82 Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French

Kohlberg (1963) built on the work of Piaget and was interested in finding out how our moral reasoning changes as we get older. He wanted to find out how people decide what is right and what is wrong. Just as Piaget believed that children’s cognitive development follows specific patterns, Kohlberg (1984) argued that we learn our moral values through active thinking and reasoning, and that moral development follows a series of stages. Kohlberg’s six stages are generally organized into three levels of moral reasons. To study moral development, Kohlberg (1984) posed moral dilemmas to children, teenagers, and adults, such as the following:

A man’s wife is dying of cancer and there is only one drug that can save her. The only place to get the drug is at the store of a pharmacist who is known to overcharge people for drugs. The man can only pay $1,000, but the pharmacist wants $2,000 and refuses to sell it to him for less or to let him pay later. Desperate, the man later breaks into the pharmacy and steals the medicine. Should he have done that? Was it right or wrong? Why?

Level One – preconventional morality: In stage one, moral reasoning is based on concepts of punishment. The child believes that if the consequence for an action is punishment, then the action was wrong. In the second stage, the child bases their thinking on self-interest and reward. The youngest subjects seemed to answer based on what would happen to the man as a result of the act. For example, they might say the man should not break into the pharmacy because the pharmacist might find him and beat him. Or they might say that the man should break in and steal the drug and his wife will give him a big kiss. Right or wrong, both decisions were based on what would physically happen to the man as a result of the act. This is a self-centered approach to moral decision making. Kohlberg called this most superficial understanding of right and wrong preconventional morality. Preconventional morality focuses on self-interest. Punishment is avoided and rewards are sought. Adults can also fall into these stages, particularly when they are under pressure.

Level Two – conventional morality: Those tested who based their answers on what other people would think of the man as a result of his act were placed in level two. For instance, they might say he should break into the store because then everyone would think he was a good husband, or he should not because it is against the law. In either case, right and wrong is determined by what other people think. In stage three, the person wants to please others. At stage four, the person acknowledges the importance of social norms or laws and wants to be a good member of the group or society. A good decision is one that gains the approval of others or one that complies with the law. This he called conventional morality, people care about the effect of their actions on others. Some older children, adolescents, and adults use this reasoning.

Level Three – postconventional morality: In this level, right and wrong are based on social contracts established for the good of everyone and that can transcend the self and social convention. For example, the man should break into the store because, even if it is against the law, the wife needs the drug and her life is more important than the consequences the man might face for breaking the law. Alternatively, the man should not violate the principle of the right of property because this rule is essential for social order. In either case, the person’s judgment goes beyond what happens to the self. It is based on a concern for others: for society as a whole, or for an ethical standard rather than a legal standard. This level is called postconventional moral development because it goes beyond convention or what other people think to a higher, universal ethical principle of conduct that may or may not be reflected in the law. Notice that such thinking is the kind Supreme Court justices do all day when deliberating whether a law is moral or ethical, which requires being able to think abstractly. Often this is not accomplished until a person reaches adolescence or adulthood. In the fifth stage, laws are recognized as social contracts. The reasons for the laws, like justice, equality, and dignity, are used to evaluate decisions and interpret laws. In the sixth stage, individually determined universal ethical principles are weighed to make moral decisions. Kohlberg said that few people ever reach this stage. The six stages can be reviewed in Table 5.5.

Table 5.5: Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning
Age Moral Level Description
Young children, usually prior to age nine Preconventional morality

Stage 1: Focus is on self-interest, and punishment is avoided. (The man shouldn’t steal the drug, as he may get caught and go to jail.)

Stage 2: Rewards are sought. (The man should steal the drug because he does not want to lose his wife who takes care of him.)

Older children, adolescents, and most adults Conventional morality

Stage 3: Focus is on how situational outcomes impact others and wanting to please and be accepted. (The man should steal the drug because that is what good husbands do.)

Stage 4: People make decisions based on laws or formalized rules. (The man should obey the law because stealing is a crime.)

Rare with adolescents and few adults Postconventional morality

Stage 5: Individuals employ abstract reasoning to justify behaviours. (The man should steal the drug because laws can be unjust, and you have to consider the whole situation.)

Stage 6: Moral behaviour is based on self-chosen ethical principles. (The man should steal the drug because life is more important than property.)

Although research has supported Kohlberg’s idea that moral reasoning changes from an early emphasis on punishment and social rules and regulations to an emphasis on more general ethical principles, as with Piaget’s approach, Kohlberg’s stage model is probably too simple. For one, people may use higher levels of reasoning for some types of problems, but revert to lower levels in situations where doing so is more consistent with their goals or beliefs (Rest, 1979). Second, it has been argued that the stage model is particularly appropriate for Western rather than non-Western samples in which allegiance to social norms, such as respect for authority, may be particularly important (Haidt, 2001). In addition, there is frequently little correlation between how we score on the moral stages and how we behave in real life.

Perhaps the most important critique of Kohlberg’s theory is that it may describe the moral development of males better than it describes that of females. Gilligan (1982) has argued that, because of differences in their socialization, males tend to value principles of justice and rights, whereas females value caring for and helping others. Although there is little evidence for a gender difference in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Turiel, 1998), it is true that girls and women tend to focus more on issues of caring, helping, and connecting with others than do boys and men (Jaffee and Hyde, 2000).

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