Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

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Lawrence Kohlberg outlined one of the best-known theories addressing the development of morality in childhood. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, which include three levels and six stages, expanded on and revised the ideas of Jean Piaget’s previous work on the subject.

Key Takeaways: Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

  • Lawrence Kohlberg was inspired by Jean Piaget’s work on moral judgment to create a stage theory of moral development in childhood.
  • The theory includes three levels and six stages of moral thinking. Each level includes two stages. The levels are called preconventional morality, conventional morality, and postconventional morality.
  • Since it was initially proposed, Kohlberg’s theory has been criticized for overemphasizing a Western male perspective on moral reasoning.

Origins

Jean Piaget's two-stage theory of moral judgment marked a divide between the way children younger than 10 and those 10 and older think about morality. While younger children looked at rules as fixed and based their moral judgments on consequences, older children’s perspectives were more flexible and their judgments were based on intentions.

However, intellectual development doesn’t end when Piaget’s stages of moral judgment ended, making it likely that moral development continued as well. Because of this, Kohlberg felt Piaget’s work was incomplete. He sought to study a range of children and adolescents in order to determine if there were stages that went beyond those proposed by Piaget.

Kohlberg’s Research Method

Kohlberg utilized Piaget’s method of interviewing children about moral dilemmas in his research. He would present each child with a series of such dilemmas and ask them their thoughts on each one to determine the reasoning behind their thinking.

For example, one of the moral dilemmas Kohlberg presented was the following:

“In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her… The druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about… 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.”

After explaining this dilemma to his participants, Kohlberg would ask, “Should the husband have done that?” He then continued with a series of additional questions that would help him understand why the child thought Heinz was right or wrong to do what he did. After collecting his data, Kohlberg classified the responses into stages of moral development.

Kohlberg interviewed 72 boys in suburban Chicago for his study. The boys were 10, 13, or 16 years old. Each interview was approximately two hours long and Kohlberg presented each participant with 10 moral dilemmas during that time.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s research yielded three levels of moral development. Each level consisted of two stages, leading to six stages in total. People pass through each stage sequentially with the thinking at the new stage replacing the thinking at the previous stage. Not everyone reached the highest stages in Kohlberg's theory. In fact, Kohlberg believed that many didn’t move past his third and fourth stages.

Level 1: Preconventional Morality

At the lowest level of moral development individuals haven’t yet internalized a sense of morality. Moral standards are dictated by adults and the consequences of breaking the rules. Children nine years old and younger tend to fall into this category.

  • Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation. Children believe the rules are fixed and must be obeyed to the letter. Morality is external to the self.
  • Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange. Children begin to realize that the rules aren’t absolute. Different people have different perspectives and therefore there isn’t just one correct point of view.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

A majority of adolescents and adults fall into the middle level of conventional morality. At this level, people start to internalize moral standards but not necessarily to question them. These standards are based on the social norms of the groups a person is part of.

  • Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships. Morality arises from living up to the standards of a given group, such as one's family or community, and being a good group member.
  • Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order. The individual becomes more aware of the rules of society on a broader scale. As a result, they become concerned with obeying laws and maintaining the social order.

Level 3: Postconventional Morality

If individuals reach the highest level of moral development, they start to question if what they see around them is good. In this case, morality stems from self-defined principles. Kohlberg suggested that only 10-15% of the population was able to achieve this level because of the abstract reasoning it required.

  • Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights. Society should function as a social contract where the goal of each individual is to improve society as a whole. In this context, morality and individual rights like life and liberty may take precedence over specific laws.
  • Stage 6: Universal Principles. People develop their own principles of morality even if they conflict with society’s laws. These principles must be applied to every individual equally.

Critiques

Since Kohlberg initially proposed his theory, many criticisms have been leveled against it. One of the key issues other scholars take with the theory centers on the sample used to create it. Kohlberg focused on boys in a specific United States city. As a result, his theory has been accused of being biased towards men in Western cultures. Western individualist cultures may have different moral philosophies than other cultures. For example, individualist cultures emphasize personal rights and freedoms, while collectivist cultures emphasize what’s best for the community as a whole. Kohlberg’s theory does not take these cultural differences into account.

In addition, critics like Carol Gilligan have maintained that Kohlberg’s theory conflates morality with an understanding of rules and justice, while overlooking concerns such as compassion and care. Gilligan believed the emphasis on impartially judging conflicts between competing parties overlooked the female perspective on morality, which tended to be contextual and derived from an ethics of compassion and concern for other people.

Kohlberg’s methods were also criticized. The dilemmas he used weren’t always applicable to children at the age of 16 and under. For example, the Heinz dilemma presented above might not be relatable to children who had never been married. Had Kohlberg focused on dilemmas more reflective of his subjects' lives, his results may have been different. Also, Kohlberg never examined if moral reasoning actually reflected moral behavior. Therefore, it’s not clear if his subjects’ actions fell in line with their ability to think morally.

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