Last updated: March 26, 2019
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Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg was a gifted psychologist who lived from 1927-1987 and taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard. Although he became afflicted with a tropical disease and later died at 60, presumably a suicide; the years preceding his death were spent most constructively studying moral development in children. Through his research of how children develop moral codes, he made a great contribution in the field of moral development.

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The Swiss psychologist Piaget was the model from which Kohlberg based his theories.

In Piaget’s model  there are two stages of moral development. Children younger than 10 or 11 see rules as absolute; fixed. These rules are handed down by adults or God; authorities that are not to be questioned. They cannot be changed. Children older than 10 or 11 are more relativistic, realizing that rules are not absolute and they can be changed. While the younger children see only consequences, the older ones see also intentions. There are a distinct series of changes between the ages of 10 and 12.

(Piaget’s Stages of Moral Development, 1).

However, Piaget stopped at two stages of moral development while Kohlberg’s research went further. He developed six stages. Still, Piaget’s equilibration method of inducing cognitive conflict-where the child assumes one perspective, becomes confused by discrepant information, then resolves conflict by creating a more advanced and comprehensive perspective,-was the precise model which Kohlberg used. This method is a dialectic process of Socratic teaching in which students provide a view, the teacher asks questions to reveal the inadequacy of the view, then the students are motivated to formulate better positions. (Kohlberg’s Moral Stages, 1).

While an admirer of Piaget’s, Kohlberg’s stage of moral thinking are more detailed.

He demonstrated that children do not develop because they are shaped by external reinforcements; rather, their motivation is more internal. They develop because their curiosity is aroused. And while some children stop at early stages of development, frequently stage 3,others are able to progress to stage 6, achieving a post conventional level of moral thinking in which they no longer accept their own society as given, but think reflexively and autonomously about what a good society should be.  Thus, the moral thinking progresses continuously in reference to the latter students, while it levels off in the previous ones.By interviewing children about moral dilemmas, Kohlberg’s research also showed that the children developed well into adolescence and early adulthood.  (Crain, 118-122).

In Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development, the sequence unfolds in the following manner:

LEVEL I – Preconventional morality. Morality is seen as external to the self.

Stage 1:Obedience and punishment oriented.

Stage II: Individuation and Exchange. There begins a recognition that

there is not just one right view handed down by the authorities.

Different individuals have different viewpoints.

LEVEL 2- Conventional morality.

Stage III: Good interpersonal relationships. People should live up to

expectations of their family and community and live in good

ways. These ways involve love, empathy, concern, and trust for



Stage IV: Maintains social order. This stage is concerned with society as

as a whole and maintaining social order.

LEVEL III- Post conventional morality.

Stage V: Social contract and individual rights. What makes for a good


Stage VI: Universal principles. Defines the principles by which we achieve


(Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, 1).

These six stages are not a matter of maturation; neither are they a matter of socialization. The stages emerge as a result of thinking in regards to moral problems.

Children change through taking opposing positions to the perspectives they hold. Through discussion and debates with others, they gain new and more complex perspectives. They  move through stages by encountering view which challenge their thinking and encourage them to formulate better moral arguments. The ideal is not impersonal justice, but a more accommodating way of living. Females usually achieve stage III which encompasses interpersonal feelings; while males can often attain stages IV and V which include abstract concepts of social organization (Crain, 122-126).

Additionally, moral thinking does not always include moral acting, even though it should. As children progress up the stages of moral actions, however, their actions also progress. These stages hold true to the stage concept which Piaget provided:

1. There are qualitative differences.

2. A structured whole provides a general pattern of thought.

3. There is invariant sequence. The children do not skip or mix up order. The stages

proceed in order.

4. Hierarchic integration. The children do not lose insights from earlier stages. They

integrate then into new and broader frameworks.

5. There is a universal sequence. These stages apply universally to all cultures.


By studying Piaget and developing his theories even further through his research with children, Kohlberg provides important insights into moral development. His six stages help others to understand moral maturation  and how it progresses in children and adolescents. He also demonstrated that the best possible society is one in which the individual   would not only understand the need for social order ( stage IV) ,but would

entertain the visions (stage VI) of universal principles such as liberty and justice.

(Kohlberg’s Moral Stages, 2).












Crain,W.C. Theories of Development. New York: Prentice Hall, 1985. 2005.  Internet. Accessed 20 October 2006.

———-Kohlberg’s Moral Stages.

———– Piaget’s Stages of Moral Development.

www.Http:// pence/htmlkohlberg.htm
“Kohlberg,” 2006. Accessed 21 October 2006.

Reimer,Joseph. Promoting Moral Growth from Piaget to Kohlberg.  Prospect

Heights,IL:Waveland Press, 1990.