Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York in 1927. For his high school education, he attended Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Kohlberg did not initially go to college but opted to help the Israeli cause where he acted as a second engineer on a freighter that used to carry refugees from various regions in Europe to Israel. In 1948, he joined the University of Chicago where he earned his bachelor’s degree, which he did within one year as a result of several exemptions (Taylor and Francis, 3). He stayed in the University for Graduate Work in psychology, which made him think that he had the prospect of becoming a clinical psychologist. Later on, he became interested with interviewing adolescents and children on moral issues. Later on, he was a professor at Harvard University for several years. Kohlberg became popular during the 1970s. This was more on his field of moral education. He was popular as a result of his theory of moral development (Taylor and Francis, 9).

History of the Kohlberg’s Theory

The theory of moral development presents an exciting subject that stems from Piaget’s theory of moral reasoning. The theory has made people understand that morality commences from early childhood and has the ability to be affected by various factors. It can be developed either positively or negatively. This is dependent on how an individual executes a task presented to him or her on each stage of moral development. Kohlberg came up with the theory based on the ideas generated while he was researching children and adolescents. He found out that they tend to face different moral issues, and their judgment based on whether they will act negatively or positively is influenced by several factors (Cardwell and Cara, 117). Various situations created by Kohlberg were not meant to prove whether his subjects were morally wrong or right. He wanted to find out why the children thought that it was morally right or wrong.

Precisely how do children attain morality? It is a question that has fascinated religious leaders, philosophers and parents for ages. It has also become a thorny issue in both education and psychology. Do societal or parental influences play a significant role towards moral development? Do all children develop in similar ways with regards to morality? These are among the questions that people tend to ask. Lawrence Kohlberg developed the theory to help answer such questions.

Kohlberg’s Theory

The theory asserts that moral reasoning encompasses six developmental stages. Each stage has more ability of responding to moral dilemmas than the identified predecessor. The stages involved are classified into three levels. The levels include conventional morality, pre-conventional morality and post-conventional morality. Kohlberg relied upon several dilemmas in order to see how people would justify their actions if they were presented in similar circumstances. He did not analyze the conclusion, but the moral reasoning displayed.


Level 1: Pre-conventional Morality

This level of reasoning is more prevalent to children; 9 years and below though not entirely. Here, they do not have a personal code of reasoning with regards to morality. Their morals are shaped by the standards set by the adults around them. On other occasions, they are determined by the consequences likely to accrue as a result of behaving in a certain way. Children at this level are yet to internalize and adopt the society’s convention about what is wrong or right. This makes them focus on the external consequences likely to accrue if they behave in a certain way (Taylor and Francis, 19). This level encompasses the first two stages of moral development.

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation

Here, the reasoning that children have is that they will only be punished if they do the wrong thing. This means that they will always strive to do the right thing at all times. No one likes being punished so acting in the right way is not an option here, but a must. The child will always recall that the last time they did so and so, they got punished. That will mean that the action was not morally right. As a result, the child involved will take utmost care not to repeat that action due to the expected consequences (Ashford and Craig144). Children do have to be punished directly to view the action as being morally wrong, but a punishment handed to their colleagues will also trigger them to refrain from the act in future. This case also applies to adults to a certain extent. They tend to follow the law so that they do not find themselves in jail.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange

In this stage, people tend to judge morality based on how it helps satisfy their needs. As a result, different people tend to have different viewpoints. This stage tries to showcase a limited interest for other people’s interests. As a result, the concern for others is not rooted in intrinsic respect or loyalty. It is more of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours in return” kind of mentality (Taylor and Francis, 21). This is where children tend to ask “what is in it for me” if I act in a certain way? The Heinz dilemma by Kohlberg presented a favorable example of this stage. The children involved argued that the best course of action was the one that suited Heinz. If he had not stolen the drugs, his wife would have died. This is the same scenario like arguing that it is morally right for someone to steal money in order to buy food for his/her hungry children. Children tend to believe that these actions are morally right due to severe need of the people that execute them.


 Level 2: Conventional Morality

At this level, people start to internalize moral standards of the adult role models that they value. On most occasions, the authority is internalized but it is not questioned. Reasoning with regards to morality is mostly determined by the norms of the group that people belong to. This level is typical of both adults and adolescents. Morality is judged based on the society’s expectations and views. People just accept what the society has termed as either right or wrong. An individual is expected to obey the rules set forward regardless of whether there is going to be consequences or not. The level entails stage 3 and 4 of the moral development theory.

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships

At this stage, people are good in order to be perceived as good individuals by others. Children strive to be “good kids” in order to live to the society’s expectations. They tend to understand that being regarded as good plays to the advantage of oneself. “Good kids” tend to get favors now and then. On most occasions they have their way on the things that they want. Children feel that the idea of not being naughty would help them be in favorable terms with people in the society. This usually helps even in times when such children have undertaken undesirable acts that people are not quite sure who did them. It is certain that the kids used to behaving in a certain way will get the benefit of doubt compared to their counterparts. A good example how children try to show morality is by giving food to street peasants. This is because they think that doing so makes them ‘nice’.

Stage 4: Maintaining Social order

Stage four goes beyond the need for people being approved like in stage 3. People tend to understand the need for obeying dictums, social conventions and laws due to the significance that they have towards enhancing a functioning society. Here, children/individuals become aware of the rules governing the society. There are central ideals that dictate what is wrong or right. It is everyone’s duty or obligation to ensure that these ideals have been upheld at all times regardless of the circumstances (Cardwell and Cara 113). People are considered to be morally wrong when they violate the law. In this stage, culpability is the main factor that separates the good and bad deeds. Most people in the society tend to remain at this stage, where morality is usually determined by outside forces. A good example is how policemen refuse bribes handed to them by individuals breaking the law in one way or another. They owe a duty of care and protection to the society so they must ensure that law and order is maintained at all times.




Level 3: Post-conventional Morality

This level is actualized by an inherent realization that people are separate entities from the society. This means that their perspectives have the ability to take precedence over the society’s views. Here, people have the ability to disobey rules that contravene their principles. It is usually a small percentage of people in the society that are able to operate at this level. Kohlberg asserts that around 10-15% enhance this form of abstract thinking (Ashford and Craig 162). This is to mean that most people develop their morality based on external forces and their ethical principles. Post-conventional moralists tend to live by their own principles. This includes ethical principles such as the right of liberty, life, and justice. The level encompasses stage 5 and 6 of the moral development theory.

Stage 5: Individual Rights and Social Contract

Stage 5 asserts that people should consider values and opinions of others before deciding on the morality of other people’s actions. In the society, people hold different rights, values and opinions. These perspectives ought to be respected as they are unique to each community or individual. People understand that while rules are meant for the good of the public, there are occasions when they might go against the interests of some people. The laws that do not promulgate the welfare of the general public should be altered when necessary (Cardwell and Cara 116).   Some of the issues are not clear-cut. A good example is in the Heinz’s dilemma. The act of saving someone’s life can be considered to be more important compared to the act of stealing; which is against the law.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles

At this stage, people tend to develop their own moral guidelines. These guidelines may or may not fit within the context of the law. These are guidelines such as human rights and equality. People envisaged in this stage are usually prepared to defend what they believe in regardless of the perceived outcomes. They are not afraid to go against the entire society or to face the consequences of being disapproved or imprisoned while pursuing their principles Shaffer (38). Kohlberg postulates that very few people have the ability of actualizing this stage.


Theoretical Assumptions of this Theory

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is constructed around various assumptions. Among them is that human beings have the ability to reason, they are inherently communicative and possess the desire to understand the world and other people around them. The theory tends to consider the notion of justice as the main characteristic of moral reasoning. Kohlberg also portrays that an individual cannot skip any of these stages while progressing to higher stages of moral reasoning (Meyer 23).


Critical evaluation of the Theory

Problems Associated with the Methods used by Kohlberg

Sample used is Biased 

(Cardwell and Cara, 133) assert that Kohlberg’s theory used only male participants as the sample while conducting these researches. This is to mean that the stages define the morality of the male species. This brings about some questions since men and women tend to differ in some aspects with regards to morality. Women’s morality is based on the principles of care and compassion. Men’s morality on the other hand, is based on abstract principles of justice and law. If the gender aspect is ignored in this theory, it can have a significant impact on results derived through psychological research.

Dilemmas used Lack Ecological Validity

Most of these dilemmas are not familiar to most people (Ashford and Craig 197). In the Heinz dilemma, the subjects are asked whether he should steal the drug to save his wife’s life. Participants to Kohlberg’s research were aged between 10 and 16 years. A high probability is that such individuals have never been married in their lives. As a result, they have not been subjected to a situation that is close to the one being subjected upon them. How are such people expected to know whether Heinz should steal the drug or not?

The Research Design is not Very Appropriate

The research design used by Kohlberg seems to be poor. The way that he constructed the theory may not have been best suited in testing whether children adhere to similar sequence of moral progression. The research was cross-sectional. Children of different ages were interviewed in order to identify the level of moral development they belonged to. The best way to approach the study would be to conduct a longitudinal research that encompassed the same children (Meyer 31).

Dilemmas Involved are Hypothetical

In real situations, the course of actions that people take tends to have real consequences for themselves or others. On some occasions, these consequences tend to be unpleasant. Would the subjects involved in this research reason in a similar way if they were placed in the real situation? It is not essay to tell. The fact that this theory is dependent on people’s response with regards to artificial dilemma triggers the question of validity of the results derived. People might react differently if they found themselves in real life situations as opposed to when they are asked to respond in a hypothetical nature (Meyer 27). This is due to the comfort provided by the research environment.


Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory

Among the criticisms of this theory is the emphasis of justice as opposed to other values. This means that it does not address arguments purported by those that value other moral actions adequately. Ashford and Craig (209) assert that this theory is overly androcentric. They postulated that the aspect of caring for other people is equally important as is justice. Also, the claim that males’ moral reasoning is advanced compared to that of women might be based on the rationale being observed or tested at that moment. According to Kohlberg, most girls tend to occupy stage 3, while boys dominate stage 4. This shows that the same traits of care and sensitivity with regards to other people’s needs are the same ones that categorize women as being deficient in moral development. In short, Ashford and Craig (209) claim that Kohlberg’s theory has some elements of bias. This is because it neglects feminine’s love, voice of compassion and non-violence that are normally associated with girls’ socialization. Kohlberg did not consider the fact that women tend to approach morality issues based on the “ethics of care” as opposed to men who are more inclined to the “ethics of justice” perspective. This tends to challenge the fundamental assumptions that coin the theory.

Another criticism lies on the doubt of whether distinct stages of moral development really exist. This is because evidence derived does not always support that conclusion. Cardwell and Cara (118) assert that reasoning about wrong and right is more dependent on the situation rather than general rules.

Ashford and Craig (211) also assert that the stages involved in the theory are not culturally neutral. This has been demonstrated by the way it is applied to different cultures. People in different cultures might progress through the stages in similar order, but they will do it at different rates. This is because there are other underlying factors that envisage people of certain culture like beliefs.

Shaffer (43) questions the postulation that moral actions mainly result due to formal reasoning. He argues that many people tend to make moral judgments without considering certain aspects such as abstract ethical values, fairness, law and human rights. In short, Shaffer (43) asserts that moral reasoning might be less relevant with regards to moral action compared to what the theory suggests.


Works Cited

Ashford, Jose, and Craig W. LeCroy. Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A        Multidimensional Perspective. 4th ed. Australia: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning, 2010.         Print.

Cardwell, Mike, and Cara Flanagan. Psychology A2: The Complete Companion. Cheltenham:      Nelson Thornes, 2004. Print.

Meyer, John. Reflections on Values Education. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier U, 2010. Print.

Shaffer, David R. Social and Personality Development. 6th ed. Australia: Wadsworth/Cengage    Learning, 2009. Print.

Taylor, and Francis. Lawrence Kohlberg. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.




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