Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

What is Morality

  • Morality is the human attempt to define what is right and wrong about our actions and thoughts.
  • Morality is not inborn. At the time of birth, the child is neither moral nor immoral. His mind is in clean slate.
  • In the process of development he learns moral-immoral things from his environment.
  • A person who behaves according to his social beliefs is considered as moral and who violates is immoral.

Lawrence Kohlberg

  • Lawrence Kohlberg (October1927 – January, 1987) was an American psychologist best known for his theory of stages of moral development which he gave in 1958.
  • Lawrence Kohlberg agreed with Piaget’s theory of moral development in principle but wanted to develop his ideas further.
  • He used Piaget’s storytelling technique to tell people stories involving moral dilemmas.
  • In each case, he presented a choice to be considered, for example, between the rights of some authority and the needs of some deserving individual.

Pre Conventional Stage

  • This is earliest stage of moral development.
  • This stage occurs below the age of 9 years.
  • At the pre-conventional level, there is no personal code of morality.
  • Instead, morality is defined by the standards of adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules.
  • When a child considers some conduct or behavior as moral or amoral in the context of some external factor.

Pre Conventional Morality is further divided into 2 stages

a. Punishment & Obedience or Reward and punishment stage

b. Exchange stage or Stage of Ego or Self Interest Orientation

Punishment & Obedience or Reward and punishment stage

  • It focuses on the child’s desire to obey rules and avoid being punished.
  • Good or bad depends on the physical consequences.
  • The action leads to punishment or reward.
  • This stage is based simply on one’s own pain and pleasure.

Exchange stage or Stage of Ego or Self Interest Orientation

  • It focuses on “what’s in it for me?” position, in which right behavior is defined by whatever the individual believes to be in their best interest.
  • Stage two reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might further the individual’s own interests.
  • An example of self-interest driven is when a child is asked by his parents to do a chore. The child asks, “what’s in it for me?” The parents offer the child an incentive by giving a child an allowance to pay them for their chores. The child is motivated by self-interest to do chores.


  • This stage comes when children enter elementary school. In this a child’s sense of morality is tied to personal and societal relationships.
  • Children begin to understand what is expected of them by their parents, teachers etc.
  • The individual strives to support rules that are set forth by others such as parents, peers, and the government in order to win their approval or to maintain social order.

It is further divided into two stages

Good Boy/Good Girl stage

Stage of respect for social system

Good Boy/Good Girl stage

  • Behavior is determined by social approval.
  • The individual wants to maintain or win the affection and approval of others by being a “good person.”
  • The stage of the interpersonal relationship of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles.
  • This works best in two-person relationships with family members or close friends.

Stage of respect for social system

  • This stage is focused on maintaining social order.
  • In this stage the child blindly accepts rules and convention because of their importance in maintaining a functioning society.
  • At this stage of moral development, people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments.
  • The focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority.


  • Post conventional level is also known as principles level.
  • It is marked by growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society.
  • Individual may disobey rules in consistent with their own principles.
  • Post conventional moralists live by their own ethical principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty and justice.
  • In this rules are viewed as useful but changeable mechanisms, rather than absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question.

It is further divided into two stages 

Stage of Social-Contract

  • In this the individual becomes aware that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when they will work against the interest of particular individuals.
  • The individual views laws and rules as flexible tools for improving human purposes.
  • When laws are not consistent with individual rights and the interests of the majority, it should be changed to meet the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
  • Democratic government is theoretically based on stage five reasoning.

Stage of Universal-Ethical-Principal

  • In stage 6, moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles.
  • Generally, the chosen principles are abstract rather than concrete and focus on ideas such as equality, dignity, or respect.
  • People choose the ethical principles they want to follow, and if they violate those principles, they feel guilty.
  • In this way, the individual acts because it is morally right to do so and not because he or she wants to avoid punishment.
  • Kohlberg doubted that some individuals will never reach this level.

           Thank you so much for reading 

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