stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development constitute an adaptation of a psychological theory originally conceived by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Kohlbergbegan work on this topic while a psychology graduate student at the University of Chicago[1] in 1958, and expanded and developed this theory throughout his life.

The theory holds that moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behavior, has six identifiable developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor.[2] Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment far beyond the ages studied earlier by Piaget,[3] who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages.[2] Expanding on Piaget’s work, Kohlberg determined that the process of moral development was principally concerned with justice, and that it continued throughout the individual’s lifetime,[4] a notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of such research.[5][6]

The six stages of moral development are grouped into three levels: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality.

For his studies, Kohlberg relied on stories such as the Heinz dilemma, and was interested in how individuals would justify their actions if placed in similar moral dilemmas. He then analyzed the form of moral reasoning displayed, rather than its conclusion,[6] and classified it as belonging to one of six distinct stages.[7][8][9]

There have been critiques of the theory from several perspectives. Arguments include that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other moral values, such as caring;[10] that there is such an overlap between stages that they should more properly be regarded as separate domains; or that evaluations of the reasons for moral choices are mostly post hoc rationalizations (by both decision makers and psychologists studying them) of essentially intuitive decisions.[11]

Nevertheless, an entirely new field within psychology was created as a direct result of Kohlberg’s theory, and according to Haggbloom et al.’s study of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, Kohlberg was the 16th most frequently cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks throughout the century, as well as the 30th most eminent overall.[12]

Kohlberg’s scale is about how people justify behaviors and his stages are not a method of ranking how moral someone’s behavior is. There should, however, be a correlation between how someone scores on the scale and how they behave, and the general hypothesis is that moral behaviour is more responsible, consistent and predictable from people at higher levels.[13]

Kohlberg’s six stages can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.[7][8][9] Following Piaget’s constructivist requirements for a stage model, as described in his theory of cognitive development, it is extremely rare to regress in stages—to lose the use of higher stage abilities.[14][15] Stages cannot be skipped; each provides a new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them.[14][15]

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation

(What’s in it for me?)
(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

(Social norms)
(The good boy/girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

(Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles

(Principled conscience)

The understanding gained in each stage is retained in later stages, but may be regarded by those in later stages as simplistic, lacking in sufficient attention to detail.

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