Moral Development

Learning Objectives: Development of Moral Reasoning

  • According to Kohlberg’s theory, what are the three stages of moral reasoning?
    • How do these stages correspond to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development?
    • What are the substages within each one and how do they differ?
  • What factors influence the development of moral reasoning?
  • What are the primary critiques of Kohlberg’s theory?
  • Do you think that the development of a strong moral compass can provide a foundation for future collective action on behalf of social justice?

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg (1963) built on the work of Piaget and was interested in finding out how our moral reasoning changes as we get older. He wanted to find out how people decide what is right and what is wrong. Just as Piaget believed that children’s cognitive development follows specific age-graded stages, Kohlberg (1984) argued that we learn our moral values through active thinking and reasoning, and that moral development follows a series of qualitatively different stages. Kohlberg’s six stages are generally organized into three levels of moral reasons. To study moral development, Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas to children, teenagers, and adults, such as the following:

    A man’s wife is dying of cancer and there is only one drug that can save her. The only place to get the drug is at the store of a pharmacist who is known to overcharge people for drugs. The man can only pay $1,000, but the pharmacist wants $2,000, and refuses to sell it to him for less, or to let him pay later. Desperate, the man later breaks into the pharmacy and steals the medicine. Should he have done that? Was it right or wrong? Why? (Kohlberg, 1984)

Level 1.  Preconventional Morality. Reasoning during Level one, which is broken into two stages, is based on what would happen to the man as a result of the act, that is, on the consequences of the act. In Stage 1, moral reasoning is based on concepts of punishment. The child believes that if the consequence for an action is punishment, then the action was wrong. For example, they might say the man should not break into the pharmacy because the pharmacist might find him and beat him. In Stage 2, the child bases his or her thinking on self-interest and reward. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”  They might say that the man should break in and steal the drug and his wife will give him a big kiss. Right or wrong, both decisions were based on what would physically happen to the man as a result of the act. This is a self-centered approach to moral decision-making. He called this most superficial understanding of right and wrong preconventional morality. Preconventional morality focuses on self-interest. Punishment is avoided, and rewards are sought. Adults can also fall into these stages, particularly when they are under pressure.

Level 2. Conventional Morality. Those tested who based their answers on authority, that is, based on what other people would think of the man as a result of his act, were placed in Level Two. For instance, they might say he should break into the store, and then everyone would think he was a good husband, or he should not because it is against the law. In either case, right and wrong is determined by what other people think. In Stage 3, the person reasons based on mutual expectations and relationships. They want to please others. At Stage 4, the person acknowledges the importance of social norms or laws and wants to be a good member of the group or society. A good decision is one that gains the approval of others or one that complies with the law. This he called conventional morality, people care about the effect of their actions on others. Some older children, adolescents, and adults use this reasoning.

Level 3. Postconventional Morality. Right and wrong are based on social contracts established for the good of everyone and that can transcend the self and social convention. For example, the man should break into the store because, even if it is against the law, the wife needs the drug and her life is more important than the consequences the man might face for breaking the law. Alternatively, the man should not violate the principle of the right of property because this rule is essential for social order. In either case, the person’s judgment goes beyond what happens to the self. It is based on a concern for others; for society as a whole, or for an ethical standard rather than a legal standard. This level is called postconventional moral development because it goes beyond convention or what other people think to a higher, universal ethical principle of conduct that may or may not be reflected in the law. Notice that such thinking is the kind Supreme Court justices do all day when deliberating whether a law is moral or ethical, which requires being able to think abstractly. Often this is not accomplished until a person reaches adolescence or adulthood. In the Stage 5, laws are recognized as social contracts. The reasons for the laws, like justice, equality, and dignity, are used to evaluate decisions and interpret laws. In the Stage 6, individually determined universal ethical principles are weighed to make moral decisions. Kohlberg said that few people ever reach this stage. The six stages can be reviewed in Table 6.3.

Table 6.3: Lawrence Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Reasoning

Moral Level Age Description
Preconventional morality Young children- usually prior to age 9 Stage 1: Focus is on self-interest and punishment is avoided. The man shouldn’t steal the drug, as he may get caught and go to jail.
Stage 2: Rewards are sought. A person at this level will argue that the man should steal the drug because he does not want to lose his wife who takes care of him.
Conventional morality Older children, adolescents, and most adults Stage 3: Focus is on how situational outcomes impact others and wanting to please and be accepted. The man should steal the drug because that is what good husbands do.
Stage 4: People make decisions based on laws or formalized rules. The man should obey the law because stealing is a crime.
Postconventional morality Rare with adolescents and few adults Stage 5: Individuals employ abstract reasoning to justify behaviors. The man should steal the drug because laws can be unjust, and you have to consider the whole situation.
Stage 6: Moral behavior is based on self-chosen ethical principles. The man should steal the drug because life is more important than property.

Adapted from Lally & Valentine-French, 2019.

Influences on Moral Development

What influences moral development? Kohlberg argued that moral development was not an automatic, maturational process, nor was it mechanistic, in that moral development couldn’t simply be taught (Crain, 1985). Instead, he proposed that it develops through repeated practice in situations where children must think together with adults or peers about moral problems: where their viewpoints are challenged or questioned; where they have to consider others’ perspectives and perhaps revise their own; and where they must try to coordinate their own desires and those of others with the help of moral rules. Moreover, it is our active engagement with these thought processes that helps our development (Berkowitz & Gibbs, 1983). This engagement can occur in many contexts; three notable ones are our caregivers, our schooling, and our peers (Berk, 2014, p. 326).

Studies suggest that caregivers’ use of an authoritative parenting style helps children reach higher stages of moral reasoning (Pratt, Skoe, & Arnold, 2010). This style emphasizes care, consistent and fair expectations, and support for autonomy in ways such as discussing the reasoning for rules and encouraging children’s own perspectives. These aspects of parenting can help children practice their own moral reasoning, allow them to internalize true moral principles, and over time to act on them under conditions of greater difficulty (aka temptation). On the other hand, use of threats and lectures do not help moral reasoning (Walker & Taylor, 1991). Studies suggest that children remember the negative affect and exertion of force, which interferes with the internalization of moral principles

Education is another important venue for practicing moral reasoning. In general, the more years individuals dedicate to schooling, the higher their average level of moral reasoning (Dawson, 2002). In particular, schools help promote moral reasoning when they offer students exposure to diverse experiences and ways of being, role-taking and perspective-taking opportunities, and chances to discuss and defend their own viewpoints (Comunian & Gielen, 2006; Mason & Gibbs, 1993).

Within schools and outside of them, peers are important relational partners for developing moral reasoning. As opposed to conversations with parents or teachers, which are hierarchical, peers are on more-equal footing. With peers, individuals need to practice communicating their own needs and considering the needs of their friends to reach decisions and resolve conflicts (Killen & Nucci, 1995).

Critiques. Although research has supported Kohlberg’s idea that moral reasoning changes from an early emphasis on punishment and social rules and regulations to an emphasis on more general ethical principles, as with Piaget’s approach, Kohlberg’s stage model is probably too simple. For one, people may use higher levels of reasoning for some types of problems but revert to lower levels in situations where doing so is more consistent with their goals or beliefs (Rest, 1979). Second, it has been argued that the stage model is particularly appropriate for Western, rather than non-Western, samples in which allegiance to social norms, such as respect for authority, may be particularly important (Haidt, 2001). In addition, there is frequently little correlation between how we score on the moral stages and how we behave in real life.

Perhaps the most important critique of Kohlberg’s theory is that it emphasizes justice without incorporating compassion and other moral considerations, and in doing so might describe the moral development of males better than it describes that of females (who were not represented in Kohlberg’s initial research). Gilligan (1982) has argued that, because of differences in their socialization, males tend to value principles of justice and rights, whereas females value caring for and helping others.  She argued for an “ethic of care,” emphasizing our human responsibilities to one another and consideration for others. Although there is little evidence for a gender difference in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Turiel, 1998), there is some evidence that girls and women tend to focus more on issues of caring, helping, and connecting with others than do boys and men (Jaffee & Hyde, 2000). Despite these trends in the relative priorities of caring and justice, evidence suggests that people of all genders consider both justice and caring to some extent in their moral decisions (Berk, 2014; Walker, 1995).

Development of an internal moral compass as a prerequisite for social activism. Researchers have become increasingly interested in the childhood antecedents of adolescent and adult action on behalf of social and racial justice (Killen, Rutland, & Yip, 2016). These are complex cognitive, social, and motivational processes, that likely are shaped by a host of specific experiences, such as family participation in civil engagement activities (e.g., volunteering and protest movements). However, an important prerequisite would include the development of a strong moral compass during early and middle childhood. Internalization of moral principles of honesty, fairness, and accountability would be useful for helping adolescents and young adults recognize inequities and feel morally responsible for doing their part to see justice done. This will be an interesting area for further study (Killen et al., 2016).


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“Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective, Second Edition” by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0

Additional written material by Ellen Skinner & Heather Brule, Portland State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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