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Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

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Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Your level of moral reasoning may impact how you assess certain situations. If society deems something as abhorrent, and you grew up in this society, your morality is likely shaped around what they deem is right or wrong, and you too shall view the act as abhorrent.

Piaget provided a set of stages a child goes through during cognitive development, and Kohlberg expanded on that, suggesting moral reasoning also progresses in stages. Kohlberg's stages apply from childhood until adulthood.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, Hands below a Scale, StudySmarterHands below a scale, flaticon.com/freepik

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Overview

Kohlberg suggested there are three levels of moral development. Each level has two of its own ‘stages’ within it, which expands on the areas of moral understanding the person is going through or has reached. So, we can say that Kohlberg has six stages of moral development overall.

Kohlberg Stages Moral Development, The stages, StudySmarterKohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, Tyler Smith, StudySmarter Originals

These levels are:

  1. Preconventional Reasoning
  2. Conventional Reasoning
  3. Postconventional Reasoning

The best way to remember this is by looking at the prefixes - so, pre means before, and post means after. So pre-conventional is first, conventional is second (as there’s no prefix), and post-conventional is last.

As we mentioned above, each level has its own stages within it, which we will expand upon later.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Theory: the study behind it

Kohlberg developed this idea from his study (based on Piaget's initial theories), where he used a sample of 75 American children, specifically, boys aged between 10 and 16. He also collected data from boys from Britain, Mexico, Turkey, Canada and Taiwan.

Something worth noting here is that the age of criminal responsibility in England is 10. If, at the age of 10, we are expecting children to know the difference between right and wrong, enough so to be punished by the law based on this, then our understanding of moral development must be sound.

It was a cross-cultural, longitudinal study, occurring over a period of 12 years (they were interviewed every three years up until they were 22 and 28) where the boys were given ten moral dilemmas in the form of stories. These dilemmas varied and were used to engage the boys in philosophical debates, asking them to think about their morals and how they would approach the situation.

A famous example of one of the stories is the Heinz dilemma.

In the Heinz dilemma, Heinz needs money to help pay for the treatment of his dying wife. She was recently diagnosed with a disease and has a month to live, and a special drug had been developed that could help treat her. Without it, she will die.

The pharmacy told them it would cost a lot of money and weren’t willing to reduce it, and no bank was willing to provide a loan. Friends and family members were only able to chip in a small amount, and it became clear that Heinz would not be able to get the money for the treatment drug.

Heinz then decided to break into the pharmacy and steal the drug.

Kohlberg would then ask the boys in an interview if Heinz was right or wrong in stealing the drug (so the data is qualitative), framing the question differently. He asked if Heinz was justified in his decision or if Heinz should be punished for it. Alternatively, should the pharmacist be punished for willingly letting a woman die and refusing to give medication that could save her life?

The answers were more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Kohlberg was interested in the moral reasoning behind their decisions.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, Syringe and bottle of pills, StudySmarterA syringe and bottle of pills, flaticon.com/max.icons

From this, Kohlberg developed his stages of moral development.

Level 1: Preconventional Reasoning

Usually, children aged 4 to 10 revolve around this level, and moral reasoning is based on the following two stages:

1. Punishment and obedience orientation - an act is wrong because the person who did it was punished. To avoid punishment is the goal here.

2. Self-interest - an act that gets the best outcome for you is the right choice. If you do it you may be rewarded.

Level 2: Conventional Reasoning

At this level, moral reasoning is based on the next two stages:

3. Good boy/girl orientation - an act that causes others to think positively of you is the right choice. You may receive praise for doing it, and will be known as someone who is nice/good.

4. Authority orientation - an act is right or wrong according to the rules or the law.

For example, stealing something from a store. This is based on more than just the fear of punishment, it’s because it’s against the law that you don’t do it, regardless of punishment.

Level 3: Postconventional Reasoning

At this level, moral reasoning is based on the final two stages:

5. Social contract orientation - an act is right because it creates the greatest amount of good for the most number of people. Laws are still important, but ethical values become factors in moral dilemmas, and laws can and should be changed if necessary.

6. Conscience and ethical principle orientation - an act is now governed by abstract, universal concepts and justice, equality and human life are the most important things. Judgements are made on an individual basis, and laws should be more of a guideline that can be subverted when necessary.

If we were to apply the sixth stage ‘conscience and ethical principle orientation’ to Heinz's dilemma, would it be the correct choice for Heinz to steal the medication for his wife? Is it morally justified?

Interestingly, in his study, he found that children of different cultures all pass through the same stages; however, they do so at different rates.

  • Taiwanese boys who were aged around 10 to 13 gave stage 2 responses.
  • In American boys, those aged 16 had rarely progressed to stage 6. Also, they had not reached stage 3 at age 13.
  • 16-year-old American boys gave more stage 5 oriented thinking than Mexico and Taiwan.
  • Middle-class children went through the stages more quickly and were more advanced in moral reasoning compared to working-class children.
  • There were no differences in the moral development of children of different religious backgrounds such as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, or atheists.

Conclusion

People go through the stages of moral development one by one in a fixed order. The order of the stages is universal for all cultures. Middle-class children progress through the stages faster compared to working-class children. The stages are not affected by religious beliefs.

Not many people manage to reach stages five and six in this model, and most land somewhere in the conventional reasoning stage.

LevelStageStage Meaning
1 - Preconventional (ages 4 - 10)1. Punishment and obedience orientationAn act is wrong because the person who did it was punished. To avoid punishment is the goal here.
2. Self-interest An act that gets the best outcome for you is the right choice. If you do it you may be rewarded.
2 - Conventional (older children, adolescents, some adults)3. Good boy/girl orientation An act that causes others to think positively of you is the right choice. You may receive praise for doing it, and will be known as someone who is nice/good.
4. Authority orientation - An act is right because you’ve been told to do it by the rules or the law. For example, stealing something from a store. This is based on more than just the fear of punishment, it’s because it’s against the law that you don’t do it, regardless of punishment.
3- Postconventional (few adults, rarely children)5. Social contract orientation An act is right because it creates the greatest amount of good for the most number of people. Laws are still important, but ethical values become factors in moral dilemmas, and laws can and should be changed if necessary.

6. Conscience and ethical principle orientation

An act is now governed by abstract, universal concepts and justice, equality and human life are the most important things. Judgements are made on an individual basis, and laws should be more of a guideline that can be subverted when necessary.

Issues with Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development study

As with all studies, we need to assess their reliability and validity.

One major issue with Kohlberg’s study is that it was gender-biased. It was performed on boys, and thus the results cannot be generalised to girls, significantly reducing the applicability and generalizability of the results! Thus, it also has issues with being androcentric.

However, when this theory is applied to criminals, it supports the idea that criminals have not gone through all the required stages of moral development, suggesting a cause behind their delinquent behaviours. Kennedy and Grubin (1992) found that convicted sex offenders tended to blame the victim for the assault, and did not have much remorse for their actions.

The model also has issues with ecological validity in that these hypothetical scenarios are just that - hypothetical. How the boys would actually respond when facing the scenarios in real life could differ. It brings into question self-reflection, and social desirability bias is a real concern here. The boys may have answered in a way that makes them appear more morally correct to the researcher.


Kohlberg's (1968) Stages of moral development - Key takeaways

  • Kohlberg suggested there are three levels of moral development. Each level has two of its own ‘stages’ within it, which expand on the areas of moral understanding the person is going through or has reached. So, we can say that Kohlberg has six stages of moral development overall.
  • These levels are conventional reasoning, conventional reasoning, and post-conventional reasoning
  • Kohlberg performed a cross-cultural, longitudinal study, on a group of boys over 12 years (they were interviewed every three years up until they were 22 and 28). The boys were given ten moral dilemmas in the form of stories.
  • They were interviewed and asked questions about what they would do or how they would feel about different scenarios, Kohlberg was interested in their moral reasoning.
  • He found from the study people go through the stages of moral development one by one in a fixed order. The order of the stages is universal for all cultures. Middle-class children progress through the stages faster compared to working-class children. The stages are not affected by religious beliefs.
  • Most people do not reach the fifth and sixth stages of post-conventional reasoning.
  • Kohlberg’s model of moral development applies to criminal behaviours but is gender-biased towards boys (reducing the generalisability of the results) and androcentric.

Frequently Asked Questions about Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

The six stages of Kohlberg’s moral development are punishment and obedience orientation, self-interest, good boy/girl orientation, authority orientation, social construct orientation, and finally conscience and ethical principles orientation.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is based around the idea that moral reasoning occurs in stages, and expands on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in children. It applies from childhood until adulthood. 

Kohlberg performed a cross-cultural, longitudinal study over the course of 12 years on boys aged between 10 and 16 years old. They were told ten stories involving moral dilemmas and asked questions in an interview about their moral reasoning. This allowed Kohlberg to assess the trend of moral development in these boys over the years, and he created his stages of moral development. 

Kohlberg’s conventional stage involves the good boy/girl orientation, where actions are perceived as right as they shine a positive light on you, and authority orientation, where actions are perceived as right or wrong as they are deemed so by the law/rules. 

Kohlberg used a storytelling technique in a cross-cultural, longitudinal study on boys aged between 10 and 16 to assess their moral reasoning levels. 

Final Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Quiz

Question

Kohlberg expanded on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. True or False.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What age bracket did Kohlberg aim to apply his stages of moral development on?

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Answer

Adults, by assessing the stages of moral development in children as they grew from 10 to 16 years of age to 22 and 28 years of age.  

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Question

What are the three levels of Kohlberg’s model of moral development? 


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Answer

Preconventional reasoning, conventional reasoning, and postconventional reasoning. 

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Question

What year did Kohlberg introduce his theory on the stages of moral development?

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Answer

1968

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Question

How many American boys did Kohlberg use in his sample?

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Answer

75

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Question

What is the age of criminal responsibility in England?

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Answer

10

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Question

What type of study was Kohlberg's (1968) study?

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Answer

It was a cross-cultural, longitudinal study.

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Question

Over how many years did Kohlberg present the boys with a moral dilemma?

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Answer

12 years and they were interviewed every 3 years. 

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Question

What is the Heinz Dilemma?

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Answer

In the Heinz dilemma, Heinz needs money to help pay for the treatment of his dying wife. A special drug had been developed to treat it, but it was expensive and the druggist refused to lower the extortionate price, and no bank would loan money. Heinz then decided to break into the pharmacy and steal the drug.  

Show question

Question

What are the 6 stages within the three levels in Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development?

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Answer

1. Punishment and obedience orientation

2. Self-interest   

3. Good boy/girl orientation  

4. Authority orientation 

5. Social contract orientation

6. Conscience and ethical principle orientation  

Show question

Question

What does the Punishment and Obedience Orientation (stage 1) stage define as the level of moral reasoning?

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Answer

An act is wrong because the person who did it was punished. To avoid punishment is the goal here.  

Show question

Question

What is the stage meaning of stage 3 - Good Boy/Girl Orientation?

Show answer

Answer

An act that causes others to think positively of you is the right choice. You may receive praise for doing it, and will be known as someone who is nice/good. 

Show question

Question

What is the stage meaning of stage 6 - Conscience and Ethical Principle Orientation?

Show answer

Answer

An act is now governed by abstract, universal concepts and justice, equality and human life are the most important things. Judgements are made on an individual basis, and laws should be more of a guideline that can be subverted when necessary.  

Show question

Question

Kohlberg's study has issues with being gender-biased, true or false? 

Show answer

Answer

True, it is androcentric.

Show question

Question

What study supports the model (criminals have not one through all the required stages of moral development) when it is applied to criminals?

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Answer

Kennedy and Grubin (1992) 

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Question

How many levels are in Kohlber's Stages of Moral Development? 

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Answer

Three

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Question

How many stages are in each level of Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development?

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Answer

Two

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Question

Which is not one of the stages in the Preconventional Reasoning level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

Authority Orientation

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Which is not one of the stages in the Conventional Reasoning level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

Self-Interest

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Question

Which is not one of the stages in the Postconventional Reasoning level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

Punishment and Obedience Orientation

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Question

What age range is associated with the Preconventional level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

ages 4-6

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Question

What age range is associated with the Conventional level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 



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Answer

Older children, adolescents, and some adults

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What age range is associated with the Postconventional level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

Mostly adults

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Question

Brian is 5 years old and wants a slice of cake before dinner, but he knows his mom will scold him and not let him play outside after dinner if he has the cake. Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 

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Answer

Punishment and obedience orientation

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Question

Brian hates eating his veggies but knows that if he does, his parents will let him have ice cream for dessert. Brian really wants ice cream! Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 

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Answer

Self-interest

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Question

Brian hates making his bed but knows that if he does, his parents will be happy. They will think he is so good! Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 

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Answer

good boy/girl orientation

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Question

Brian's friends dare him to steal gum from the corner store. Brian won't do it. He knows that stealing is against the law. Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 


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Answer

Authority orientation

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Question

Brian wants to change a few policies so that more people in his community will benefit, so he is going to vote in the election on Tuesday. Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 


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Answer

Social contract orientation

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Question

Brian steals medicine to help his dying neighbor. Sure, stealing is wrong, but the issue is more abstract than that. It's more wrong to let his neighbor die than it is to break this one rule. Which stage of Kohlberg's moral development does this scenario correspond to? 


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Answer

Conscious and ethical principle orientation 

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