Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development embodies an adaptation of Jean Piaget’s psychological theory. However, Kohlbergrealized that Piaget’s stage theory was rather simplistic and found out that individuals combine their way of thinking, specifically in moral development. He developed this theory while he was a psychology postgraduate student at the University of Chicago.

The theory posits that moral reasoning, which forms the basis for ethical behavior, has six distinct developmental stages, with each stage being more capable of addressing moral predicaments than its predecessor. Kohlberg studied the development of moral judgment beyond the ages initially analyzed by Piaget.  Kohlberg expanded Piaget’s findings and figured out that the course of moral development was primarily concerned with the concept of justice, and that it persists throughout the individual’s lifetime.

Kohlberg based his studies on accounts such as the Heinz dilemma, and was deeply engrossed in how individuals would rationalize their actions once placed in comparable moral dilemmas.  He then examined the form of moral reasoning employed, instead of its conclusion, and went on to categorize it as corresponding to one of six separate stages. The result of his work is a six stage model which is further broken down into three levels and with two stages at each level.

Preconventional Level

This level is particularly common in children; the child is responsive to cultural rules and judges the morality of an action by its direct consequences and is solely concerned with the self in an egocentric manner.

Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. Individuals in this stage focus on the direct consequences of their actions on themselves. The physical consequences of an action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the value of such consequences.

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. This stage is self-interest driven wherein the proper action consists of what satisfies one’s needs and correct behavior is determined by whatever is in the individual’s best interest.

Conventional Level

This level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. The individual values the maintenance of social expectations, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. Morality is distinguished by an acceptance of society’s precepts regarding what is right orwrong.

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation. This level is driven by interpersonal accord and conformity.At this stage children are usually entering their teens and view morality as more than simple deals. They believe that individuals should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in “good” ways. Good behavior is perceived as what pleases or helps others and is approved by them. This means having good motives and interpersonal feelings such as love, trust, empathy, and concern forothers. There is much conformity to prosaic images of what is “natural” behavior. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as they try to be a “good boy” or “good girl” to meet social expectations. Reasoning at this stage may judge the morality of an action by analyzing its consequences in terms of a person’s relationships, which now starts to incorporate values such as respect and gratitude.

Stage 4: The “law and order” orientation. The individual is oriented toward the obedience of laws, dictums and social conventions. Proper behavior is all about doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and preserving social order for its own sake. Moral reasoning in this stage is beyond the need for individual approval manifested in stage three.

Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level

This level presents an increasing realization that individuals are distinct entities from society, and that their own views may take precedence over society’s perspective; they may steer away from social norms once they are inconsistent with their own principles. Individuals live by their own principles about what is right and wrong.

Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation. Right action is defined in terms of individual rights and standards that have been examined and approved by society. Laws are considered as social contracts instead of rigid dictums. Laws that do not promote thecommon good are subject to change when necessary in order to meet the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation. Right is characterized by the decision of conscience consistent with self-chosen ethical principles that adjures to logical extent, consistency and universality. In essence, these are universal principles of justice, ofreciprocity and equality, and of respect for the dignity of every human being.

Summary of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

LevelNameCharacteristics
Level 1Pre-conventional
Stage 1Heteronomous moralitySticks to the rules.
Stage 2Individualism / instrumentalismConcrete individual interests. Is aware of others’ interests.
Level 2Conventional
Stage 3Mutual interpersonalLives up to others’ expectations in order to be seen to be good and then has self-regard as being good.
Stage 4Social system and conscienceFulfils social duties in order to keep the social system going.
Level 3Post-conventional
Stage 5Social contractUpholds relative rules in the interest of impartiality and welfare for all.
Stage 6Universal ethical principlesFollows self-chosen ethical principles, even when they conflict with the laws.
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