Understanding Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development: A Comprehensive Guide

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is a foundational psychological model that elucidates the process through which individuals evolve their moral reasoning over time. This theory delineates six distinct stages grouped into three broader levels—Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional, serving as a vital framework for understanding the complexities of human morality and ethical decision-making. It offers valuable insights for guiding moral development in various contexts, such as parenting and education, emphasizing the importance of fostering ethical reasoning from early stages of life.

Building upon the groundwork laid by Lawrence Kohlberg, this guide explores the intricacies of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. It will delve into the characteristics defining each level—Preconventional Morality, Conventional Morality, and Postconventional Morality—unveiling how individuals transition from basic, self-centered reasoning toward more advanced, principled thinking about right and wrong. Despite facing critiques, Kohlberg’s theory remains a significant influence, illustrating the evolution of moral thought and its impact on psychology and educational practices.

Understanding Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, rooted in the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget, provides a framework for understanding how individuals evolve their moral reasoning from childhood through adulthood. This theory is structured around six stages, which are further grouped into three levels: Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional. Each stage represents a distinct mode of thinking about right and wrong, influenced by an individual’s cognitive development and social interactions. Below are key aspects and criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory:

  • Stages of Development:
  1. Preconventional Morality: Focuses on self-interest and obedience to avoid punishment or gain rewards.
  2. Conventional Morality: Centers on maintaining social order and gaining approval from others.
  3. Postconventional Morality: Involves adherence to universal principles and a sense of justice.
  • Critiques of Kohlberg’s Theory:
    • Originally based on research with only male subjects, leading to criticisms of gender bias.
    • Accused of cultural bias, as the theory may not fully apply to non-Western cultures.
    • Critics argue the theory overemphasizes justice and neglects other moral dimensions, such as compassion.
  • Evolution of the Theory:
    • Despite criticisms, Kohlberg’s theory has influenced further research, including Rest and colleagues’ model, which expands on Kohlberg’s stages to include moral sensitivity, judgment, motivation, and character.
    • Studies support the progression through stages with age and the theory’s cross-cultural relevance, albeit with variations.

Understanding Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is crucial for educators and parents in guiding the moral reasoning development of children and adolescents.

Preconventional Level (Stages 1 and 2)

At the Preconventional level, the earliest stage in Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, individuals, typically children, exhibit moral reasoning that is self-centered, focusing primarily on their own needs and desires. This level encompasses two distinct stages:

  • Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
    • Key Characteristics:
  • Adherence to rules is driven by the desire to avoid punishment.
  • Children view rules as fixed and absolute, dictated by authority figures.
  • Moral reasoning is grounded in the avoidance of adverse consequences rather than an understanding of right or wrong.
  • Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange
    • Key Characteristics:
  • Recognition that individuals have differing viewpoints.
  • Actions are judged based on how well they serve individual needs, marking a move towards a more nuanced understanding of morality.
  • The concept of fairness emerges, with right actions seen as those that maximize personal benefit while minimizing cost.

These stages illustrate a period of moral development where the focus is on the self, with little regard for others’ feelings or societal norms. This phase is typical up to the age of 9, laying the groundwork for more complex stages of moral reasoning that consider broader social and ethical principles.

Conventional Level (Stages 3 and 4)

Moving into the Conventional Level, which encompasses Stages 3 and 4, Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development delves deeper into the social aspects of moral reasoning, typical of adolescents and adults. This level is marked by a shift from self-centeredness to acknowledging societal norms and expectations.

Stage 3: Developing Good Interpersonal Relationships

  • Good Boy/Good Girl Attitude: Morality is judged by intentions and the approval of others. Individuals aim to be seen as good by conforming to social expectations.
  • Conformity and Interpersonal Accord: The focus is on being “nice,” with actions driven by a desire to maintain relationships and win approval.

Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order

  • Law and Order Morality: Understanding and adherence to societal rules become paramount. Decisions are made with an awareness of the broader social system and its laws.
  • Authority and Social Order: Emphasis is placed on obeying laws to maintain societal harmony. This stage reflects a recognition of the importance of a stable society and the individual’s role within it.

At the Conventional Level, individuals navigate the complexities of social relationships and societal rules, balancing personal desires with the expectations of others and the law. This level highlights the transition from individualistic considerations to a broader understanding of social obligations and the collective good.

Postconventional Level (Stages 5 and 6)

At the Postconventional Level, Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development introduces stages that embody the highest forms of moral reasoning, emphasizing the role of principled conscience and universal ethical principles. This level comprises two critical stages:

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

  • Individuals at this stage recognize the importance of societal laws but also understand that these laws should be flexible to accommodate individual rights and the greater good.
  • Laws are viewed as social contracts rather than rigid mandates, allowing for exceptions when they fail to promote welfare.
  • Moral reasoning involves considering a variety of values, opinions, and beliefs, aiming to uphold standards that benefit the majority.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

  • The pinnacle of moral development, this stage, involves adhering to self-chosen ethical principles that are abstract, universal, and capable of guiding moral action even against societal norms or laws.
  • Principles of justice, equality, and human rights guide decision-making, with individuals willing to face consequences for acting in accordance with these internalized beliefs.
  • It’s noted that few individuals reach this stage, where moral reasoning transcends legal and societal boundaries, focusing instead on universal human values.

Understanding these stages provides insight into the complexity of moral development and the progression towards more sophisticated and principled moral reasoning.

Challenges and Criticisms

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, while foundational in understanding moral reasoning, has faced several critiques that question its universality and application across diverse populations. These criticisms can be broadly categorized into concerns regarding moral behavior, cultural and age biases, gender bias, and the theory’s emphasis on justice.

Moral Behavior vs. Moral Reasoning:

  • A significant critique is the discrepancy between moral reasoning and moral behavior. Critics argue that possessing high-level moral reasoning does not necessarily translate to moral actions in real-life situations.

Bias Concerns:

  • Cultural Bias: Kohlberg’s theory, primarily based on Western ideologies, may not account for cultural variations in moral reasoning, making its application limited across different cultures.
  • Age Bias: The theory’s stages are criticized for not accurately representing moral development across all age groups, suggesting a potential oversight in the developmental aspects of morality.
  • Gender Bias: Originally based on research with male subjects, the theory has been found to express a masculine view of morality, often scoring males higher than females. This has led to accusations of gender bias, as it overlooks moral reasoning frameworks that emphasize caring and interpersonal relationships, more commonly associated with females.
  • Overemphasis on Justice:Critics highlight an overemphasis on justice and individual rights, potentially neglecting other important moral values like compassion and community welfare. This focus on justice is seen as limiting the theory’s scope in understanding the full spectrum of moral development.

These critiques underscore the complexity of moral development and the need for a more inclusive approach that considers the multifaceted nature of morality, beyond just reasoning and justice, to include behavior, cultural norms, age-specific considerations, and a balance between different moral values.


What is the structure of Kohlberg’s levels of moral development?

Kohlberg’s framework of moral development is structured into three primary levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional, each containing two distinct sub-stages. Individuals progress through these levels sequentially, with each new stage supplanting the reasoning characteristic of the previous one.

Can you explain Kohlberg’s moral development theory?

Kohlberg’s theory is cognitive, emphasizing the thought process behind determining the morality of an action—whether it is right or wrong. The focus of the theory is on the method of decision-making in moral situations, rather than the outcome or the behavior itself.

What is the central idea in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development?

The core concept of Kohlberg’s theory is that individuals evolve their understanding of morality over time through a series of developmental stages. As people age and mature, the basis of their moral decision-making evolves.

What are the six stages outlined in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development?

Kohlberg’s theory is composed of six stages of moral growth, which are spread across the three levels of development. These stages are: (1) obedience and punishment orientation, (2) self-interest orientation (instrumental purpose and exchange), (3) interpersonal accord and conformity (good boy/good girl attitude), (4) authority and social-order maintaining orientation (law and order), (5) social contract orientation, and (6) universal ethical principles (principled conscience). These stages provide the scaffolding for understanding the progression of moral reasoning according to Kohlberg.