needs – they don’t understand higher-level morality yet. They’re stuck in the preconventional stage.
One of the most frequently observed behavior of young children is when they take a toy that another child is playing with. Children are almost always taught classroom rules about sharing and not taking without permission.
However, as one child is playing with building blocks, another child walks over and takes several away.
This represents a valuable teachable moment if the teacher notices what happened. The teacher can start by reminding the child about the rule and that it is wrong to take something without asking.
At that moment, you can see in the child’s face that they are processing that information and trying to understand it in the context of their self-interest. They might respond by saying “but I need the blocks to build my house.”
They are demonstrating stage 2 moral reasoning; individual needs take precedence over rules.
Piaget’s Stages at Same Age
The stage of moral development that is most similar in Piaget’s theory is called heteronomous morality, which exists between the ages of four and seven.
Children think of morality in terms of obeying authority figures, such as parents and teachers. Rules are fixed and inflexible, and breaking rules will lead to immediate punishment.
At this stage, children obey rules simply to avoid punishment. There is no consideration of other factors which might make the rule less relevant in some circumstances.
The role of adults in the understanding of morality is central. As Hammond (2004) explained:
“Adults’ unilateral exertion of rules on the child result in the child developing a heteronomous understanding of morality, where moral rules and norms were unchangeable and externally regulated through punishment” (p. 2).
We can see that Piaget’s heteronomous morality and Kohlberg’s preconventional level are very similar. Both theories state that rules at this age are considered fixed and absolute, and that compliance to rules is a function of wanting to avoid negative consequences. Kohlberg’s theory has an additional stage that identifies self-interest or the possibility for reciprocal exchanges as other motives for compliance.
Hammond, S. (2014). Children’s early helping in action: Piagetian developmental theory and early prosocial behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 759. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00759
Keller, M., Eckensberger, L. K., & von Rosen, K. (1989). A critical note on the conception of preconventional morality: The case of stage 2 in Kohlberg’s theory. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 12(1), 57-69. https://doi.org/10.1177/016502548901200103
Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Langenhoff, A. F., Dahl, A., & Srinivasan, M. (2022). Preschoolers learn new moral and conventional norms from direct experiences. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 215, 105322. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2021.105322
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.