In this article the Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is discussed. Kohlberg’s theory is a direct continuation of the Piaget’s work on the same issues. Kohlberg’s methodology, and why he considers structure more important than content are discussed. The key aspects of the typical reasoning in the moral judgments of each level are discussed. The developmental issues and the criticisms of the theory are presented in the later sections. Also the various aspects of morality being context, culture and time dependent are discussed.
The very word ‘moral’ colloquially means of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior. Moral behavior as understood in a everyday notion, relates to the behavior of an individual which is acceptable in the contemporary society. One thing is for sure that the moral development is not innate, it comes through our own thinking about the moral problems, with inputs from the interactions that we have with the society. There are three major components of morality, viz. the emotional component, cognitive component, behavioral component. The emotional component reﬂects the fact that we can relate to the harm that we cause to other person. The cognitive component emphasizes the fact that
thinking about the social understanding helps us to make more elaborate judgment’s about actions. Finally the behavioral component relates to the fact that exposure to morally relevant thoughts and feelings can only increase the chances that we will act accordingly but does not guarantee the same.
in the moral development is that a person starts from “externally controlled responses” and goes on to “behavior that is based on inner standards.” In the following sections we mainly consider the theories of moral development of Piaget and Kohlberg which elaborate the cognitive developmental aspect of
children’s ideas about morality Piaget depended upon open ended clinical interviews. By clinical interviews it is meant that a child is asked some questions and probed futher in the reasoning behind a particular response given. Piaget in particular asked about the rules in game of marbles. The children were also given stories in which the character’s intentions [ either wrong or right ] and the consequences of such a action were varied. The best kno twn such example is that of John and Henry. In these stories each of the boy breaks diﬀerent number of cups, one with ‘wrong’ intention and other with no intention. The children are asked the question that which one of them is naughtier and why. The two
stories are like this :
Story A: A little boy who is called John is in his room. He is called to dinner. He goes into the dining room. But behind the door there was a chair, and on the chair there was a tray with ﬁfteen cups on it. John couldn’t have known that there was all this behind the door. He goes in, the door knocks against the tray, bang go the ﬁfteen cups and they all get broken!
Story B: Once there was a little boy whose name was Henry. One day when his mother was out he tried to get some jam out of the cupboard. He climbed up on to a chair and stretched out his arm. But the jam was too high up and he couldn’t reach it and have any. But while he was trying to get it he knocked over a cup. The cup fell down and broke.
than their own. They realize that intentions are more important than the objective consequences in moral judgments. Thus
in the two stories mentioned, they do not consider John as naughty, even if he broke more cups because he simply did not intend to do so. On the other hand Henry is considered naughty as he has intent to steal the jam, even in the process he broke less cups. The conﬂicts with peers are settled in mutually beneﬁcial ways. The concept of reciprocity is developed in children. By reciprocity it is meant that, “they express the same concern for the welfare of others as they do for themselves.” The most familiar expression of reciprocity is the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Reciprocity is the main driving force in the understanding of children in autonomous morality. Children realize that, “rules are ﬂexible, socially agreed on principles that can be revised to suit the will of the majority.” The children can question the logic of the rules and just do not blindly follow them, they can realize that at times there may be good reasons to break a rule. Punishment are also seen in the light of principle of reciprocity. The punishment should be meted in an even-handed way to everyone responsible for the oﬀense, thus guaranteeing justice for all.
Intentions and Moral Judgments
Considering the stories of John and Henry, they present a biased view of child’s reasoning as more damage is coupled with good intentions and vice versa. If the same scenario is presented on the same grounds of damage, even the younger children can judge the ill intentioned person as naughtier. Also by the age of 4 years children are able to recognize the diﬀerence between lying and truthfulness, two morally relevant intentional behaviors. Thus the capacity to consider intentions appears in children much earlier than Piaget believed a deeper understanding does not arise till they reach autonomous morality.
Piaget assumed that heteronomous children assume the authority of adults with unquestioned respect, but studies have revealed the contrary. The preschoolers judge stealing, hitting as wrong regardless of the opinions of authority. Also peers can be regarded as authorities, e.g. a class captain. Thus “young children’s concepts of authority do not focus solely on status and power.” Contrary to
this many factors are responsible at an earlier age than assumed by Piaget, these factors include, “the attributes of the individual, the type of behavior to be controlled, and the context in which it occurs.
Another aspect of Piaget’s theory is that characterstics associated with each stage do not correlate very highly, as would be expected if each stage represented a “general unifying organization of moral
judgments.” Thus child’s moral thought appears as “patchwork of diverse parts.” But to this Piaget recommended that, “the two moralities be viewed as ﬂuid, overlapping ‘phases’ rather than as tightly knit stages.” Also studies indicate that the moral development goes beyond the two stages of Piaget. Kohlberg’s work presented in the later sections is a direct continuation of the Piaget’s work on moral development.
Lawrence Kohlberg [1927 – 1987] following Piaget’s work on the aspect of moral development in children began on similar lines the search for stages of moral development and study of how moral understanding is intimately tied to the cognitive growth. The methodology that Kohlberg adopted for the study of moral was same of Piaget viz. the clinical interviews, but instead of asking children to
judge the naughtiness of a character of a story Kohlberg presented children with moral dilemmas. A moral dilemma is “a conﬂict situation presented to subjects, who are asked to decide both what the main actor should do and why.” In a moral dilemma two moral values are pitched against each other. The conﬂict in the mind of sub ject with regard to these two moral values, and its subsequent
resolution serves as an index of the moral development. This enables the experimenter to get a better picture of the reasoning behind the moral decisions. The best known moral dilemma is the the ‘Heinz dilemma,’ in which the subject is presented with conﬂict between two moral values viz. obeying the law [not stealing] and value of human life [saving a dying person] :
Heinz Steals The Drug
In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make.
He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband
have done that?
In the response received from the sub jects [72 boys of ages 10, 13 and 16 in the core sample] to the moral dilemma presented above Kohlberg was more interested in the structure than the content of the response. So just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response to the question presented above will not provide us with the reasoning behind this moral judgment. In fact for the ﬁrst four stages that Kohlberg identiﬁed, both the responses are found with diﬀerent reasoning at each stage. To ﬁnd out this reasoning the ‘why’ questions are asked and the sub ject is further probed with other related dilemmas. Based on the diﬀerent response he got from the children Kohlberg was able to classify them into various stages.
Kolhberg was able to identify three general levels and six stages in all for the moral development in childr
Level I Preconventional Morality
At this level the morality of the person is externally controlled and can be identiﬁed with the main features of the Piaget’s heteronomous stage. The children accept the rules of the authority and the actions are judged by the consequences and not the intent. The moral understanding is based on
rewards and punishments.
This stage is similar to Piaget’s heteronomous stage of moral thought. The child regards the rules as ﬁxed, handed down by adults which must be obeyed at all costs. The child is unable to take two points of view for the moral dilemma.
The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows [Taken verbatim from ]:
Pro-Stealing: “If you let your wife die, you will get in trouble. You’ll be blamed for not spending money to help her, and there’ll be an investigation of you and the druggist for your wife’s death.”
Anti-Stealing: “You shouldn’t steal the drug because you’ll be caught and send to jail if you do. If you do get away, your conscience would bother you thinking how the police will catch up with you any minute.”
At this stage the children become aware that diﬀerent people have diﬀerent perspectives in a moral dilemma, but this awareness is very concrete. The right action is considered that satisﬁes ones personal needs. Reciprocity is considered as equal exchange of favors. The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:
Pro-Stealing: “The druggist can do what he wants and Heinz can do what he wants to do . . . But if Heinz decides to risk jail to save his wife, it’s his life he’s risking; he can do what he wants with it. And the same goes for the druggist; it’s up to him to decide what he want to do.”
Anti-Stealing: “[Heinz] is running more risk than it’s worth unless he’s so crazy about her he can’t live without her. Neither of them will enjoy life if she’s an invalid.”
The stage 2 children are considered to reason at the preconventional level as they think “as isolated individuals rather than as members of society.” Also “they see individuals exchanging favors, but there is still no identiﬁcation with the values of the family or community.”
Level II Conventional Morality
In this level as the name suggests the individuals continue to regard the conformity to social rules as important, but the reason not being self-interest but rather maintaining the “positive human relationships and the societal order.”
The desire to obey rules in stage 3 is in the context of close inter-personal feelings such as love, trust and concern for others. The main belief is that “people should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in ‘good’ ways.” The stage 3 person has a capacity“ to view
a two-person relationship from the vantage point of an impartial, outside observer,” which supports this new approach to morality. The motives are considered to be important than the consequences. As in Piaget’s two stages similarly in Kohlberg’s stages, “there is a shift from unquestioning obedience
to a relativistic outlook and to a concern for good motives. For Kohlberg, however, these shifts occur in three stages rather than two.”
The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:
Pro-Stealing: “No one will think you’re bad if you steal the drug, but your family will think you’re an inhuman husband if you don’t. If you let you wife die, you’ll be never be able to look anyone in the face again.”
Anti-Stealing: “It isn’t just the druggist who will think you’re a criminal, everyone else will too. After you steal it, you’ll feel bad thinking how you brought dishonor on your family and yourself; you won’t be able to face anyone again.”
In stage 4 person has a intent for the beneﬁt of the society as a whole. The moral judgment and behavior is in the context of maintaining social order and no longer depend on the close ties to others. As the stage 4, “subjects take the moral decisions from the perspective of society as a whole, they think from a full-ﬂedged member-of-society perspective.” The typical pro-stealing and anti-stealing responses are as follows:
Pro-Stealing: “He should steal it. Heinz has a duty to protect his wife’s life; it’s a vow he took in marriage. But it’s wrong to steal, so he would have to take the drug with the idea of paying the druggist for it and accept the penalty for breaking the law later.”
Anti-Stealing: “It’s a natural thing for Heinz to want to save his wife, but it’s still always wrong to steal. You have to follow the rules regardless of how you feel or regardless of the special circumstances. Even if his wife is dying, it’s still his duty as a citizen to obey the law. No one else is allowed to steal, why should he be? If everyone starts breaking the law in a jam, there’d be no civilization, just crime and violence.”
r conception of the function of societal laws as a whole, which exceeds the capacity of the stage 1 child.
Individuals in this level move beyond the unquestioning support for the rules and the laws of their own society, hence the name. The morality for such individuals is “in terms of abstract principles and values that apply to all situations and societies.” The individuals in this level of moral reasoning with
a pro-stealing answer to the Heinz dilemma, the reasoning being of course diﬀerent from the previous levels.
Stage 5 Social Contract and Individual Rights
then see the society from these perspectives.
The typical pro-stealing response is as follows:
Pro-Stealing: “Although there is a law against stealing, the law wasn’t meant to violate a person’s right to life. Taking the drug does violate the law, but Heinz is justiﬁed in stealing in this instance. If Heinz is prosecuted in stealing, the law needs to be reinterpreted to take into account situations in which it goes against people’s natural right to keep on living.”
The stage 5 people regard society is “best conceived as a social contract into which people freely enter to work toward the beneﬁt of all.” Even with some diﬀerences in the society the stage 5 people believe that rational people in the society would agree on some basic points. “First they would all want certain basic rights, such as liberty and life, to be protected, and second they would want some democratic procedures for changing unfair law and for improving society.
Pro-Stealing: “If Heinz does not do everything he can to save his wife, then he is putting some value higher that the value of life. It doesn’t make sense to put respect for property above the respect for life itself. [People] could live together without private property at all. Respect for human life and personality is absolute and accordingly [people] have a mutual duty to save one another from dying.”
from stage 6 is of civil disobedience. Stage 5 believe more in the democratic process so will be less willing to go in for a civil disobedience. The violation of the law is justiﬁed only when a right is at stake. In stage 6, in contrast, “a commitment to justice makes the rationale for civil disobedience
stronger and broader.”
In this section we brieﬂy consider the main theoretical issues regarding the theory. They include the developmental aspects of the theory, the Piagetian stage concept in the context of Kohlberg’s theory.
that are externally seen are a manifestation of one’s own thinking about moral problems.
Social experiences promote the development of moral thinking, by stimulating our mental processes. When we discuss with others, our view are challenged due to which we are force to think about ‘better’ positions that we can take. The stages of moral development reﬂect these broader viewpoints. Thus our interactions with the society and our own thought process combined gives us the ability to advance from one stage to the next.
As already mentioned Kohlberg being a close follower of Piaget, has taken the stage concept of Piagetian framework criteria very seriously. The following aspects of his theory are shown to be related to the Piagetian framework.
The qualitative diﬀerences in the diﬀerent stages is evident from the diﬀerent response that is given by the individuals in diﬀerent stages. Quantitatively the stages do not seem to have much diﬀerences.
ts this claim of the invariant stage sequence. But the data from the cross-sectional studies are
not conclusive, as a child at higher age could have possibly skipped some previous stage. To resolve this issue longitudinal studies were undertaken. In longitudinal studies the same children are tested regularly after a period of 3 – 4 years. Almost all children in one of the longitudinal study moved through stages without skipping. Another aspect of moral development is that it is very slow and gradual process.
hierarchically integrated, he means that people do not lose the insights gained at earlier stages, but integrate them into new, broader frameworks. Thia is a very important concept for Kohlberg because it explains the directional nature of the stage sequence. Since the stage sequence does not have a genetic blueprint, the previous stages must form a ‘platform’ for the next stages to emerge. Thus each new stage provides a broader framework for dealing with moral issues and is thus more cognitively adequate than the prior stage.
1), its usefulness to oneself (stage 2), the aﬀection it arouses in us (stage 3), or its value within a particular social order (stage 4). Stage 5 sub jects have abstracted this value from other considerations and now treat it as a purely moral ideal.”
to speciﬁc beliefs but to underlying modes of reasoning.”
that help the advancement of the stages are prevalent in the ‘technologically advanced’ societies, second that the method of evaluation is not suited for all cultures. This point is more elaborated upon later.
be the social diversity that is encountered in the college campuses, introduces the people to the issues involving political and cultural groups.
advancement in moral reasoning is related with many aspects of social behavior, particularly being more prosocial, this is consistent with Kohlberg’s prediction.
Kohlberg states that moral development depends on cognition and perspective taking in a very speciﬁc way. Each moral stage requires certain cognitive and perspective taking abilities but these abilities alone do not guarantee that moral development will occur. Thus these cognitive and perspective taking abilities are deemed to be necessary but not suﬃcient for the moral development of the individual.
In this section we consider some criticisms about the Kohlberg’s theory. The two main criticisms that the theory faces are of gender bias and of cross-cultural diﬀerences. The other include the facts that are already mentioned viz. that moral thought and behavior are diﬀerent. Also people tend to respond diﬀerently in real life and hypothetical situations [this particular aspect was seen during the presentation when asked about the moral dilemma regarding the help in exam]. The theory does not talk about moral development of very young children, where the methodology of moral dilemmas might not work very well. Also many researchers have questioned the very concept of a post conventional morality in Kohlberg’s formulation.
Females tend to score not very well on the Kohlberg’s scale of moral development, very few females actually went above stage 3 in terms of their scores. The fact that Kohlberg’s stages were obtained from interviews with males, and hence reﬂect a decidedly male orientation was pointed out by Carol
Gilligan a co-author and associate of Kohlberg. According to Gilligan the advance moral thought for males and females has diﬀerent ideals. For males the moral thought revolves around rules, rights and abstract principles, whereas for the females the moral thought revolves around interpersonal relations and the ethics of compassion and care. Thus the ‘scale’ of moral development has been ‘calibrated’ from a male perspective and it is improper to judge the moral development of females by this scale. In fact it has been found that the advanced moral thought revolves around rules, rights, and abstract principles.
apparent when real life situations are given instead of hypothetical dilemmas. Although the current evidence “indicates that justice and caring are not gender speciﬁc moralities, Gilligan’s work has had the eﬀect of broadening conceptions of the highly moral person.”
What Kohlberg has essentially done is that he has created a ‘moral yardstick’ with which he intends to measure the morality all the individuals in all cultures. Perhaps it might be the case that the aspects of morality that are rated very highly on Kohlberg’s scale are not considered to be signiﬁcant in some other cultures. And it might be the case that the moral dilemmas presented for evaluation altogether fail to capture the post-conventional morality present in diﬀerent cultures. The Kohlberg’s scale is highly Eurocentric [Western] and might fail to consider the aspects of morality that are alien to the European thought. For studying diﬀerent cultures this ‘moral yardstick’ needs to be ‘re-calibrated’ keeping in mind the particular culture to be studied. Also presenting the same moral dilemma setup in a totally European background might not be a useful idea, the dilemma also needs to be contextualized taking into account the particular culture under study.
The moral behavior and thinking in a society represent give us an insight into the philosophy and the culture of a society. The major inﬂuences that are responsible for the moral development of the individual according to Kohlberg are the parents, peers, education and the own thought process of the individual. The inﬂuence of religion is not at all considered in the Kohlberg’s developmental theory, whereas religion plays a signiﬁcant role in the development of children at least in the young age. In fact most of the moral judgments that the individuals make are deeply inﬂuenced by the religion they follow. In this regard the position of some religion will be diﬀerent than the other, so a follower of a particular religion will respond to the situation diﬀerently.
young children through stories and epics [mostly of Level I Morality according to Kohlberg’s scale ] and also through their social interactions. These interactions form the basis of the moral judgment that a child makes in the future, and removing these inﬂuences can be very hard, as they can be even found in adults. But these age old morality which religion practices might be in many cases totally out of context and in the comtemporary society not of much value. Even then these cannot be overcome even by adults. A very good example of this the ‘moral police’ that are abound in India and elsewhere. ‘What is moral,’ is interpreted from some twisted interpretation of the so called
‘cultural values.’ Most of these ‘moral police’ don’t seem to put any thought of their own to the issues they consider as ‘immoral,’ instead what somebody says is blindly followed without any remorse. On Kohlberg’s scale the so called ‘moral police’ will be at stage 1.
executed by George Bush to wage a war with Iraq, and ma jority of the American public ‘morally’ supported the war without putting their own thought to it. They would also score for stage 1 in Kohlberg’s stages. So the issues which really matter in one’s perception of the diﬀerent aspect needs to be taken into account when considering the moral stage of the individual. A person in the lower strata of the society might consider stealing from the society as morally justiﬁed [because it is due to society that he poor].
uding Rudyard Kipling regarded the Anglo-Saxon race as a race which was destined to rule, thus ‘morally justifying’ their atrocities against others. Thus it was a ‘moral responsibility’ of the British to rule India. We can hence see that the concept of being ‘morally right’ can be entirely context and time dependent.
became so frustrated by this ‘moral dilemma’ that even with all such military might they could not but defeat a non-violent revolt. The resolution of this ‘moral dilemma’ resulted in the ‘moral development’ of the British Empire, which thereafter lost its ‘moral right’ to rule the world.
The index of moral development that is presented by Kohlberg by presenting the subjects with a moral dilemma needs to be taken with respect to the broader social and cultural context that the particular individual represents so that any bias that is present can be eﬀectively eliminated.
 Laura Berk: Child Development 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall of India 1999
 W. C. Crain: Theories of Development Prentice Hall 1985
3 thoughts on “Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development”
Thank you! This is a great overview and critique.
You are welcome…
Thank you very much Damitr, this helped me a lot! Very interesting topic.