Kohlbergs Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is an adaptation of a psychological theory originally developed by Jean Piaget. It forms a theory of the development of moral reasoning.  Kohlberg expanded on Piaget’s original work, which described a simple, finite two-stage process of moral development, and introduced a six stage, multi level framework, proposing that moral development is in fact a continuous process that occurs throughout a person’s life.

Kohlberg’s theory came about as a result of him posing fictional moral dilemmas to a number of subjects and asking in depth questions to ascertain their reasons for recommending a particular course of action.  

One such scenario was called the Heinz Dilemma: a woman was near death from a unique kind of cancer. There is a drug that might save her. The drug costs $4,000 per dosage. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000. He asked the doctor scientist who discovered the drug for a discount or let him pay later. But the doctor scientist refused. Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not? (Kohlberg, 1963).  

Kohlberg was not interested so much in the answer to the question of whether Heinz was wrong or right, but in the reasoning for the participant’s decision, which he recorded.  The responses were classified into various stages of reasoning in his theory of moral development.  Kohlberg found that participants moved through a number of stages and levels each time, which he classified as follows.

* 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.

* Level 1 Preconventional Morality: 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, but only if it serves one’s own interests.

* Level 2 Conventional Morality: Stage 3:  Interpersonal Relationship 

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.

* Level 2 Conventional Morality: 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.

*Level 3 Postconventional Morality: Stage 6: Universal Principles

Kolhberg’s final level of moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.

Through his research Kohlberg found that everyone moves through each level of a moral dilemma sequentially, without missing a stage (a stage theory), but that movement through all the stages does not come naturally – people do not automatically move from one stage to another as they mature.  In stage development, movement takes place when ‘cognitive dissonance’ occurs, i.e. a person realises that there are shortcomings in his or her coping strategies and thought processes.

According to stage theory, people are unable to understand moral reasoning more than one stage ahead of where they are currently at.  Therefore, if someone wants to present a moral argument that is only one stage ahead of a person’s current level of reasoning in order to encourage movement to the next stages.

Ronald Duska & Mariellen Whelen, Moral Development: A Guide to Piaget and Kohlberg (New York: Paulist) 1975.http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm