Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg was a professor who became famous for his work at Harvard University in the early 1970s. He shifted his focus to moral education from developmental psychology, popularizing his theory of moral development during his research studies at Harvard’s Center for Moral Development.
Drawing inspiration from James Baldwin, an American philosopher named John Dewey, and the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, he believed that human psychological and philosophical development is progressive.
Kohlberg theorized and conducted studies to show that people’s moral reasoning progressed through six stages that were divided into three levels.
Kohlberg’s classification is outlined as follows:
- Pre-Conventional – Obedience and Punishment
- Pre-Conventional – Individualism, Instrumentalism and Exchange
- Conventional – “Good Boy/Girl”
- Conventional – Law and Order
- Post-Conventional – Social Contract
- Post-Conventional – Principled Conscience
The first level of moral thinking is often exhibited in young children, at the elementary level. In the first stage, people follow societal norms under the guidance of an authority figure, such as a parent or teacher. Compliance is ensured through punishment or the threat thereof. The second stage of this level is more self-serving, with the view that correct behavior is in one’s best interests.
The moral thinking generally displayed in society makes up the second level of moral thinking, giving it the name “conventional.” Stage 3, the first stage in this level, is characterized by the desire to earn the approval of one’s peers. The fourth stage is that of being responsible to dutiful obligations and obeying the law.
Kohlberg felt that the third level of moral thinking is one that the majority of adults will not attain. Stage 5 is a genuine interest in the well-being of others and an understanding of societal interdependence. Finally Stage 6 is a consideration of universal principals with respect to the individual conscience. While Kohlberg fully believed that there were those who had ascended to stage 6, he could never collect enough people to observe it, much less define it.
Kohlberg felt that people could not jump between stages, but had to progress through each one at a time. For example, one could not jump to law and order from selfishness without first experiencing the “good boy/girl” stage of moral thought. People could only begin to comprehend a stage of moral thinking just above their own stage. Kohlberg reasoned that in order to understand the “higher stage” of morality and ultimately assist their development, it was necessary to present people with moral dilemmas to discuss. Kohlberg saw this approach to moral discussion as a means of promoting moral development within the confines of formal education. It is interesting to note that, like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that social interaction fuels moral development. As a result of cognitive conflicts within the individual at their current stage, individuals can develop their morality through discussion and insight.