English Chinese (Simplified) French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish

Translate this Page

Get Connected

ICELS.ca Blog

Lawrence Kohlberg and Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s seminal work is his theory on the six stages of moral development Kohlberg (1972) explains that moral development is “a result of an increasing ability to perceive social reality or to organize and integrate social experience. One necessary - but not sufficient - condition for principled morality is the ability to reason logically (represented by stages of formal operations)” (p. 15).and his philosophy on moral education. Kohlberg (1972) explains that the foundation for his theory on moral development came from Piaget’s (1948) notion that the child was a philosopher as well as Piaget’s structural approach to moral development (p. 294). Kohlberg expanded on Piaget’s work by constructing four distinct levels of moral thinking. Within three of the levels are two related stages. Kohlberg considers these differing levels and stages as separate moral philosophies and distinct views of the social-moral world (p. 295).

Kohlberg’s Approach
Kohlberg’s approach to moral education was through his experimental “just community” high schools, founded in 1974. These “cluster” schools were community based and upheld principles of justice and care (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989, p.vii). These principles, according to Kohlberg and Hersh (1977), are central to both moral education and to the development of the six stages of moral judgement (p. 56).

The premise of the cluster schools was to enhance students’ moral development by offering them the opportunity to participate in democratic community meetings that consisted of full participation of community members (both students and teachers) in arriving at a consensual rather than a “majority rules” decision making process (Power et al., 1989, pp. 64, 83). The goal was to establish collective norms, which express fairness for all members of the community in an environment that encourages students to move to the next level of Kohlberg’s six-stage theory on moral development.

Democratic Process
Power et al. (1989) assert that in the cluster schools there were no single, correct answers to ethical dilemmas, but that there was value in holding clear views and acting accordingly. They describe weekly meetings where parents, teachers, and students worked together through lengthy discussions and diverse points of view to not focus on blame, but rather on how an issue occurred and what, as a community, were they going to do about it (p. 78). Hence, the process was as important as the decision.

The cluster school community approach was effective in affecting student actions, not just their reasoning. Student expectations were to practice what they preached, by following the rules they agree upon in the democratic community meetings (Power et al., pp. 78-79).

Description of Kohlberg’s Theory on Moral Development

Definition of Stages
Kohlberg and Hersh (1977) define the concept of stages of cognitive moral development as the structure of one’s reasoning and it implies the following characteristics:

  • Stages are structured wholes, or organized systems of thought. This means individuals are consistent in their level or moral judgment.
  • Stages form an invariant sequence. Under all conditions except extreme trauma, movement is always forward, never backward. Individuals never skip stages, and movement is always to the next stage up. This is true in all cultures.
  • Stages are hierarchical integrations. Thinking at a higher stage includes or comprehends within it lower stage thinking. There is a tendency to function at or prefer the highest stage available (p. 54).

Structure of Kohlberg’s Theory
Kohlberg’s (1972) theory on moral development consists of four levels, and within three of the levels are two discernible stages. These six stages of moral development progressively transition from one to the next, with each stage being more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than the last (p. 298).

Kohlberg (1972) explains that an individual moves forward through each stage in sequence and will not skip a stage. He explains that individuals may move through the stages at varying speeds, and may be half in and half out of a particular stage. However, moral reasoning in stages three and four never occurs before the completion of stages one and two (p. 298).

Kohlberg’s Approach
Kohlberg’s (1971) approach stresses the importance for the educator to present moral dilemmas for discussion that would encourage an individual’s thought to move into the next moral stage and thus encourage their own development in that direction (p. 416).

It is through this exposure to the social environment that determines the speed and progress an individual will move from one stage to another and the level of development in moral reasoning (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977, p. 57). Kohlberg and Hersh (1977) explain that “the more one encounters situations of moral conflict that are not adequately resolved by one’s present reasoning structure, the more likely one is to develop more complex ways of thinking about and resolving such conflicts” (p.57).

Principles of Kohlberg’s Theory
Kohlberg and Turiel (1971) assume that moral development occurs through a natural sequence of stages; therefore, their approach defines the aim of moral education as “the stimulation of the next step of development.” (p. 416). This is in contrast to the customary practice of rules and authority within the school, the church, or the nation (p. 416).

Kohlberg’s (1971) approach emphasizes the following principles:

  • Knowledge of the child’s stage of functioning
  • Stimulation of moral thinking of genuine moral conflict and disagreement of problematic situations
  • Presenting moral thought one stage above the individual’s current stage

These principles are in contrast to traditional moral education, which stresses adult “right answers” and adult abstractions far above the learner’s current level (p. 416).

Construction of the Four Levels of Moral Development
After studying 75 American youth to whom Kohlberg (1972) presented hypothetical moral dilemmas, Kohlberg constructed four levels of moral development: premoral, pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, based on the youths’ moral reasoning. He categorized and classified the reasoning used in their responses into one of six distinct stages: the Punishment-and-Obedience Orientation; the Instrumental-Relativist Orientation; the Interpersonal Concordance or “Good Boy/Nice Girl” Orientation; The “Law and Order” Orientation; the Social-Contract, Legalistic Orientation; and, the Universal-Ethical-Principle Orientation (p. 295), making up the main elements of the theory on moral development.

Main Elements of Kohlberg’s Theory

The main elements of Kohlberg’s theory on moral development are four distinct levels consisting of six stages. The following links provide a summary of each level and the six stages summarized from Kohlberg and Turiel (1971) Moral Development and Moral Education.

Level One: Premoral Stage

Level Two: Preconventional Level

  • Stage 1: The Punishment-and-Obedience Orientation
  • Stage 2: The Instrumental-Relativist Orientation

Level Three: Conventional Level

  • Stage 3: The Interpersonal Concordance or “Good Boy/Nice Girl” Orientation
  • Stage 4: The “Law and Order” Orientation

Level Four: Postconventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level

  • Stage 5: The Social-Contract, Legalistic Orientation
  • Stage 6: The Universal-Ethical-Principle Orientation

Level One: Premoral Stage
The following information on the premoral stage of moral development is a summary from Kohlberg and Turiel (1971) Moral Development and Moral Education, p. 415.

In the first level, an individual has no idea of obligation, even in terms of authority. The attitude of “want to” and “can do” guides his or her reasoning. The individual neither understands nor judges what is good or bad in terms of authority or rules. Good is whatever is pleasant, and bad is whatever the individual finds painful or fearful.

Level Two: Preconventional Level
The following information on the preconventional level of moral development is a summary from Kohlberg and Turiel (1971) Moral Development and Moral Education, p. 415.

At the second level, the individual responds to cultural rules and labels of what is good and bad, or right and wrong. However, his or her response depends upon their interpretation of the rules and labels, and on the consequences of action; whether the consequence is physical (reward or punishment), or whether it results in pleasure. Interpretation also depends on the terms of the physical power of those who state and enforce the rules and labels.

The preconventional level consists of the following two stages:

  • Stage 1: The Punishment-and-Obedience Orientation
  • Stage 2: The Instrumental-Relativist Orientation

Stage 1: The Punishment-and-Obedience Orientation
In Stage 1, the individual relies on the physical consequences of action to determine good or bad, regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. An individual’s avoidance of punishment and unquestioning respect to power are valued in their own right, rather than out of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority.

Stage 2: The Instrumental-Relativist Orientation
In Stage 2, an individual determines right action as behaviors that satisfy one’s own needs and on occasion, the needs of others. He or she views human relations as those that consist of fairness or reciprocity, but they interpret them in a physical, practical way. Reciprocity occurs out of a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” attitude rather than out of an attitude of loyalty, gratitude, or justice.

Level Three: Conventional Level
The following information on the conventional level of moral development is a summary from Kohlberg and Turiel (1971) Moral Development and Moral Education, p. 415.

At the third level, an individual considers the expectations of his or her family, group, or nation, as valuable, regardless of the immediate and obvious consequences. This attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but also one of loyalty to that order. He or she will actively maintain, support, and justify the order, as well as identify with the persons or group involved in it.

The conventional level consists of the following two stages:

  • Stage 3: The Interpersonal Concordance or “Good Boy/Nice Girl” Orientation
  • Stage 4: The “Law and Order” Orientation

Stage 3: The Interpersonal Concordance or “Good Boy/Nice Girl” Orientation
In Stage 3, an individual may conform to stereotypical images of majority or natural behavior. He or she will consider good behavior as whatever pleases or helps others and whatever behavior others approve of. An individual will judge behavior by the intention behind it. For example if a person means well, he or she will judge the behavior as good; or, if being nice earns approval, then being nice is deemed a good behavior.

Stage 4: The “Law and Order” Orientation
In Stage 4, an individual considers right behavior as doing one’s duty or showing respect for authority. He or she becomes oriented towards fixed rules, authority, and maintaining social order.

Level Four: Postconventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level
The following information on the postconventional, autonomous, or principled level of moral development is a summary from Kohlberg & Turiel (1971) Moral Development and Moral Education, pp. 415-416.

At the fourth level, an individual attempts to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups or persons holding them, and apart from his or her identification with these groups.

The postconventional level consists of the following two stages:

  • Stage 5: The Social-Contract, Legalistic Orientation
  • Stage 6: The Universal-Ethical-Principle Orientation

Stage 5: The Social-Contract, Legalistic Orientation
In Stage 5, an individual defines right action as that which consists of the individual rights and standards that society has examined and agreed upon. He or she is aware of how personal values and opinions relate, and of the process and rules for reaching consensus. An individual may consider a “right” a matter of personal values and opinion, regardless of constitutional and democratic decisions. Although an individual considers the “legal point of view,” he or she will also place emphasis upon the possibility of changing law for the purpose of social utility, rather than remaining fixed in maintaining social order and respecting authority as in Stage 4. Outside the legal realm, free agreement and contract is the binding element of obligation. This is the “official” morality of the American government and constitution.

Stage 6: The Universal-Ethical-Principle Orientation
In Stage 6, an individual defines a right through a conscience decision about his or her ethical principles that are based on comprehensiveness, consistency, and universality. They are abstract ethical universal principles of justice, equality, and of respect for the dignity of all human beings.

References

Kohlberg, L. (1972). Relativity and indoctrination in value education. In Lawrence Kohlberg, Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (1973), p. 285-310.

Kohlberg, L. (1972). A cognitive-developmental approach to moral education. In Lawrence Kohlberg, Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (1973), pp. 13-16.

Kohlberg, L. & Hersh, R. H. (April, 1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory Into Practice, Vol.16, No.2, Moral Development, pp.53-59. Retrieved August 19, 2009, from http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer/Readings%20595/Kohlberg% 2077%20his%20theory%20copy.pdf

Kohlberg, L. & Turiel, E. (1971). Moral development and moral education. In Lawrence Kohlberg, Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (1973), pp. 410-465.

Power, F. C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Education. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.