The Theory of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

Working as a developmental psychologist then turning his interest to the field of moral education, Lawrence Kohlberg became to be well known for his theory of moral development. His theory spurred the interest of the psychological community on moral development (Nucci, 2002). His ideas were influenced by Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and James Mark Baldwin. He argued that experiences shape children’s understandings of moral concepts such as justice, rights, equality, and human welfare. Kohlberg developed his theory from the research that he conducted at Harvard’s Center for Moral Education (Damon, 2000).

To evaluate the moral stages, Kohlberg made a series of moral dilemmas that pit one moral value against another (Kalat, 2002). He observed the explanations, not the choices that the subject made. The explanations were used to match the subject to one of Kohlberg’s stages. Kohlberg’s theory of levels and stages of moral reasoning is supported by findings from longitudinal and cross-cultural research. Kohlberg divided moral development into six distinguished stages which can be identified into three major levels.

The first level is the level of pre-conventional morality. The first stage is defined by punishment and obedience. This stage is characterized by the elementary school level (Damon, 2000). People follow the rules of authority because they are afraid of punishment, which is related to Piaget’s identification of the stage of ego-centrism (Nucci, 2002). In this stage, people consider something to be bad if it is related to punishment.

In contrast, if something brings rewards, it is considered as good. People also consider something to be good if it is in their immediate self-interest (Kalat, 2002). As a small child in elementary school, I learned that doing homework is a good thing only because when I finished my homework before playing, my mom gave me a piece of candy or chocolate as a reward. I learned that stealing is bad when I was punished by my mom for stealing a quarter from her purse. As a punishment, my mom made me raise both of my arms for an hour. It was only the fear of punishment that stopped me from stealing more money from my mom’s purse.

The second stage is characterized by individualism and instrumentalism. It is distinguished from the first stage by the emergence of moral reciprocity (Nucci, 2002). People do things that seem practical in their perspective. The second stage is similar to the Golden Rule, thinking in terms of an agreement, exchange, or a deal. One helps another only for the benefit and expectation that the other will help him when he needs help. This attitude is attained by understanding that everyone has his or her interest that can be relatively related to each other to bring mutual benefits. People of the second stage accept delayed benefits (Kalat, 2002).

Giving gifts can be an act that can be explained by the second stage. A young adult, or teenager like me, gives birthday gifts to his or her friends and in return, he or she expects those friends to return the favor by giving him or her presents on his or her birthday.

Every semester, I spend countless hours studying to earn good grades. Even though I would rather go out with friends, I choose to study at home because I believe that earning good grades will secure a better future for me. In a broad context, the first level is marked by the dominance of egocentrism in reasoning. Kohlberg called the second level the level of conventional morality. This level is generally found in society, inferred by its title, “conventional” (Damon, 2000).

The third stage, or the first stage of the second level, is marked by interpersonal concordance. People of this stage act to receive others’ approval and acceptance. They prioritize agreements and expectations over their interests. They conform to the expectations of their local community or their families. Peer pressure is an example of this stage. Most teenagers do things so that they can be accepted by their friends, even if it is against their interests.

As a student, I follow the rules of the school. As an offspring, I obey the words of my parents over my own opinions because I am expected to show them my respect. In the fourth stage, defined as law and order orientation, right and wrong are determined by the person’s role in the society or his duty (Kalat, 2002). Under the fourth stage, people abide by the law and act to fulfill their responsibilities.

Different from the third stage, the fourth stage focuses on the wider perspective, on the larger society instead of one’s local community. People see themselves as “members of society.” They see the necessity to obey the law. What society defines as right, people act obediently and conform to their demands. Their acts are results of the belief that conventions are necessary to uphold society (Nucci, 2002).

The third level of moral development, the level of post-conventional or principled morality, is characterized by a “before society” perspective (Nucci, 2002). Instead of blindly reasoning on the law itself, people in the third level focus on the principles that underlie those rules. To them, it is not the law itself that is important, but it is the purpose and goal of having the law, such as justice and order, that is important. Kohlberg believed that the majority of adults do not reach the third level of moral thinking (Damon, 2000). The fifth stage, social-contract legalistic orientation, is marked by the belief that laws are flexible.

If there is a necessity to change the laws, it is right to change certain laws. When the law is not fully carrying out its purpose such as promoting people’s benefits, it is right to change the law. There can be exceptions to strictly conforming to the law. The sixth stage, universal ethical principle orientation, focuses on absolute values such as respect for human life (Kalat, 2002). There can be situations where breaking the law is considered right and moral.

People of this stage show respect for human life itself, not human law. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are exemplary figures who have attained the sixth level of moral reasoning. These figures acted according to what they saw as an act of justice, instead of blindly following the law. Because they saw that some laws of the society were unjust, they refused to behave obediently to those laws. Instead, they took a step further ahead and aroused movements to put justice into the law system.

Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning based on justice are analogous to Piaget’s stages of intellectual development. Kohlberg defined moral reasoning as a process that is similar to stages of intellectual growth. He believed people pass through distinct stages. They start low at the first stage of the process, then slowly advance into the next stages as they mature. However, Kohlberg’s view of distinct stages did not always seem to be consistent with the findings from his devised series of moral dilemmas.

Some people fluctuated in their stages of reasoning. They skipped a stage or went back to a lower stage after reaching a higher stage. It was also noticed that there was a big gap between the level of moral reasoning of 10-year-olds and one of the 16-year-olds. Kohlberg suggested that this sudden growth of moral reasoning results from cognitive growth that occurs between those years (Kalat, 2002).

Kohlberg’s theory, although revered for some time as gospel, was always criticized. One of the first criticisms was that Kohlberg generalized his findings. Kohlberg never asked females about their moral reasoning, nor did he inquire about the moral reasoning of other races. He merely asked the moral reasoning of Anglo-American teenage boys and proclaimed that everyone behaved that way. Another criticism of his theory was that the experiment was too difficult to replicate and that those that tried got very different results.

Yet another criticism is that moral reasoning does not indicate behavior. Just because a person says that they would steal a loaf of bread to feed their starving mother does not mean they will do it. When and if the situation happens the person’s moral reasoning may leave them completely in the heat of the moment.

If that’s the case then what is the use of having moral reasoning? We may argue that there is a question of the reliability of Kohlberg’s testing. A particular child would be assessed at the same moral level by a different researcher with for example few days in between. It may be argued that moral development may not occur automatically in stages (Okin, 1996). This development may be more related to the rewarding or punishing of an individual child for certain behavior. The home environment, according to some psychologists, maybe more closely related to moral development.

Critics question the validity of Kohlberg’s model in terms of the decision the person makes based on moral dilemmas. Whatever solution a participant has picked is OK as long as that person can base his/her solution on reasons. It is then questioned whether the answer has anything to do with the stage of development, instead of just the reasoning. Kohlberg’s emphasis on abstract reasoning also creates confusing results in which habitual juvenile delinquents can score at a higher stage of moral development than well-behaved children.

Because behaviors are not considered and reasoning is determined through hypothetical situations, children who behave in immoral ways may be able to answer hypothetical moral dilemmas in a more advanced fashion than better-behaved children who think less abstractly. Early criticisms of Kohlberg’s lack of attention to behaviors led Kohlberg to add an emphasis on moral action to his Just Community educational program. For those who are looking for concrete help in developing moral values in children, however, Kohlberg’s theory is still of little practical use.

Kohlberg’s stages have also been criticized for being culturally biased. It has been argued that Kohlberg developed a staged model based purely on the western philosophical tradition and has then applied this model to non-western cultures, without considering the degree to which the non-western cultures have different moral outlooks (Simpson 1974).

It may be argued that According to what some critics have called Kohlberg’s upper-class Western view of moral reasoning, communitarian morality is doomed to rest forever at a lower stage of development (Stages 3 and 4). This view disregards the possibility that communitarian morality may be as advanced as individualistic morality, if not more so. It also places Western culture at the top of the scale, with little room for cross-cultural inclusion. Although Kohlberg insisted that his theory was culturally inclusive, he found little empirical evidence to back this up. In all of his interviews, only a few people showed Stage 5 reasoning, and nearly all were well-educated Westerners.

Stage 6 reasoning was never substantiated in interviews; Kohlberg created it as an “ideal” and pointed to examples such as Gandhi to support its existence. After a tremendous amount of criticism over the fact that Stage 6 was purely hypothetical, Kohlberg removed it from the empirical stages but retained it as a “theoretical construct in the realm of philosophical speculation.” Despite equally heavy criticism, Kohlberg refused to remove Stage 5 from his system.

It is also argued that Kohlberg is biased against women (Carol Gilligan 1982). Gilligan stated that as Kohlberg’s stages were derived exclusively from interviews with males, the stages reflect a decidedly male orientation. This challenge is because Kohlberg doesn’t take into account the differences between men and women. According to Kohlberg, the childhood concern of males for “pleasing others” gives way in stage 4 to “living by the rules,” in stage 5 a few people “build a better world” and in stage 6 even fewer live by “universal principles of justice.”

According to Gilligan, females often remain concerned with relationships, progressing as they grow older from pleasing others for personal gain to building close, intimate, selfless, giving relationships in which they do good for others (and get pleasure from doing so). Thus, many women adopt the basic moral principles of the Golden Rule and act on those principles by giving to people in need (which Kohlberg assumes only a few middle-aged men do in stage 6).

In short, women’s morals seem to develop differently, even though they may end up doing the same things as highly moral men. Men may be more likely to base their decisions for moral dilemmas on justice and equity. Those concepts are likely to be scored at stage five or six.

The ideal is formal justice, where all parties evaluate one another’s claims in an impartial manner. Gilligan argued that this conception of morality fails to capture the distinctly female voice on moral matters. Penn argued that morality does not center on rights and rules but on our interpersonal relationships and ethics of compassion and care. She argued that the ideal is more affiliative ways of living, rather than impersonal justice. Penn also stated that women’s morality is more contextualized, more tied to real ongoing relationships rather than abstract solutions to hypothetical dilemmas. (Penn, 2005)

Men become much more involved than women in intellectually figuring out what is fair and what are individual rights, such as in making rules (in religion and the family) and laws (in politics). For men, differences of opinion ought to be worked out via logical arguments and courts of law; for women, differences should be worked out by talking to each other, considering each other’s viewpoints, and understanding each other’s needs.

Men are more concerned with becoming independent, “being their own man,” being free to do their own thing and being as successful as they can be. Women tend to be more concerned with fulfilling their responsibilities to others than with assuring their rights, more involved with building caring relationships than “breaking away” to make their way, more into helping others than getting ahead themselves. Thus, one can see why women could become concerned that men’s vigilant defense of individual rights and “freedom” might undermine our sense of responsibility for others and lead to indifference to others in need. (Power, F.C., Higgins, A. & Kohlberg, L. 2003)

We find that men and women score very differently on Kohlberg’s scale, women have a typical score of 3 and men tend to score at stages 4 and 5. Penn argues (as mentioned above) that he is because the women’s score reflects a focus on interpersonal feelings, where we find that men reflect more abstract conceptions of social organization. We may argue then, that if Kohlberg’s scale was more sensitive to women’s distinctly interpersonal orientations, we would most possibly find that women would score beyond stage 3.

With all its possible flaws, however, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was the first of its kind and remains the springboard for all subsequent research into moral reasoning. Critiques of Kohlberg’s theory have led, and continue to lead, to more expansive and inclusive understandings of the development of moral reasoning. Kohlberg’s Just Community program also yielded significant results and led to the ongoing creation of other similar alternative education programs.


Damon, W. & Colby, A. (2000) Education and moral commitment, Journal of Moral Education, 25, pp. 31-37.

Kalat, James W. (2002). Introduction to Psychology. California: The Wadsworth Group.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization: Theory and research (pp. 347-480). Chicago: Rand McNally.

Nucci, Larry. (2002). Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview. Studies in Moral Development and Education.

Okin, S. (1996) The gendered family and the development of a sense of justice, in: E.S. Reed, E. Turiel & T. Brown (Eds) Values and Knowledge, pp. 61-74 (Mahwah, NJ, Erlbaum).

Penn, W. Y., & Collier, B. D. (2005). Current research in moral development as a decision support system. Journal of Business Ethics, 4, 131-137.

Power, F.C., Higgins, A. & Kohlberg, L. (2003) Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Education (New York, Columbia University Press).

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