From Self-Interest to Universal Principles: Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development

Did you know that just like the rest of our development, our morals develop too?

Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development explains this process. It challenges the notion that morals are fixed, suggesting that individuals progress through a series of stages in their moral development. The importance of moral development cannot be overstated. Individuals, equipped to master their morality, contribute to a more ethically conscious society.

Are you equipped to embark on the journey of moral development? The choice is yours.

Morals refer to a set of principles or values that guide individuals in distinguishing right from wrong.

Morality can exist independently of religious beliefs. Individuals may derive their moral principles from a combination of personal reflection, societal norms, empathy, and a sense of social responsibility. Additionally, legal systems and societal expectations often play a role in shaping moral behaviour outside of religious contexts.

Morality, often described as the inner compass that guides our actions and decisions, is a fundamental aspect of human existence.

According to theorists like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, our moral reasoning develops over time and is a complex process that takes place from childhood to adulthood.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development builds upon the work of Jean Piaget and has significantly contributed to our understanding of how individuals develop their moral reasoning and ethical principles. Kohlberg's theory outlines a series of stages through which individuals progress as they develop their moral reasoning and understanding of right and wrong.

It is useful for us to understand Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, because by recognising his stages of moral development, we can gain insights into the factors that influence our moral decisions. This in turn enables us to work towards attaining higher levels of morality and so create a more just and compassionate society.

Kohlberg's Approach to the Study of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg used Piaget’s storytelling technique to tell people stories involving moral dilemmas. In each case, he presented his subjects with a choice to be considered, for example, between the rights of some authority and the needs of some deserving individual who is being unfairly treated, such as the well-known "Heinz" dilemma, which discusses the idea of obeying the law versus saving a life. Kohlberg then asked questions about the dilemma, and by studying the answers from children of different ages to these questions, he hoped to discover how moral reasoning changed as people grew older.

In Kohlberg’s study of moral reasoning, his sample comprised 72 Chicago boys aged 10–16 years. Fifty-eight of these boys were followed up at three-yearly intervals for 20 years.

Kohlberg was not interested so much in whether the boys judged Heinz’ action as right or wrong, but rather in the reasons the boys gave for their decision. He found that these reasons tended to change as the children got older. These responses were then classified into various stages of reasoning in his theory of moral development.

The Heinz Dilemma: "Heinz Steals the Drug"

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later.

The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

Kohlberg posed questions such as:

  • Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
  • Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?
  • What if the person dying was a stranger, would it make any difference?
  • Should the police arrest the chemist for murder if the woman died?

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development offers a comprehensive framework for understanding how individuals' moral reasoning evolves through stages.

Kohlberg identified three distinct levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level has two stages, resulting in a total of six stages:

Pre-conventional Level

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
Stage 2: Self Interest Orientation

Conventional Level

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships
Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order Orientation

Post-conventional Level:

Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles

These levels and stages describe the progression of an individual's moral reasoning from childhood to adulthood.

According to Kohlberg:

  • People can only pass through these levels in the order listed.
  • Stages cannot be skipped.
  • Each new stage replaces the reasoning typical of the earlier stage.
  • The understanding gained in each stage is retained in later stages but may be regarded by those in later stages as simplistic and lacking in sufficient attention to detail.
  • It is extremely rare to regress in stages (to lose the use of higher stage abilities).
  • Not everyone achieves all the stages.

Let’s look at each of the stages in more detail…

Level 1 - Pre-Conventional Morality

When being asked what Heinz should do, children at this level of moral development may answer:

  • He should not steal the drug because it is bad to steal.
  • He should steal the drug because the chemist is charging too much.
  • He should steal the drug because he will feel good that he saves his wife.
  • He should not steal the drug because he will end up in prison.

This level of moral development aligns with Piaget's sensorimotor stage. It refers to children whose cognitive framework is limited to their own immediate sensory experiences and actions (which makes it challenging to develop complex moral concepts like right and wrong).

The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is particularly prevalent in children, although some adults also still exhibit this type of reasoning.

Kohlberg's pre-conventional stage consists of the initial 2 stages of moral development, marked by a self-centred perspective. Individuals, especially children, prioritise immediate consequences over societal norms.

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation

  • Egocentric thinking (lacking recognition that others' points of view are different from one's own) prevails.
  • Individuals lack a personal moral code; authority lies outside them.
  • Rules are viewed as fixed and absolute (and need to be obeyed to avoid punishment).
  • Morality revolves around avoiding punishment; belief that punishment implies wrongdoing. (If someone has been punished it must be because they have done something wrong).
  • Actions are judged by their immediate impact on oneself, lacking consideration for others. For example, an action is perceived as morally wrong because the perpetrator is punished (“The last time I did that I got spanked, so I will not do it again.") The worse the punishment for the act is, the more "bad" the act is perceived to be.
  • Reasoning centres on the personal experiences and physical consequences of actions. E.g. A child's classmate tries to dare the child to skip school. The child would apply obedience and punishment driven morality by refusing to skip school because they would be punished if they did.

Stage 2: Self Interest Orientation

  • This stage is also known as Individualism and Exchange or Instrumental-Relativist Orientation
  • Recognition that different people hold different perspectives. (I.e. Less egocentric thinking).
  • Individuals begin by avoiding punishment and quickly learn that pleasing others can lead to further advantages.
  • Morality is based on self-interest. The aim is to secure personal benefits. An example of self-interest driven is when a child is asked by their parents to do a chore. The child asks, "What's in it for me?" The parents offer the child an incentive by saying they will pay the child for doing the chores. The child is motivated by self-interest to do the chores.
  • Reciprocity is possible but it must serve one's self-interest. (The limited interest in the needs of others is only to the point where it might further the individual's own interests. A "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" mentality).
  • Actions are evaluated based on how they meet individual needs.
  • “Right” behaviour is defined by whatever the individual believes to be in their best interest, but this best interest is understood in a narrow way which does not consider one's reputation or relationships to groups of people. (The lack of a societal perspective in the pre-conventional level is quite different from the social contract (stage five), as all actions at stage 2 have the purpose of serving the individual's own needs or interests).

In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best-served Heinz’s needs.

Level 2 - Conventional Morality

When asked what Heinz should do, children at this level of moral development may answer:

  • He should steal the drug because he is a good husband, and a good husband would do anything to save his wife.
  • He should not steal the drug because he is not a criminal.
  • He should not steal the drug because it is illegal to steal.
  • He should steal the drug to save his wife and after that, he should go to prison for the crime.

The conventional level of moral development is typical among adolescents and adults. Kohlberg believed that some people remain at this stage of moral reasoning throughout their lives and never develop a higher level of moral reasoning. These people draw their moral principles from social or religious authority figures, and never think about morality for themselves.

Most active members of society remain at stage 4, where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside force.

Kohlberg's conventional stage consists of stages 3 and 4 of moral development, where individuals judge the morality of actions by comparing them to society's views and expectations. Conventional morality is characterized by an acceptance of society's conventions concerning right and wrong. At this level an individual obeys rules and follows society's norms even when there are no consequences for obedience or disobedience. Adherence to rules and conventions is somewhat rigid, however, and a rule's appropriateness or fairness is seldom questioned.

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships Orientation

  • This stage is also known as Conformity and Interpersonal Accord
  • The understanding of social roles and adherence to rules is still evolving during this phase.
  • The individual enters society by conforming to social standards. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as it reflects society's views. They try to be a good boy’/ ‘good girl’/ ‘good person’ to live up to these expectations, having learned that being regarded as good benefits them.
  • The individual may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships, which now begin to include things like respect and gratitude. "I want to be liked and thought well of and apparently, not being naughty makes people like me."
  • Children and individuals in this stage learn to follow rules and obey authority, without necessarily differentiating between moral and legal principles. They often derive their sense of right and wrong from external authority figures, and their moral reasoning may not extend beyond adhering to established conventions.
  • Conforming to the rules for one's social role is not yet fully understood. The intentions of others play a more significant role in reasoning at this stage; one may feel more forgiving if one thinks that "they mean well”.

Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order

  • This stage is also known as Authority and Social Order Obedience Driven or Authority and Social Order Maintaining Orientation or Law and Order Orientation
  • Moral reasoning moves beyond the need for individual approval, as seen in stage 3.
  • Moral reasoning is guided by the duty to uphold social order. Importance is placed on obeying laws and social conventions to maintain a functioning society.
  • Violation of laws is seen as morally wrong. There is the belief that if one person violates a law, it could lead to everyone doing the same, thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and rules. Culpability (extent to which a person can be held responsible for an action or inaction) is thus a significant factor in this stage.
  • Internalization of moral standard from respected authority figures. Authority is typically followed without question, and moral reasoning aligns with the established norms of the group.

Level 3 - Post-Conventional Morality

When asked what Heinz should do, children at this level of moral development may answer:

  • He should steal the drug because everyone has a right to live, regardless of the law.
  • He should not steal the drug because the chemist deserves to get paid for his effort to develop the drug.
  • He should steal the drug because saving life is more important than anything else.
  • He should not steal the drug because others also have to pay for the drug. It’s only fair that he pays for it as well.

This level of morality is only achievable once Piaget’s idea of formal operational thought is attained. Only 10-15% of individuals are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for stages 5 and 6. (Most people take their moral views from those around them and only a minority think through ethical principles for themselves).

Kohlberg himself had the view that very few people reached stage 6 of moral development.

The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, is marked by a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society, and that the individual's own perspective may take precedence over society's view; individuals may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles.

Post-conventional moralists live by their own ethical principles—principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice. People who exhibit post-conventional morality, view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms—ideally rules can maintain the general social order and protect human rights.

Rules are not absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question. Because post-conventional individuals elevate their own moral evaluation of a situation over social conventions, their behaviour, especially at stage six, can be confused with that of those at the pre-conventional level.

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation

  • The world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights, and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community.
  • Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet "the greatest good for the greatest number of people". This is achieved through majority decision and inevitable compromise. (Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning).
  • Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles, abstract reasoning, individual rights and justice. Individuals follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and regulations.
  • There is an understanding that issues are not always clear-cut. For example, in Heinz’s dilemma, the protection of life is more important than breaking the law against stealing.
  • Awareness of the potential conflict between rules/laws and individual rights - that rules may work against individuals' interests at times. 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.
  • Understanding that breaking a rule may be morally justified in certain situations. Recognition that there is a difference between what is right and what is wrong from a moral perspective, and what is right and what is wrong according to rules, and that although they often overlap, there are still times when breaking a rule is the right thing to do.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles Orientation

  • Individuals have developed their own set of moral guidelines, which may or may not fit the law. The principles apply to everyone. For example, human rights, justice, and equality.
  • Moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles.
  • Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws.
  • Legal rights are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deontic moral action. (Deontological ethics, or simply deontology, is a theory that says whether an action is right or wrong depends on the action itself, following a set of rules and principles. It focuses on duty, obligation, or following rules, rather than considering the consequences of the action).
  • Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another's shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.  The resulting consensus is the action taken.
  • Action taken is never a means to an end, but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it avoids punishment, is in their best interest, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon.
  • Willingness to act to defend principles even if it means going against societal norms and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment.

As mentioned above, although Kohlberg insisted that stage 6 exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.

Key Concepts and Implications for Understanding Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory introduced several essential concepts and implications for understanding moral development:

  • Moral Progression: Kohlberg's theory emphasises that moral development is an ongoing progressive process. People progress through these stages in a fixed sequence as they mature and gain life experiences. The highest stages in Kohlberg's theory are characterised by a deep commitment to moral principles that transcend societal rules and laws.
  • Cultural and Individual Differences: The theory recognises that people from different cultures may reach different stages, and individuals can be at different stages in different aspects of their lives.
  • Moral Dilemmas: Kohlberg used moral dilemmas to assess an individual's stage of moral development. By analysing responses to these dilemmas, he could place individuals within one of the six stages.
  • Application in Education: Kohlberg's theory has been used to inform ethical education and character development programs in schools, emphasising the importance of encouraging students to reach higher stages of moral reasoning.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Understanding the stages of moral development can help individuals and organisations make more informed ethical decisions. It promotes awareness of different perspectives and moral principles.

Critiques and Controversies

Kohlberg's theory, like any psychological theory, has faced criticism and controversies. Some key critiques include:

  • Gender Bias: Critics have suggested that Kohlberg's theory was gender-biased since all the subjects in his sample were male. Kohlberg believed that women tended to remain at the third level of moral development because they place a stronger emphasis on things such as social relationships and the welfare of others.
  • Cultural Bias: The stages of moral development may not be universally applicable, as they were primarily based on research in Western cultures, potentially limiting their relevance in other cultural contexts. Western, individualist cultures emphasise personal rights while Eastern, collectivist cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern, collectivist cultures may therefore have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg's theory does not consider.
  • Moral Behaviour vs. Moral Reasoning: Some critics contend that Kohlberg's theory places too much emphasis on moral reasoning and not enough on actual moral behaviour. There is an enormous difference between knowing what we ought to do versus our actual actions. Moral reasoning may not lead to moral behaviour.
  • Overemphasis on Concepts Such as Justice: Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg's theory of moral development overemphasises the concept of justice when making moral choices. Factors such as compassion, caring, concern and other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning.
  • Appropriateness of the Dilemmas: Critics question whetherKohlberg's dilemmas were applicable. Most of his subjects were children under the age of 16 who obviously had no experience with marriage. The Heinz dilemma may have been too abstract for these children to understand, and a scenario more applicable to their everyday concerns might have led to different results.

While it has limitations and critiques, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development remains a valuable framework for examining the complexities of moral growth and ethical reasoning.

How can you Help People to Develop to Higher Levels of Moral Development?

Promoting higher levels of moral development involves fostering ethical reasoning, empathy, and a sense of justice. Here are some ways to help individuals develop to higher levels of moral development:

Education and Awareness:

  • Provide education on ethical principles and moral reasoning.
  • Raise awareness about different perspectives and values to encourage open-mindedness.

Encourage Critical Thinking:

  • Foster critical thinking skills to help individuals analyse and evaluate moral dilemmas independently.
  • Encourage questioning and reflection on one's own beliefs and values.

Role Modelling:

  • Demonstrate moral behaviour and ethical decision-making through personal actions.
  • Highlight positive role models and their contributions to ethical behaviour.

Promote Empathy:

  • Encourage individuals to consider the perspectives and feelings of others.
  • Provide opportunities for people to engage in activities that promote empathy, such as community service.

Discuss Real-Life Dilemmas:

  • Engage in discussions about real-life moral dilemmas, encouraging individuals to think critically about ethical choices.
  • Explore the consequences of various decisions and actions.

Encourage Moral Dialogue:

  • Create an environment where individuals feel comfortable discussing moral and ethical issues.
  • Facilitate respectful dialogue to promote understanding and the exchange of diverse viewpoints.

Teach Conflict Resolution Skills:

  • Provide tools and skills for resolving conflicts peacefully and ethically.
  • Emphasize the importance of compromise and finding common ground.

Cultivate a Sense of Responsibility:

  • Encourage a sense of responsibility for one's actions and their impact on others.
  • Highlight the connection between personal values and ethical decision-making.

Expose to Diversity:

  • Expose individuals to diverse cultures, perspectives and experiences to broaden their understanding of morality.
  • Celebrate diversity and promote inclusivity.

Encourage Ethical Decision-Making:

  • Provide opportunities for individuals to practice making ethical decisions in various contexts.
  • Reinforce the importance of integrity and doing what is morally right, even in challenging situations.

It's important to remember that moral development is a complex and ongoing process influenced by various factors. A holistic approach that combines education, experience, and reflection is often effective in fostering higher levels of moral development.

If we can identify the stage of moral development that we ourselves are at, and understand that others may be at different stages, we can potentially stop many arguments about morals/morality. After all, the other person just may not think the way you do, and no amount of arguing with them is going to change that. It would be more constructive to put time and effort into attaining higher levels of moral development for all, enabling us all to work towards attaining higher levels of morality and so create a more just and compassionate society.