The Theory of Moral Development of Lawrence Kohlberg

Are all people moral? How does this human facet develop? These questions have been around the heads of thousands of people for centuries.


Are all people moral? How does this human facet develop? These questions have been around the heads of thousands of people for centuries, but moral development has also become a hot topic in both psychology and education, and so it continues to be today. Parental or social influences play a more important role in moral development? Do all children develop morality in a similar way?

One of the best-known theories that explores some of these basic questions was developed by a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg. Her work was modified and extended the work of Jean Piaget to explain how children develop a verbal reasoning. Piaget described a process of moral development in two stages, while Kohlberg’s theory of moral development described six stages on three different levels. Kohlberg extended Piaget’s theory, proposing that moral development is a continuous process that occurs throughout life.

┬áIn recent years, Kohlberg’s theory has been criticized for being a Western-centered male and for having a narrow worldview based on high-class value systems and perspectives.

The Heinz dilemma

Kohlberg based his theory on a series of moral dilemmas that were presented to these participants and they were also interviewed to determine the reasoning behind their judgments about each scenario.

An example was “Heinz steals the drug”. In this scenario, a woman has cancer and her doctors believe that only one drug could save her. This medication is discovered by a local pharmacist and can be obtained for $ 200 per dose but is sold for $ 2,000 per dose. The woman’s husband, Heinz, could only raise $ 1,000 to buy the medication. He tried to negotiate with the pharmacist for a lower price or receive an extended credit to pay for monthly payments. But the pharmacist refused to sell it for less or accept partial payments. Rejected, Heinz burst into the pharmacy and stole the drug to save his wife. Kohlberg asked: ‘Did the husband do well to do this?’

Kohlberg was not so interested in the answer to questioning if Heinz was wrong or not, but in the reasoning of the decision of each participant. The answers were then classified into several stages of reasoning in his theory of moral development.

Level 1. Preconventional morality

Stage 1: Orientation of punishment-obedience

The earliest stage of moral development, obedience and punishment is especially common in young children, but adults are also able to express this type of reasoning. At this stage, says Kohlberg, children see the rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid the bad consequences of their behavior.

This stage includes the use of punishment so that the person refrains from performing the action and continues to obey the rules. For example, we follow the law because we do not want to go to jail.

Stage 2: Instrumental relativistic orientation

In the stage of individualism and exchange of moral development, children represent individual points of view and judge actions according to how they meet individual needs. In Heinz’s dilemma, the children argued that the best course of action was the option that best met Heinz’s needs. Reciprocity is possible at this point of moral development, but only if it serves one’s own interests.

At this stage, it is said that the person judges the morality of an action according to how it satisfies the individual needs of the maker. For example, a person steals money from another person because they need that money to buy food for their hungry children.

Level 2. Conventional morality

Stage 3: Known as the orientation of: ‘good boy-good girl’

The stage of interpersonal relationships of moral development focuses on living up to social expectations and roles. There is an emphasis on conformity, being “nice” and considering how choices influence relationships with other people.

In this stage, a person judges an action based on the social roles and social expectations before them. This is also known as the “interpersonal relationships” phase. For example, a child gives his lunch to a poor child because he thinks he is a good boy.

Stage 4: Orientation of Law and Order

In this stage he focuses on maintaining social order. In this stage of moral development, people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments. The objective is to maintain the law and order following the rules, fulfilling the duty and respecting the authority. In this way a good social coexistence is promoted.

Level 3. Postconventional morality

Stage 5: Orientation of the social contract

In this stage people begin to realize the different values, opinions and beliefs of other people. The rules of the law are important for maintaining a society, but the members of society must agree on these standards.

Stage 6: orientation of universal ethical principles

Kohlberg’s last level of moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.

Criticisms of Kohlberg’s moral development

Kohlberg’s theory refers to moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what we should do in front of our real actions. Moral reasoning, therefore, may not lead to moral behavior. This is just one of the many criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory.

Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg’s theory of moral development exaggerates the concept of justice when making moral decisions. Factors such as compassion, caring and other interpersonal feelings can play an important role in moral reasoning.

Kolberg does not take into account that Eastern and collectivist cultures may have different perspectives on morality without that being inappropriate in their cultures. In addition, the majority of subjects in their studies were under 16 years old and had no relevant life experiences. Heinz’s dilemma may have been too abstract for these children to understand, and a scenario more applicable to his daily concerns might have led to different results.

Critics of this theory speak of gender bias because the study subjects were male. Kohlberg believed that women tended to remain at the third level of moral development because they put more emphasis on things like social relationships and the well-being of others. It was also thought that in this theory the terms of justice are exaggerated and that good moral reasoning is not addressed.

The Theory of Moral Development of Lawrence Kohlberg
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