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Encyclopedia > Moral development

Kohlberg's stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. He created it while studying psychology at the University of Chicago, when he became fascinated with children's reactions to moral dilemmas. He wrote his doctoral dissertation there in 1958, outlining what are now his stages of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg, sire of Cognitive Moral Development theory. ... Moral reasoning is a study in psychology that overlaps with moral philosophy. ... Psychology (ancient Greek: psyche = soul or mind, logos/-ology = study of) is an academic and applied field involving the study of the human mind and human behavior. ... The University of Chicago is a private research university located primarily in the Hyde Park neigborhood of Chicago, Illinois. ... An ethical dilemma is a situation that often involves an apparent conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another. ...

Kohlberg's theory holds that moral reasoning, which he thought to be the basis for ethical behavior, has developmental stages. Building upon Jean Piaget's previous work, he concluded that there are six identifiable stages of moral development. In Developmental psychology, a stage is a distinct phase in an individuals development. ... Jean Piaget (August 9, 1896–September 16, 1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist, famous for his work with children and his theory of cognitive development. ...



Kohlberg's six stages were grouped into 3 levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Following Piaget's requirements for a stage model, it is not possible to regress backwards in stages. It is also not possible to 'jump' stages; each stage provides new perspective and is "more comprehensive, differentiated, and integrated than its predecessors." The theory of cognitive development is a developmental psychology theory developed by Jean Piaget to explain cognitive development. ...

Another model that resembles Kohlberg's is Jane Loevinger's nine stages of ego development. Jane Loevinger (born 1918) was a developmental psychologist who developed a theory of personality which emphasized the gradual internalization of social rules and the maturing conscience for the origin of personal decisions. ... This article does not cite its references or sources. ...

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional) (up to age 9)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation
Level 2 (Conventional) (age nine+ to adolescence)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(a.k.a. The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(a.k.a. Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)(adulthood)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(a.k.a. Principled conscience)

Kohlbergs stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. ... Kohlbergs stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. ... Kohlbergs stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. ...


The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults can also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners in the pre-conventional level judge the morality of an action by its direct consequences. The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stage of moral development. ... Consequences is an old parlour game similar to the surrealist game exquisite corpse. ...

Stage one, individuals focus on the direct consequences that their actions will have for themselves. For example, they think that an action is morally wrong if the person who commits it gets punished.
Stage two espouses the what's in it for me position; right behavior being defined by what is in one's own best interest. Stage two reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might further one's own interests, such as "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." Concern for others is not based on loyalty or intrinsic respect in stage two.


The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. Persons who reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing these actions to social rules and expectations. The Adolescents were a punk band in the 1980s. ... In sociology a social rule refers to any social convention commonly adhered to in a society. ...

The conventional level consists of stages three and four of moral development.

In Stage three, individuals are receptive of approval or disapproval from other people. They try to be a good boy or good girl having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships.
For Stage four, it is important to obey the laws and social conventions because of its importance to maintaining a working society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for approval exhibited in stage three, because the individual understands that society needs to transcend individual needs.

See: relational model personal relationship mathematical relationship, including: inverse relationship direct relationship relation (mathematics). ... Law (from the Old Norse lagu) in politics and jurisprudence, is a set of rules or norms of conduct which mandate, proscribe or permit specified relationships among people and organizations, intended to provide methods for ensuring the impartial treatment of such people, and provide punishments of/for those who do... ...


The post-conventional level consists of stages five and six of moral development.

In Stage five, persons have certain principles to which they may attach more value than laws, such as human rights or social justice. In this reasoning, actions are wrong if they violate these ethical principles. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than dictums, and must be changed when necessary (provided there is agreement). By this reasoning, laws that do not promote general social welfare should be changed. Democratic governments are ostensibly based on Stage five reasoning.
In Stage six, moral reasoning is based on the use of abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. One way to do this is by imagining oneself in everyone else's shoes, imagining what they would decide if they were doing the same. While Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he had difficulty finding participants who use it. It appears that people rarely if ever reach stage six of Kohlberg's model.

The term moral obligation has a number of meanings in moral philosophy, in religion, and in laymans terms. ... Human rights are rights which some hold to be inalienable and belonging to all humans. ... Social Justice is a concept that has fascinated philosophers ever since Plato rebuked the young Sophist, Thrasymachus, for asserting that justice was whatever the strongest decided it would be. ... Social contract (or contractarianism) is a phrase used in philosophy, political science and sociology to denote a real or hypothetical agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens, or more generally a similar concord between a group and its members, or between individuals. ... ... The Elections and Parties Series Democracy Representative democracy History of democracy Referenda Liberal democracy Representation Voting Voting systems Ideology Elections Elections by country Elections by calender Electoral systems Politics Politics by country Political campaigns Political science Political philosophy Related topics Political parties Parties by country Parties by name Parties by...


Kohlberg stage 4½ or 4+ ,which is a transition from stage four to stage five, is the stage where people have become disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning and become moral relativists. This transition stage may result in either progress to stage five or in regression to stage four. In philosophy moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths but instead are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and that there is no single standard by which to assess an ethical propositions truth. ...

Kohlberg further speculated that a seventh stage may exist (Transcendental Morality) which would link religion with moral reasoning (See James Fowler's stages of faith).


Kohlberg used moral dilemmas to determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The dilemmas are short stories in which a person has to make a moral decision. The participant is asked what this person should do. A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma:

Heinz Steals the Drug In Europe

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 19)

Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. The point of interest is the justification that the participant offers. Below are examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages. It is important to keep in mind that these arguments are only examples. It is possible that a participant reaches a completely different conclusion using the same stage of reasoning:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because he will consequently be put in prison.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine, because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine, because his wife expects it.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the law prohibits stealing.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine, because everyone has a right to live, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the scientist has a right to fair compensation.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because that violates the golden rule of honesty and respect.
  • Stage seven (transcendental morality): Heinz should choose to spend more time with his wife in their remaining days, both acknowledging the cycle of life-and-death which is a part of the human condition.

The human condition encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living human lives. ...

Theoretical assumptions

The stages of Kohlberg's model refer to reasoning, not to actions or to people themselves. Kohlberg insists that the form of moral arguments is independent of the content of the arguments. According to Kohlberg, moral reasoning is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for moral action. Additionally, Piaget's stages of cognitive development are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the development of moral reasoning. He posits justice as the a priori summum bonum (justice is assumed to be equal with moral virtue). Reasoning is the act of using reason to derive a conclusion from certain premises. ... Moral reasoning is a study in psychology that overlaps with moral philosophy. ... ... A priori is a Latin phrase meaning from the former or less literally before experience. In much of the modern Western tradition, the term a priori is considered to mean propositional knowledge that can be had without, or prior to, experience. ... This page lists direct English translations of common Latin phrases, such as veni vidi vici and et cetera. ...

According to Kohlberg, a person who progresses to a higher stage of moral reasoning cannot skip stages. For example, a person cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer opinions (stage three) to being a proponent of social contracts (stage five). However, when persons encounter a moral dilemma and find their current level of moral reasoning unsatisfactory, they will look to the next level. Discovery of the limitations of the current stage of thinking promotes moral development.


One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other values. As a consequence of this, it may not adequately address the arguments of people who value other moral aspects of actions. For example, Carol Gilligan has argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly androcentric. His theory was the result of empirical research using only male participants. Gilligan argued that Kohlberg's theory therefore did not adequately describe the concerns of women. She developed an alternative theory of moral reasoning that is based on the value of care. Although recent research has generally not found any gender differences in moral development, Gilligan's theory illustrates that theories on moral development do not need to focus on the value of justice. Carol Gilligan (1936– ) is an American feminist ethicist best known for her work with and against Lawrence Kohlberg on ethical community and ethical relationships, and certain subject-object problems in ethics. ... Androcentrism (Greek ανδρο, andro-, man, male, χεντρον, kentron, center) is the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing male human beings or the masculine point of view at the center of ones view of the world and its culture and history. ...

Other psychologists have challenged the assumption that moral action is primarily reached by formal reasoning. For example, social intuitionists assume that people often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights and abstract ethical values. If this is true, the arguments that Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists have analyzed are often no more than post-hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions. This would mean that moral reasoning is less relevant to moral action than it seems. what the hell is this stupid shit ... Social Intuitionism This movement in psychology arouse in contrast to more heavily rationalist theories, like that of Lawrence Kohlberg. ...

External links

  • Expanded information
  • Boston Review article covering the topic and other related areas

  Results from FactBites:
Kohlberg's stages of moral development - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2685 words)
The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stages of moral development, and are purely concerned with the self (egocentric).
Despite being a justice-centered theory of morality, Kohlberg considered it to be compatible with plausible formulations of deontology and eudaimonia.
She developed an alternative theory of moral reasoning that is based on the ethics of caring.
Moral Development [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] (10336 words)
In contemporary terms, "moral development" is a research specialty of cognitive and developmental psychology, with associated research in anthropology, cognitive science, social and political psychology, law and education.
Kohlberg need not claim that observed development occurs in unified stages that are hierarchically integrated and arise in invariant sequence, that they culminate in a highest stage of a particular sort, or that stage development and the morality it captures is "natural" or “universal” in any cross-cultural sense.
Moral relevance and adequacy should not be pre-defined by "expert" theorists on theoretical grounds exclusively, intellectually limiting the scope and determining the emphasis of research.
  More results at FactBites »



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