Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development Explained

Published on July 16th, 2019

Updated on March 11th, 2022

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development Explained

Lawrence Kohlberg is well known for this theory of moral development. According to his theory, cognitive development leads to moral development.

Kohlberg proposed that there is a distinction between moral reasoning and moral behavior. Moral reasoning refers to the ability to make distinctions between right and wrong. Moral behavior is the act of behaving based on the moral reasoning. This means that a person may be able to perceive that a behavior is wrong, but it will not stop them from behaving that way.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is broken down into 3 levels, each consisting of 2 stages. The stages are not based on age. They are based on the developed ability of moral reasoning.

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Not everyone will reach the highest level of moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg
Lawrence Kohlberg

Level 1: Pre-conventional

The primary motivation for the pre-conventional level is to avoid punishment. People in this stage have developed the understanding that if they follow the rules, they avoid punishment. Decisions are made based on possible rewards and punishments. They are not based on expectations for socially acceptable behavior.

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment

In this stage, egocentric thinking is used to develop the understanding of consequences. Good actions will elicit reward. Bad actions will result in punishment.

For example, the first time Sally threw food on the floor, she was put in time out. The moral lesson she learned is that throwing food on the floor will result in a time-out. Sally will not throw food on the floor again, in effort to avoid the punishment.

Stage 2: Instrumental Hedonism

Pleasure seeking behavior is most prominent in this stage. Reward is the motivator, and the goal is to satisfy personal needs. Empathy and consideration for others would only be utilized to gain reward.

An example of instrumental hedonism is when a child expects an allowance for completing chores. The child learns that if he completes his chores he is rewarded with an allowance. If an allowance is not offered, the child is not likely to continue to continue to complete his chores while in this stage. The child’s goal is to not help his parents, it is to be rewarded.

Level 2: Conventional

Recognition and respect for social and family authority is developed in the conventional level. A person will learn how to conform to social and family expectations in effort to avoid social criticism.

Stage 3: “Good Boy, Good Girl”

In this stage, a person seeks approval from others. Their goal is to please everyone around them. Because of this, their behavior will be motivated by achieving approval and being seen as good. Empathy is developed in this stage, and people are all seen as equals.

An example of how a child behaves in the “good boy, good girl” stage is when a child seeks approval from others with their actions. A child may take initiative to clean the dirty dishes. In this situation, the child has the goal of receiving praise and approval from parents.

Stage 4: Law and Order

Societal order is of highest importance in this stage. Rules are accepted and followed without question and the goal is to avoid consequences from official authority figures. It is believed that if a person follows the rules, they will be reciprocated by the societal system.

A child will be aware of the rules that are in place in an establishment. For example, the child will remain acutely aware of the rule of ‘no running in the halls’ while at school. Keep in mind, that moral reasoning is not the same as moral behavior. In this stage, the child recognizes the rule and the expectation that the rule will be followed. This does not mean that the child will follow the rule, or that his moral behavior will be in line with his moral reasoning.

Level 3: Post-conventional

In the post-conventional level, a person’s moral code does not reflect the expectations of society. It does not have to be shared by society or community. A person in the post-conventional level is able to challenge and examine the best moral codes to abide and behave in a way that respects personal dignity and the dignity of others.

Stage 5: Social / Moral Contract and System of Law

The goal in this stage is to do what is considered to be best for society, not what is most socially acceptable. Rules and laws are challenged and are subject to change. Individual rights and boundaries define morality. Standards of society are held in higher regard than law and order.

In this stage, an individual will recognize that there will be instances in which rules do not protect everyone. At this stage, people become aware that rules are not ‘black and white’ or ‘right and wrong’. Sometimes there will be challenges that cause a person to have to choose the less harmful course of action, despite the rules in place.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles

Morality is based on universally ethical principles of moral behavior. Moral behavior is based on and determined by conscious observations. The goal of this stage is to relieve guilt and other negative feelings to reach a level of moral respect.

People who stand up for moral and civil rights are a prime example of the stage of universal ethical principles. These people recognize an unjust rule in place, and behave against expectations of society or the majority to gain justice.

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