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Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Kohlberg's stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlbergto explain the development of moral reasoning. He created it while studying psychologyat the University of Chicago, when he became fascinated with children's reactions to moral dilemmas. He wrote his doctoral dissertation there in 1958, outlining what are now his stages of moral development.

Kohlberg's theory holds that moral reasoning, which he thought to be the basis for ethical behavior, has developmental stages. He followed the development of moral judgment beyond the ages studied by Jean Piaget, expanding considerably on Piaget's work. He determined that the process of moral development continued thoughout the lifespan, and created a model based on six identifiable stages of moral development.


  • 1 Stages
    • 1.1 Pre-Conventional
    • 1.2 Conventional
    • 1.3 Post-Conventional
    • 1.4 Other
  • 2 Examples
  • 3 Theoretical assumptions
  • 4 Criticism
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


Kohlberg's six stages were grouped into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Following Piaget's requirements for a stage model, it is not possible to regress backwards in stages. It is also not possible to 'jump' stages; each stage provides new perspective and is "more comprehensive, differentiated, and integrated than its predecessors."

Another model that resembles Kohlberg's is Jane Loevinger's nine stages of ego development.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional) (up to age 9)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation
Level 2 (Conventional) (age nine+ to adolescence)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(a.k.a. The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(a.k.a. Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)(adulthood)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(a.k.a. Principled conscience)


The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults can also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners in the pre-conventional level judge the moralityof an action by its direct consequences. The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stage of moral development.

Stage one, individuals focus on the direct consequences that their actions will have for themselves. For example, they think that an action is morally wrong if the person who commits it gets punished.
Stage two espouses the what's in it for me position; right behavior being defined by what is in one's own best interest. Stage two reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might further one's own interests, such as "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." Concern for others is not based on loyalty or intrinsic respect in stage two.


The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescentsand adults. Persons who reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing these actions to social rulesand expectations.

The conventional level consists of stages three and four of moral development.

In Stage three, individuals are receptive of approval or disapproval from other people. They try to be a good boy or good girl having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships.
For Stage four, it is important to obey the lawsand social conventions because of its importance to maintaining a working society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for approval exhibited in stage three, because the individual understands that society needs to transcend individual needs.


The post-conventional level consists of stages five and six of moral development.

In Stage five, persons have certain principlesto which they may attach more value than laws, such as human rightsor social justice. In this reasoning, actions are wrong if they violate these ethical principles. Laws are regarded as social contractsrather than dictums, and must be changed when necessary (provided there is agreement). By this reasoning, laws that do not promote general social welfareshould be changed. Democratic governmentsare ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.
In Stage six, moral reasoning is based on the use of abstract reasoningusing universal ethical principles. One way to do this is by imagining oneself in everyone else's shoes, imagining what they would decide if they were doing the same. While Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he had difficulty finding participants who use it. It appears that people rarely if ever reach stage six of Kohlberg's model.


Kohlberg's stage 4 or 4+, which is a transition from stage four to stage five, is the stage where people have become disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning and become moral relativists. This transition stage may result in either progress to stage five or in regression to stage four.

Kohlberg further speculated that a seventh stage may exist (Transcendental Morality) which would link religionwith moral reasoning (See James Fowler's stages of faith).


Kohlberg used moral dilemmas to determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The dilemmas are short stories in which a person has to make a moral decision. The participant is asked what this person should do. A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma:

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 radiumthat 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 produce. 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. (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 19)

Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. The point of interest is the justification that the participant offers. Below are examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages. It is important to keep in mind that these arguments are only examples. It is possible that a participant reaches a completely different conclusion using the same stage of reasoning:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because he will consequently be put in prison.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine, because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine, because his wife expects it.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the law prohibits stealing.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine, because everyone has a right to live, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the scientist has a right to fair compensation.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because that violates the golden rule of honesty and respect.

Theoretical assumptions

The stages of Kohlberg's model refer to reasoning, not to actions or to people themselves. Kohlberg insists that the form of moral arguments is independent of the content of the arguments. According to Kohlberg, moral reasoningis a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for moral action. Additionally, Piaget's stages of cognitive development are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the development of moral reasoning. He posits justiceas the a priorisummum bonum (justice is assumed to be equal with moral virtue).

According to Kohlberg, a person who progresses to a higher stage of moral reasoning cannot skip stages. For example, a person cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer opinions (stage three) to being a proponent of social contracts (stage five). However, when persons encounter a moral dilemma and find their current level of moral reasoning unsatisfactory, they will look to the next level. Discovery of the limitations of the current stage of thinking promotes moral development.


One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other values. As a consequence of this, it may not adequately address the arguments of people who value other moral aspects of actions. For example, Carol Gilliganhas argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly androcentric. His theory was the result of empirical research using only male participants. Gilligan argued that Kohlberg's theory therefore did not adequately describe the concerns of women. She developed an alternative theory of moral reasoning that is based on the value of care. Although recent research has generally not found any gender differences in moral development, Gilligan's theory illustrates that theories on moral development do not need to focus on the value of justice.

Other psychologists have challenged the assumption that moral action is primarily reached by formal reasoning. For example, social intuitionistsassume that people often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights and abstract ethical values. If this is true, the arguments that Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists have analyzed are often no more than post-hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions. This would mean that moral reasoning is less relevant to moral action than it seems.


  • Crain, W.C. (1985). Theories of Development.pp. 118-136. Prentice-Hall.

External links

  • Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview
  • Hohlberg's Moral Stages
  • Boston Review article covering the topic and other related areas
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