Stages of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg was born in New York in 1927 and due to his families’
immense amount of wealth he was afforded a very prestigious education. Kohlberg,
however, chose to set aside his families’ affluent lifestyle and forge a career for himself
that was geared more to his moral aptitude. During World War II he worked as a sailor
in the merchant marines and ultimately helped Jewish immigrants escape into
Palestine. It was this type of decision-making that eventually led to the conceptual
construction of his six degrees of moral development (Walsh, 2000).
After serving in the Merchant Marines, in 1948, Kohlberg attended the University
of Chicago and received a B.A in Psychology in one year and continued on with
graduate school culminating in his dissertation debuting his six degrees of moral
development, building upon Piaget’s 2 stage theory, and ultimately earning his PhD in
1958. Upon graduation he held a brief teaching assignment at Yale then moved to
Harvard in 1967 where, according to Walsh, he not only was “cited in every psychology
textbook in the last quarter century, but he also founded the Center for Moral Education
at Harvard Graduate School of Education” (2000).
In 1988, Kohlberg’s body was found in Boston Harbor. His death is still a
mystery; however, many believe it had something to do with his physical and mental
illness that he developed late in his life. Aside from his illness, the majority of his life
and research is widely renowned even today.
Description of Theory:
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development theory is built on the work of Jean
Piaget’s Moral Development Theory. Kohlberg studied moral development beyond the
ages that were studied by Piaget and concluded that moral judgment and decision-
making abilities developed throughout one’s lifetime (Crain, 1985). Kohlberg’s theory is
not based on individual or group morals as they relate to cultural values. Kohlberg found
that universal principals did not apply when studying values because cultural values
vary greatly and therefore values were not considered in the development of his theory.
Additionally, Kohlberg wasn’t interested in knowing why an individual made decisions
that were considered “right or wrong” by society or cultural norms; ultimately, Kohlberg’s
focus was to evaluate the moral reasoning behind people’s decision making process
when faced with an ethical dilemma. He was interested in “…the transformations that
occur in a person’s form or structure or thought” (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977, p. 54).
Kohlberg concluded that individuals make decisions based on where they are in their
stage of life when faced with the dilemma (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977).
Kohlberg’s theory proposes that moral reasoning has 3 identifiable levels and 6
stages of development as outlined in the table below (Kohlberg, 1971):
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development
Level of Morality Stage Stage Name
1 Obedience & Punishment
2 Individualism & Exchange
3 Good Interpersonal Relationships
4 Maintaining the Social Order
5 Social Contract & Individual Rights
6 Universal Principals
Kohlberg states that individuals experience the stages sequentially without ever
skipping a stage. When individuals experience cognitive dissonance, meaning when
they experience a dilemma that requires higher order moral reasoning skills beyond
their current stage, is when individuals will progress to the next level (Crain, 1985;
Kohlberg, 1971; Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977).
Pre-Conventional Morality. The first stage, obedience and punishment, state
that individuals (usually young children), make moral decisions based on avoiding
punishment (Kohlberg, 1971). For example, a mother has caught her son eating a
cookie before dinner. The mother tells her son if she catches him eating a cooking again
before dinner, he will have to go to bed early without watching his favorite television
show. Even thought he could sneak a cookie out of the cupboard, he decides to obey in
order to avoid having to go to bed early and miss his favorite television show.
The second stage in this level is called individualism and exchange. Individuals in
this stage make decisions based on what is in it for them and occasionally how their
decision may affect others. Individuals usually do not consider loyalty, gratitude or
justice rather they make decisions pragmatically (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). For
example, a young teenager may be asked by his neighbor for a ride to school because
he woke up late and didn’t catch the bus. The neighbor tells the teenager he will get in
bad trouble if he misses school again. The young teenager responds, “I will give you a
ride but you have to give me some money so I can fill up my car with gasoline.” The
young teenager makes the decision based on the thought he may be able to fill his car
up with gasoline, not because his neighbor missed the school bus and won’t be able to
go to school if he doesn’t get a ride.
Conventional Morality. The third stage in the second level, good interpersonal
relationships, state that individuals make moral decisions based on how they will be
judged by others in society and/or their peer group. Some refer to this stage as the
“good boy or good girl” stage because individuals make moral decisions to gain
approval from society (Kohlberg, 1971, n.p.).
The fourth stage, maintaining social order, state that individuals focus on
“…obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one’s duties so that the social
order is maintained” (Crain, 1985, p. 122). Colby & Kohlberg (1983, as cited in Crain,
1985, p. 122) state, “…subjects make moral decisions from the perspective of society
as a whole, they think from a full-fledged member-of-society perspective” (p. 27). For
example, individuals witness a hotel full of people on fire. They are faced with a choice
to stand outside, watch and worry or risk their lives and enter the burning building to
help save those who may be trapped. Individuals who make a moral decision to risk
their own lives to help others are functioning at this level of moral reasoning.
Post-Conventional Morality. The fifth stage in the third and final level, social
contract and individual rights, state that individuals make moral decisions based on a
combination of their individual values of what is considered just for all living in a society.
Individuals operating in this stage understand that breaking the law is generally not an
option; however, if the law is not fair and doesn’t benefit the good of society, it is their
duty to help change the law for a fair, good and more orderly society that benefits the
majority (Crain, 1985). For example, an individual may protest a law that reduces social
security benefits if they view the change as impeding on their individual rights and have
negative consequences for others and the good of society. It is important to note that
unlike stage 4, that solely focuses on obeying the law, this stage considers how the law
may negatively impact individuals and society at large.
The sixth stage, universal principals, state that individuals make decisions based
on “…the principles by which we achieve justice” (Crain, 1985, p. 124).
Kohlberg’s conception of justice follows that of the philosophers Kant and Rawls,
as well as great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. According
to these people, the principles of justice require us to treat the claims of all
parties in an impartial manner, respecting the basic dignity, of all people as
individuals. The principles of justice are therefore universal; they apply to all.
(Crain, 1985, p. 124).
For example, if you were 40 years old and the United States congress passed a
law that allowed for government paid health care for individual’s ages birth to 60 years
of age, individuals operating at this level would decide to protest the law. Though the
individual would personally benefit from the law, the individual realizes that not all
individuals receive the benefit (those over 60 years of age). Individuals operating at this
level realize the benefit isn’t an equal benefit for all in society and therefore consider it
to be unjust. According to Kohlberg’s theory, this is the highest level of moral reasoning
in which a person can function.
Prepared By: Marla Stubblefield and Stacy Tiger
Crain, W.C. (1985). Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Prentice-Hall. Theories of
Development (pp. 118-136). Retrieved from
Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved online September 6, 2011
Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. (1977). Moral development: A review of theory. Theory into
Practice, 16(2), 53-59.
Walsh, C. (2001). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37, 36-41.