Morality and virtue have always been highly debatable and fascinating topics. Despite different interpretations of morality, all of us can agree that a person’s view on moral values develops over time. It is this idea of gradual moral development that has prompted psychologists like Lawrence Kohlberg to develop theories to account for and describe a person’s morality.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Kohlberg began his work that builds upon theories already established by the prominent psychologist Jean Piaget. Unlike Jean Piaget’s primarily age-based two-stage theory on the moral development of children, Kohlberg eventually developed six stages to explain moral development stages. These stages are often correlated to age, but not necessarily determined by it. To that end, he used tools such as the Heinz’s Dilemma to probe the kind of moral reasoning used by the participants of his studies. It is important to note that the type of moral justification is more important than the actual manner in which Heinz is advised to solve his dilemma.
Kohlberg eventually decided on a six-stage model of moral development. These six stages themselves are further grouped into three levels. The first level consists of “preconventional morality.” In stage one, the person is most concerned with obedience and punishment. This is a common stage for many young children where rules are seen to be absolute and fixed. Authorities are to be obeyed without question and the failure to do so will likely result in punishment. In stage two, the main theme is self-interest. Reciprocity is possible but only when it serves oneself. Here, rewards and punishments to oneself are the central motives guiding one’s actions. Punishment is viewed differently than in stage one. In the prior stage, it is viewed as a kind of justification for the correctness of authorities. In stage two, punishment is merely a risk or something that is negative to oneself that should be avoided.
Kohlberg’s second level is “conventional morality”. He describes stage three of moral development as one that is concerned with interpersonal relationship and conformity to social norms. The subsequent stage, stage four, goes beyond just conformity, but deliberately factoring in the effect to society in making choices. This is done by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority. The difference between this stage and the previous one is that in the previous stage, the emphasis is on interpersonal relationships while stage four focuses on the society as a whole.
The last level of Kohlberg’s model is “post-conventional morality”. Stage five consists of the importance of individual rights and the acknowledgment of differing moral values of people. The social contract isn’t quite as absolute as it was in stage three and four and is itself examined so that everyone or at least the majority of the people bound by it can agree with it. In other words, the laws of society are important but should first be agreed upon by members of society. This can be seen in practice in democracy where laws are (in theory) agreed upon by the people. The final stage of Kohlberg’s model goes beyond even this standard. In this stage, moral reasoning or judgment is based upon universal principles of ethics that are internalized. This internalized moral compass is followed even when they conflict with pre-existing social norms or views. Those at this stage will be able to think of what is it exactly that makes a good society and form perceptions of such an ideal. The difference between this stage and stage five is that those at this stage can still question the morality of a society’s practices, even when those practices are agreed upon and superficially beneficial to the members of that society.
These are the basic ideas behind Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. Of course, there are many criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Some cite the overemphasis on justice while others consider it too culturally biased or question whether moral reasoning necessarily leads to moral actions. Yet despite these possible shortcomings, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is still a fairly comprehensive way to view the subject and it has been taught in psychology courses all over the world. Educators may also find it helpful as it can give some insight into the minds of their younger students. For those who are interested in the topic beyond the short discussion here, further insights into Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development can be found in sites such as this.