Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

From an early age, many children are interested in talking about right and wrong. They learn that good is rewarded in society and that “bad guys” are punished. However, explaining to inquisitive children why something is right and okay and why some things are simply morally wrong can be difficult. It may take adjusting the explanation to their “level” of reasoning. They may see rules as the unchangeable authority because disobeying them will lead to punishment. Other children may have a keen sense of what is “nice” or “not nice” and how to treat other people with kindness.

The American psychologist, and former professor at Harvard, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) sought to discover how it is that children develop and mature in moral reasoning skills. When it comes to understanding children’s moral behavior, it may be beneficial to consider how children view right and wrong according to Kohlberg’s theory. His research on the motivations behind moral decisions is widely published and discussed among psychologists and developmentalists today. 

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development:

Kohlberg was interested in the reasons why people made decisions that involved morality. Kohlberg believed that individuals progress through stages of moral reasoning in one specific order, without skipping any in between. His theory is based on research with hundreds of individuals of various ages, whom he presented with difficult moral dilemmas for them to respond to. He didn’t care about the actual moral dilemmas that people faced as much as discovering how they came to their conclusions. Through his research, he developed a theory of moral development that included six stages of moral reasoning, which are divided into three levels. Kohlberg thought that most people did not reach the final level of moral reasoning. The following summary of the six stages is derived from a publication by the University of Central Florida:

Level One: Preconventional (also known as pre-moral) — Many, if not most, prisoners are still in this stage. However, ideally children move from this stage between the ages of 10 and 13 years old.

  1. “Punishment and Obedience.” Right and wrong is determined by whether or not there is a punishment. Orders are obeyed when a punishment is feared and power and authority are deferred to.   
  2. “Instrumental Exchange.” Those at this stage believe in “do unto others as they do unto you.” One seeks to fill their own needs and desires and only gives to others if it ultimately benefits himself.

Level Two: Conventional — This stage is where most people peak as the typical age range in which this type of morality is displayed is between adolescence and middle age

  1. “Interpersonal, or Tribal, Conformity.” Right and wrong is determined by what is accepted and popular in the group and that group’s value expectations. It is focused on maintaining happy relationships with others. Betraying the group’s norms and expectations is seen as a sin.
  2. “Law and Order (Societal Conformity).” Individuals are motivated by the desire to maintain order and safety in society by following rules. A person respects laws and authority figures and sees value in institutional order and keeping consistency for their own sake.  A subset of this stage is the Cynical stage. People in this stage, tend to see morality in terms of, “Why should I believe in anything?” because they have yet to realize there are universal ethical principles. This is more commonly found in young adults, especially those in college after coming to realize that conventional morality is inadequate. 

Level Three: Post-conventional — Very few people reach this stage of moral development. Typically it is not reached until after middle age. 

  1. “Prior Rights and Social Contract.” Laws should reflect the protection of moral principles and a human being’s unalienable rights. Justice is not black and white, but the circumstances of each situation are considered individually. People have rights and their freedom should not be restricted unless it infringes upon the freedom of others.
  2. “Universal Ethical Principles.” The belief is held that every person has inherent worth and dignity that is equal with all other people. Truth is an abstract, universal, moral principle that is not determined because of someone’s position of authority or written law. People should “do unto others as they would have someone do unto themselves,” and seek for that which will serve and bring good to the most people. Those who are willing to give their own lives for their beliefs of truth and the freedom of others are considered to be at stage 6.

When it comes to raising children, parents should fully understand that physical maturity does not equal moral maturity. While there are some, though very few, people who reach the ultimate stage of understanding universal ethical principles, there are many children and adults who only reach the earlier pre-conventional or conventional stages.

What does this mean for parents?

Just as every individual person is different, every child is different. Becoming a teen does not automatically translate into becoming more moral.  To foster moral development in children parents should work to

  • develop a close relationship with their children from an early age,
  • monitor what’s happening in their children’s lives,
  • reduce their exposure to negative media influences, and
  • help them make appropriate moral judgments about what they experience outside the home.

Morality is a process of development that must be fostered and facilitated by parents, in addition to teachers and other community members such as neighbors, friends’ parents, fellow church/mosque/synagogue/temple members–essentially everyone.

As adults, we are all tasked with helping the children in our community reach optimal development. We are also tasked with becoming the best people we can be for everyone’s sake–children and adults.

For more information on raising children of good character, please view a blog previously published to the ACPeds website: Raising Children of Character in a Toxic Culture

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