Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory of moral development addresses moral reasoning.
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Kohlberg's theory of moral development outlines a series of six developmental stages that children go through as they develop morality.

How Exactly do Children Develop Morality?

This question has fascinated parents, religious leaders, and philosophers for ages, but moral development has also become a hot-button issue in both psychology and education. Do parental or societal influences play a greater role in moral development?

Do all kids develop morality in similar ways?

One of the best-known theories exploring some of these basic questions was developed by a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg. His work modified and expanded upon Jean Piaget's previous work to form a theory that explained how children develop moral reasoning.

Piaget described a two-stage process of moral development while Kohlberg's theory of moral development outlined six stages within three different levels. Kohlberg extended Piaget's theory, proposing that moral development is a continual process that occurs throughout the lifespan.

The Heinz Dilemma: Kohlberg's Approach to the Study of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg based his theory on research and interviews with groups of young children. A series of moral dilemmas were presented to these participants and they were also interviewed to determine the reasoning behind their judgments of each scenario.

The following is one example of the dilemmas Kohlberg presented:

Heinz Steals the Drug
"In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug.

The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?" (Kohlberg, 1963).

Kohlberg was not interested so much in the answer to questioning whether Heinz was wrong or right but in the reasoning for each participant's decision. The responses were then classified into various stages of reasoning in his theory of moral development.

Level 1. Preconventional Morality

  • Stage 1 - Obedience and Punishment
    The earliest stage of moral development is especially common in young children, but adults are also capable of expressing this type of reasoning. At this stage, children see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment.
  • Stage 2 - Individualism and Exchange
    At this stage of moral development, children account for individual points of view and judge actions based on how they serve individual needs. In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best-served Heinz’s needs. Reciprocity is possible at this point in moral development, but only if it serves one's own interests.

Level 2. Conventional Morality

  • Stage 3 - Interpersonal Relationships
    Often referred to as the "good boy-good girl" orientation, this stage of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles. There is an emphasis on conformity, being "nice," and consideration of how choices influence relationships.
  • Stage 4 - Maintaining Social Order
    At this stage of moral development, people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments. The focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority.

Level 3. Postconventional Morality

  • Stage 5 - Social Contract and Individual Rights
    At this stage, people begin to account for the differing values, opinions, and beliefs of other people. Rules of law are important for maintaining a society, but members of the society should agree upon these standards.
  • Stage 6 - Universal Principles
    Kohlberg’s final level of moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.

Criticisms of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development:

  • Does moral reasoning necessarily lead to moral behavior? Kohlberg's theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what we ought to do versus our actual actions.
  • Is justice the only aspect of moral reasoning we should consider? Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg's theory of moral development overemphasizes the concept as justice when making moral choices. Factors such as compassion, caring, and other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning.
  • Does Kohlberg's theory overemphasize Western philosophy? Individualist cultures emphasize personal rights while collectivist cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern, collectivist cultures may have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg's theory does not account for.
  • Were Kohlberg's dilemma's applicable? Most of his subjects were children under the age of 16 who obviously had no experience with marriage. One might wonder if kids of the age should be expected to understand the complexity of the Heinz dilemma. Perhaps a situation more applicable to their everyday concerns might have led to different results.
  • Does gender play a role in moral reasoning? Critics including Carol Gilligan have suggested that Kohlberg's theory was gender-biased since all of the subjects in his sample were male. Kohlberg believed that women tended to remain at the third level of moral development because they place a stronger emphasis on things such as social relationships and the welfare of others. Gilligan instead suggested that Kohlberg's theory overemphasizes concepts such as justice and does not adequately address moral reasoning founded on the principles and ethics of caring and concern for others.


Gilligan, Carol (1982). In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4).

Kohlberg, L. (1973). The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment. Journal of Philosophy, 70(18), 630–646.

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