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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Lawrence Kohlberg was a developmental theorist of the mid-twentieth century who is best known for his specific and detailed theory of children's moral development. His work continues to be influential today and contemporary research has generally supported his theory. (Colby, et.al. 1983; Rest, 1986; Walker, 1989, Walker &Taylor, 1991b).

Kohlberg developed a six stage theory of moral development, and he grouped these six stages into three, higher-order levels of development: 1) the Pre-Conventional Level, 2) the Conventional Level, and 3) the Post-Conventional or Principled Level. Each level is then further sub-divided into two stages to make a total of six stages. The Pre-Conventional Level includes: a) stage one, the punishment and obedience orientation, and b) stage two, the instrumental purpose orientation. The Conventional Level includes: a) stage three, the morality of interpersonal cooperation, and b) stage four, the social-order-maintaining orientation. The Post-Conventional Level includes a) stage five, the social-contract orientation, and b) stage six, the universal ethical principle orientation. This article focuses on the particular stages of moral development associated with adolescent development. Therefore, the discussion begins with stage three, the morality of interpersonal cooperation, within the Conventional Level of moral reasoning. For more information about Kohlberg's theory in general, or for a description of the developmental stages prior to stage three, see the Middle Childhood Developmental Article.

According to Kohlberg's theory, moral development proceeds in a linear, step-wise fashion; i.e., moral development proceeds gradually from one stage to the next, in a predictable, ordered sequence. Although Kohlberg recognized each child progressed through these stages at different rates, and acknowledged that some youth may never reach the highest stages, his theory does not account for regression back to former, previously mastered stages as do some other developmental theorists (such as Marcia's identity development theory).

Kohlberg believed that by early adolescence most youth have reached the mid-level of moral reasoning called the Conventional Level. At this level, morality is determined by social norms; i.e., morality is determined by the rules and social conventions that are explicitly or implicitly agreed upon by a group of people. These rules and customs function to serve to the best interests of the group's majority, while simultaneously providing a structure that maintains social order and limits discord among group members.

The Conventional Level is further subdivided into stage three and stage four. Stage three is called the morality of interpersonal cooperation. At stage three, moral decisions are made by anticipating how a moral decision would be judged by other influential group members. Because youth at this stage wish to be considered a good person and judged in a favorable light, their moral decisions will be based on whether or not their decisions would win the approval of those people whose opinions matter to them.

For example, Anthony is hanging out with some new friends when one of his new friends offers him a cigarette. If Anthony has reached stage three, the morality of interpersonal cooperation, he might be thinking the following: "What if I try this cigarette and Grandpa finds out? He'll think of me as a smoker. He already told me that he doesn't respect smokers because they damage their health. My grandma would be disappointed in me, too. She told me that smokers are weak people who need a crutch. This thought process will likely dissuade Anthony from accepting a cigarette from his friend.

The next stage within the Conventional Level is stage four, and is called the social-order-maintaining orientation. At this stage, morality is determined by what is best for the majority of people. Furthermore, moral decisions reflect an understanding that the majority of people benefit from a social order that fosters harmonious relationships among group members. At this stage, youth understand that laws are intended to serve everyone's best interest, and believe that societies function best when everyone strictly adheres to the law. These youth will begin to compare their daily decisions, and the consequences of those decisions, to the larger society's moral standards.

For instance, if Anthony from the previous example had reached stage four, the social-order-maintaining orientation, and was offered a cigarette by his new friends, he may now consider that it is illegal for youth to smoke. He may choose not to smoke because he believes that if he smokes, he should be punished for breaking the law. He understands the intent of the law is for his own benefit and protection, but he also understands the law serves to benefit the larger society because when young people become addicted to nicotine it poses a cost and a health risk to others.