What are Kohlbergs Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) is the author the best known psychological theory of moral development. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development describes a three-level and six-stage framework for moral development, built upon and extending Piaget’s model of general cognitive development. Kohlberg’s model is, strictly speaking, a theory of development of moral reasoning rather than the actual moral behavior, though he believes in a correlation between the two. Kohlberg was interested in how children and adults justify their moral judgments rather than what they actually do or what they feel.

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development

Kohlberg’s stages follow on from Piaget’s moral development stages. Piaget observed that younger children (usually younger than around 10-11 years old) treat moral rules as absolute and make moral judgments based on consequences. Older children start to realize the conventional and relativistic character of moral rules and consider intentions.

Level 1: Pre-conventional Morality

Children and adults at this level are concerned with individual needs, demands and actions. There is no notion of loyalty to the group or identification with (nor internalization of) values of the group, be it a family or a wider society.

Stage 1. Obedience, punishment (heteronomous morality)

At this this stage, children judge actions entirely by their actual consequences. The moral rules are treated as absolute and given by a higher power (usually parental adult figures, sometimes deities). Morality is external to the child, and rules are followed simply because the authority figures demand it. When justifying moral judgments, children at this stage simply claim “it’s wrong to do this” or “you can’t do that.” They might also refer to punishments that will follow the action.

Stage 2. Individualism, instrumentalism, exchange

Children at this stage recognize individual needs and points of view and judge actions on the basis of how well they serve those needs. When justifying moral judgments, children at this stage refer to the needs of the individual. The concept of “right” is entirely relative, and this stage can appear as the most amoral of all. However, the reasoning also has a strong element of exchange. Notions of fairness appear, albeit taken instrumentally. Reciprocity is possible as a marketplace type of exchange based on the principle of “Scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”

Level 2: Conventional morality

At this level, social and emotional relationship take center stage in moral reasoning. Intentions are taken into account and behavior is judged based on the motives as well as “good” feelings, such as love, empathy, loyalty. Conforming to the values of the group is seen as a moral good in itself, and in fact the mere conformity (motivated by a fear of negative consequences) changes into loyalty (when the individual internalizes the rules and identifies with them.)

Stage 3. Good interpersonal relationships (interpersonal concordance)

People at this level of moral development judge actions by intentions rather than simply results. Justification for moral choices is found in conformity and being “nice”: actions that are helpful, approved by and pleasing to others. There is an assumption that the whole community shares the same values and that what is “good” in the eyes of one person will be also “good” in the eyes of another. The moral relationship works best in a family, peer group or small community context, where the feelings and needs of others can be known and understood.

Stage 4. Maintaining social order

Children (or rather, teens and adults) at this stage move their focus from personal relationships to the structure of the greater society as a whole. Laws and rules are emphasized, which superficially resembles the reasoning at Stage 1, but behind this emphasis on rules is a deeper understanding of their function in maintaining the social order, preventing anarchy and chaos. The status quo and dominant social conventions are not questioned.

Level 3.: Post-conventional morality

Individuals at this level move beyond the individual or socially-conformist motivation. Principles and values get established that are not dependent on individual figures of authority, self-interest, personal relationships or social order.

Stage 5. Social contract and individual rights

People at this stage of moral development are able to distance themselves from their own society and start to question status quo, trying to establish what good society would be like. “Morality” and “rights” (understood here as individual rights) are seen as superior to particular legal rules. Individuals at this level are conscious of the fact that different people or groups of people will have different values, but also assume they will want to enter into a social contract to create a society that protects basic rights. This social contract is seen as entered freely and subject to democratically agreed amendments.

Stage 6. Universal ethical principles

Although at stage 5, individuals are starting to work out the principles on which a good society is based, Kohlberg recognized that social contract can still lead sometimes to actions that would be by many perceived as unjust, particularly if the majority decides on a type of contracts that persecutes the minority. To remedy that, the notion of universal moral principles, more general than simple rules of the “you shall not steal” type, are called for. These principles help people decide what is just. One example of such a principle is Kant’s categorical imperative. Ethical principles are based on the notion of fundamental equality of all human beings. The social contract has to be rooted in the notions of justice.

There is an operational difficulty in distinguishing between stages 5 and 6 that the typical Kohlbergian measurement of moral development levels (which presents moral dilemmas and asks the respondent to point out the right actions and their justification) doesn’t cope with. The difference between the two is more in realms of moral philosophy than psychology and


Earlier works of Kohlberg specified “stage 0”, or an “egocentric judgment” where the child has no notion of rules or the “right” course of action and the actions are justified in terms of what the child wants and likes.

Criticism of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development

The main criticisms of Kohlberg’s model question the universal character of the stages and the “justice and rules” focus of Kohlberg’s concept of morality.

Kohlberg maintains that all individuals go through the stages in the same order (although not all might reach the higher stages) and that the stages of reasoning are the same in all societies and independent of culturally specific content of rules. For Kohlberg, the underlying reasoning is based on what children (and adults) can, intellectually, understand and process. The moral development is, it’s important to remember, a development of reasoning about moral issues. Thus, Kohlberg argues that the development will progress through the stages in the same order as they are a function of cognitive development. Research in different cultures does give some support to this proposition. If there is a development, it does appear to progress through stages defined by Kohlberg.

However, in many (especially rural and isolated) societies, even adults rarely progress beyond stage 4. This is understandable in Kohlberg’s terms as the engine of development is the individual’s thinking about moral dilemmas, based on stimulation and challenges that the person encounters. These challenges might not be present in traditional, small or isolated groups. The other possibility, though, is that moral development in such societies progresses along other routes, not defined by Kohlberg. His model is based on the European philosophical tradition and undoubtedly makes value judgments in the way it structures the proposed levels of moral development.

Kohlberg’s associate, Carol Gilligan, argues that Kohlberg’s whole concept of morality is focused on abstract rules and the concept of justice and thus reflects a supposedly male moral framework. She proposes a distinct, female mode in which moral feelings, care and empathy are more important. Similarly to those who question cultural universality of Kohlberg’s stages, she suggests that there might be more than one track for the development of morality: One of them focuses on justice and social organization, the other on relationships.

Kohlberg’s work spans and connects the areas of moral philosophy, prescriptive ethics and psychology. His description of the first two levels of moral development resides more firmly in the realm of psychology and is more likely to be universally applicable, while his proposed third level appears to be based more firmly in the traditions of European moral philosophy and existing notions of what the greatest moral good is, including the affirmation of individual rights, equality and justice. Whether considered mostly as a scientific theory or a philosophical proposition, Kohlberg’s thinking is still an inspiration for research psychologists, educators and moral philosophers alike.

Sources and further reading:

Kohlberg, L. (1986). The Philosophy of Moral Development, Harper and Row.

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

Stages of Moral Development: notes. Retrieved on 21 Jan 2011 from http://www.xenodochy.org/ex/lists/moraldev.html

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved on 21 Jan 2011 from http://allpsych.com/psychology101/moral_development.html