Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development: A Complete Guide

As parents, we are concerned about our child’s moral development. Our aim is to teach children the differences between what is right and what is wrong. Is it right to cheat in the exam? Is it correct to use a friend’s assignment to win the competition? Can one tell a lie to save oneself from the punishment?

All these are moral questions that we think about as adults and realize that such questions are quite confusing in nature. In this article, we will understand Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and its application.

Advanced Psychology

What is Moral Development?

Moral Development is nothing but change in one’s ability to reason about what is right and what is wrong in a given situation. Thus, Moral development is a challenging issue for deciding that a particular action is acceptable or unacceptable depending upon various factors.

These could include the given situations, personal codes of ethics, society, culture, parental guidance, etc. Given this, how do children make moral judgments? Do they adopt similar reasoning for judging various events morally as adults?

These questions are answered by the concept of moral development in psychology. While there are many theories of moral development that have been proposed by different psychologists. But the most popular one is Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development theory proposed in the year 1958.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg builds on the views presented by Jean Piaget on how moral development takes place in children. He revealed that gaining moral maturity happens eventually, that is, over a long period of time.

Lawrence Kohlberg took only boys or men in the sample to study and suggest his theory. He proclaimed that human beings move through three different levels of moral reasoning each of which is further divided into two separate phases.

Now, to determine what stage of moral development had participants reached, Lawrence Kohlberg used to ask them to think of imaginary situations that could lead to moral dilemmas for the participants involved.

After imagining these situations, the participants were asked to specify the path that they would adopt and the reasoning as to why they would adopt such a course of action.

According to Kohlberg, it is not the path adopted but the participant’s explanation or reasoning that he or she took such a decision that was responsible for understanding at what stage of moral development the participant was?

Thus, in order to develop this theory, Lawrence Kohlberg used a series of moral dilemmas and one of them is the very famous Heinz Dilemma.

Kohlberg’s Heinz Dilemma

There was a woman in Europe who was about to die from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that doctors concluded could save her from dying. This drug was invented recently by a druggist who resided in the same town.

The drug was certainly very expensive to make. However, the druggist was charging US$2000, which was ten times what the drug cost him to make. Heinz, who was the dying woman’s husband, went to every possible person he knew so that he could borrow the money needed for the drug.

However, Heinz was able to get only US$1,000 which was half the cost. So Heinz pleaded with the druggist to either sell him at a lesser price or allow him to pay later. But the druggist refused.

Heinz, desperate to save his wife, broke into the druggist’s store so that he could steal the drug for his dying wife. Now, should Heinz have done that?

As stated earlier, Lawrence Kohlberg’s focus was not on the decisions that the participants took. In this case, if they say a no or a yes. However, he was keener to know the reasoning behind the answers participants gave.

Accordingly, he wanted to know why a particular participant thinks Heinz should have or should not have stolen the drug?

Much like this, many more dilemmas are given to the participants so as to get a better understanding of their moral thinking.

What is Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development?

Based on Kohlberg’s research on moral development, Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development have been identified each of which was categorized into three separate levels.

  • Preconventional Morality

    This is the first level of moral development known as pre-conventional Morality. At this level, children judge morality largely on the basis of the outcomes or the consequences of the actions taken.

    Thus, actions that result in rewards are taken as good or acceptable. Whereas, actions that lead to punishment are taken as bad or unacceptable.

    Accordingly, a child at the pre-conventional morality stage of moral development would say that the man should not have stolen the drug as stealing would lead to punishment.

    Under this level, the first two stages of Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory are categorized which are as follows:

    1. Punishment and Obedience Orientation

      This is the first stage of Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory under Preconventional Morality. In this stage, a child judges morality on the basis of the consequences of the course of action that he takes.

      He assumes that the higher authorities lay down certain rules which he needs to obey.

      Thus, when it comes to Heinz Dilemma, the child at this stage of moral development usually says that it would be wrong on the part of Heinz to steal, for stealing is bad as it leads to punishment and is against law.

      Thus, for the child, it is only the consequence of the course of action is all that exists. Whenever he would be asked to give the reasoning, he would always say in terms of consequences (good or bad) that a particular course of action would lead to.

      Now, the majority of children who are at this stage of moral development would want Heinz should not steal. However, there is a possibility for a child to support Heinz stealing and yet use this stage’s reasoning.

      For instance, he may say that Heinz should not be punished for stealing as that drug is not that valuable a thing that he is stealing. Although the kid is supporting Heinz’s act of stealing, he is bothered about what the higher authorities allow and punish for.

      This is called the Preconventional morality stage because children do not know how to speak. Thus, they take morality as obedience to rules that elderly people set.

    2. Naive Hedonistic Orientation

      Unlike the previous stage, children at this stage identify that there is not just one view that the higher authorities put forth. Rather different individuals have different viewpoints.

      So some children might say that Heinz is right in stealing the drug because both Heinz and his wife had children and thus wife was needed at home to take care of them.

      Or maybe, Heinz should not steal the drug as he would put to prison for more years than he could probably take.

      Thus, children understand that since different higher authorities have varying viewpoints, morality can be judged in terms of one’s individual interest.

      So what is right for Heinz to do is based on what satisfies one’s needs or that of others. Now, children both at stage 1 and stage 2 decide morality in terms of punishment/obedience.

      However, it is understood differently in both stages. In the previous stage, punishment is connected to the wrong act. So the concept of punishment says that disobedience is wrong.

      Whereas in stage 2, punishment is not restricted to wrongness. It’s simply a risk that obviously no one would want to take. Participants at Stage 2 might seem to be unethical or ones without morals. However, they do possess a sense of right action.

      Participants at this stage apply the philosophy of exchanging favors. Thus, to Heinz’s story, they might say that it is right on Heinz’s part to steal as the druggist was trying to overcharge and thus rob Heinz.

      Or they may say that he should steal because his wife may return such favor in the future. Participants at this stage are still at the pre-conventional Morality Level because they talk as independent individuals instead of a part of the society.

      They see morality in terms of individuals returning favors but they do not identify with family or community values.

  • Conventional Level

    Lawrence Kohlberg Theory proposes that as and when children’s cognitive abilities develop, they come under the second stage of moral development, that is, the Conventional Level.

    At this stage, children become aware of the complexities of the social order. Hence, they see morality in terms of what protects or maintains the laws or the rules of society.

    Thus, to Heinz Dilemma, children at this stage of moral development might say that it’s right on Heinz’s part to steal the drug because no one in the society would take it to be bad for Heinz is stealing the drug to save his wife. In fact, if Heinz does not steal, he would never be able to talk to anyone in society.

    1. Good Boy Good Girl Orientation

      Children at this stage of moral development are typically in their teenage. For them, morality is more than merely exchanging favors. They are of the view that one should meet the expectations of community and family and behave in a proper or a good manner.

      What is good behavior according to them? Good Behavior refers to possessing good intentions (positive intentions) and interpersonal feelings like empathy, love, trust, and concern for others.

      To Heinz Dilemma, they say that he was right in stealing the drug as he was a good man who wanted to save his dying wife.

      In other words, Heinz had a positive motive attached to stealing the drug. That is, saving the life of a dear one whom he loves.

      These participants further say that even if Heinz did not love his wife, he should still steal the drug and save her as no husband would watch his wife dying and do nothing.

      Thus, if Heinz had a good intention of saving his wife, the druggist had a bad intent of overcharging Heinz for the drug. Therefore, participants consider the druggist to be only concerned about his interest, greedy, and selfishness.

      In fact, some of the participants lose their nerves to the extent that they desire to put the druggist in jail.

      Thus, participants at this stage of moral development typically identify morality in terms of intentions as well as the character traits of the individuals involved.

      In Heinz’s case, they talk about Heinz’s good intentions and label the druggist as greedy because they think that anyone in the society in place of Heinz would have done the same and would be right in doing so.

      So, at this stage of moral development, children identify morality in terms of following the social rules or laws with regard to one’s personal acquaintances.

    2. Social Order Maintaining Orientation

      As states in the previous stage, the Good Boy Good Girl reasoning functions with regards to one’s close relationships, that is, family, friends, and acquaintances.

      These are the close relationships in which one can understand the feelings and requirements of the other person and thus act accordingly.

      But when it comes to the social order maintaining orientation, the individual is not restricted to just the personal acquaintances, but the entire community or society.

      That is, he or she judges morality in terms of social rules or laws but these rules apply to all universally not just applying to one’s close relationships.

      Therefore, one gives importance to obeying the rules, laws, giving respect to the higher authorities so that the social order is kept intact.

      To Heinz Dilemma, many at this stage of moral development typically say that they agree Heinz has a good motive for saving his wife but they cannot accept theft.

      Accepting Heinz’s act of theft would mean giving the right to everyone to go against the rules.

      If everyone thought that they could break the rules if they had good intentions, it would result in a chaotic society.

      Thus, people cannot do whatever they feel is right or wrong according to their own personal beliefs for that would disturb the social order.

      There has to be some central structure that society needs to abide by. Now, you would say that participants both at Stage I and Stage IV are giving the same response, that is, they are rejecting Heinz’s act of stealing because it is against the law.

      Now, this is why Lawrence Kohlberg emphasized on the explanation given for the answer and not the answer itself to understand the moral reasoning of an individual.

      At Stage I, children simply oppose Heinz’s act of stealing and give the reason that it is against the law. So it is punishable. They are not able to explain further as to why such an act should lead to punishment.

      On the other hand, children at Stage IV get an understanding that when it comes to social rules or laws, they are applicable universally.

      As stated earlier, if Heinz gets the right to steal, it gives the right to every person of the society to do what he feels is good or bad based on the reason that he did it out of good intent.

      Stage IV reasoning, thus, is far advanced as compared to the Stage I reasoning.

  • Postconventional Level

    During adolescence or early adulthood, the individuals typically enter the final stage of moral development known as the Post Conventional Level.

    At this stage, people see morality in terms of abstract principles or values in place of the existing rules or social laws.

    Individuals who reach this stage typically understand that there exist certain obligations and values that are above the social laws.

    Therefore, the rules that they adopt are abstract and ethical in nature and are based on one’s inner conscience instead of external sources of authority like the law.

    Participants at this stage typically say that Heinz should steal the drug for human life is above all property and that if he is not stealing the drug then he is putting property above human life.

    Individuals can stay without private property and not without respect for human life. However, the participants who oppose Heinz’s act of stealing at this stage of moral development give the reason that other people would not blame Heinz for doing such an act.

    Rather, it is Heinz’s inner conscience that would compel him to blame himself or go against his own standards of honesty and cause harm to some other person for one’s personal interest.

  1. Legalistic Orientation

    As far as Stage IV was concerned, individuals wanted to maintain the social order and hence applied moral principles universally to all.

    The motive was to let the society operate uninterruptedly but it is not necessary that the society that functions uninterruptedly is a good society.

    A society that is good in all respects must be the one that is organized properly. Thus, in this stage, individuals start thinking about what all factors make for a good society.

    They not only think in terms of their own society, rather they start considering what rights and values they should support so that it leads to a good society.

    Once they establish the values and the rights that a good society must support, they start analyzing their own society with respect to such considerations.

    Therefore, they take a “prior to society” perspective. Participants in this stage of moral development see a good society as a social agreement freely entered into by people to work towards the good of all.

    Participants at this stage are of the view that people belonging to different social groups would certainly have varying values. However, all reasonable people would agree to two things:

    • They would want their basic rights such as liberty and life to be safeguarded.
    • They would have in place certain democratic processes in order to alter any unjustified law for the betterment of society.

    To Heinz Dilemma, participants at this stage of moral development would say that they typically do not support going against the Law. This is because again laws are social agreements which they agree to follow till the time such laws are changed adopting democratic ways.

    But a wife has a moral life to live and such a moral life must be safeguarded. They are of the view that it is the husband’s duty to protect his wife’s life. The very thing that the wife is on the verge of dying is above all the parameters that one may make use of to judge Heinz’s morality.

    Thus, participants at this stage talk about morality in terms of human rights that are considered to be above the law. Hence, Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development suggest that it is important to see the social view and the reasoning of the participants in order to understand if they are at Stage V of Moral Development.

    When it comes to Stage IV, the participants talk about the right to their life as well but such a right is legalized by the social or the religious group they belong to.

    In other words, if their social group gave importance to the property over life, they would follow the same. Opposed to this, participants at Stage V are thinking independently of any authority to lay out what things any society should support or value.

    Thus, they are making use of logic to decide what society should support or be like.

  2. Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

    When it comes to Stage V, people are trying to understand what factors lead to a good society.

    As stated above, they understand that a good society is the one that safeguards their rights and lays down democratic processes to change unjustified laws.

    In contrast to Stage V, Stage VI participants judge morality in terms of self-chosen ethical principles. They are of the view that democratic procedures solely do not lead to justified outcomes.

    Therefore, according to Lawrence Kohlberg Theory, Stage VI of moral development is a stage that lays down principles through which one achieves justice.

    Now, Lawrence Kohlberg understood justice the same way as the great leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther did.

    According to these moral leaders, justice meant treating everyone in an impartial manner and respecting the basic dignity of all individuals.

    Furthermore, they were of the view that the principles of justice must apply to all equally. In other words, justice meant impartiality and respecting each individual’s dignity.

    According to Lawrence Kohlberg Theory, one can take just decisions by seeing a particular situation through each other’s eyes.

    To Heinz Dilemma, this would translate to the three entities, that is, the druggist, Heinz’s wife, and Heinz himself looking at the situation from each person’s perspective.

    In other words, they need to take the roles of each other and just to ensure that there is no impartiality, they should act in a way that they do not know which role each of them will ultimately assume.

    If for instance, the druggist adopted such an approach, he would understand that life must be valued over the property. This is because he would never want that if he would have been at the place of Heinz’s wife, he would see someone valuing property over life.

    In such a way, all the three entities would therefore agree to the fact that Heinz’s wife must be saved as this would be a justified solution.

    As stated above, such a solution not only requires impartiality on the part of the entities involved but also the understanding that each individual’s dignity must be respected.

    In this case, if Heinz’s wife would not have been given due respect or would have been less valued as compared to others, the entities would not have been able to reach a just solution.

    Therefore, one thing that differentiates Stage V from Stage VI is civil disobedience, that is, refusal by an individual to obey certain laws in a civil or a non-violent way.

    Participants of Stage V would find it difficult to support civil disobedience because they are committed to social contracts and believe in changing the laws via democratic processes.

    Stage V participants consider breaking a law to be a just act only when the rights of individuals are challenged. In Stage VI, as opposed to Stage V, civil disobedience is promoted as participants are committed to justice.

    For example, Martin Luther was of the view that laws are valid only if they are based on justice. Thus, one’s commitment to justice comes with the duty to disobey unjust laws.

Importance of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

As stated above, one of the major issues with parents is to teach their children how to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. Thus, moral development is extremely important for living entities.

It is an important aspect of society for moral development related to the way individuals learn what society considers good and bad.

As individuals, we need to learn the skill of distinguishing the good from the bad for the seamless functioning of society.

Since it is impossible to keep a check on individuals all the time, we need to depend on individuals to pursue the right thing.

Now, till the time the individuals do not learn what is right and what is wrong, it would not be possible for them to undertake the right actions as doing the right thing is something that the individuals do not learn by birth.

It is an eventual process, that is, they need to learn to distinguish right from wrong from a tender age.

Read More: Arousal Theory of Motivation

Educational Implications of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development has come into the notice of educators across the globe. Many of them see Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development as a response to the confusion they had regarding moral education.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development lays down an exhaustive approach that allows one to understand the moral maturity of an individual and at the same time provides a process through which the moral development of an individual can be further enhanced.

The concerns on which Kohlberg has laid emphasis in his theory have important implications for education which are as follows:

  1. Application of General Learning Principles

    It is important to note that Kohlberg’s Theory was based on concepts that were neither completely unknown to teachers nor were increasingly new. Instead, he applied general learning principles with regard to the moral growth of an individual.

    For instance, from the idea of readiness for learning, he designed a theoretical as well as a practical framework that he claimed was the foundation for understanding and encouraging moral development.

    Further, Kohlberg made use of the Problem Solving approach for identifying the level of moral development of an individual as well as for its further enhancement.

    He used moral dilemmas, that is, situations where the right or wrong moral decision is not explicit. Thus, through these moral dilemmas, Kohlberg directed his participants towards moral reasoning.

    Now, while in the process of reaching a proper solution for a particular dilemma, the participant analyzed in detail his current level of moral development.

    In addition to this, he was also vulnerable to a higher level of reasoning so that he could reach a proper solution to the dilemma.

    Thus, the imbalance created by the moral dilemma and the vulnerability to higher levels of moral reasoning, lead a person towards a more proper solution and also gave him a just and a fair framework which he could use to solve the future problems.

    Therefore through these general principles, Lawrence Kohlberg was able to come out with a framework for moral development. This made moral educators understand the importance of readiness to learn and problem-solving in the moral development of an individual.

  2. Educating Students How To Think?

    Through the moral dilemma approach, Lawrence Kohlberg taught children how to think? Teaching students how to think typically must be the goal of formal education.

    Therefore, through an imaginary situation, students were asked to:

    • Understand the details of the moral dilemma given
    • Point out important concerns,
    • Use past learning to solve the problem at hand
    • Come up with various decisions that they would take
    • Check the accuracy of the alternative decisions
    • Come up with the most appropriate solution to the problem

    Thus, through this moral dilemma method, Kohlberg proposes to apply cognitive thinking for the moral development of individuals.

  3. Focus On Student Activity and Discovery

    The moral dilemma approach used by Lawrence Kohlberg encourages student engagement and activity. Such an approach does not simply involve teachers spelling out moral principles and thus looking forward to student’s understanding and agreeing to them.

    Instead, teachers put the students in various situations, and in place of telling them the moral principles themselves, they promote students to come forward with their understanding of moral dilemmas.

    This means that teachers act as facilitators wherein they simply disclose the details of the moral dilemma to the students and then assist them so that they can engage students properly.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development Examples

The following table describes the Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development Examples Stage Wise:

Serial No.Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development StagesKohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development Examples
Preconventional Level


Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation

Stage 2: Naive Hedonistic Orientation (exchanging favors)

“I can’t break the school rules as I would be punished.”


“I’ll help you with your school project if you help me clean this area now.”

Conventional Level


Stage 3: Good Boy-Good Girl Orientation

Stage 4: Social Order-Maintaining Orientation

“I can’t tell you her secret as she will hate me for that.”


“You cannot go there without wearing a facemask as it is prohibited by the government.”

Post-Conventional Stage


Stage 5: Legalistic Orientation

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles Orientation

“This rule may not apply in this case. It’s wrong to apply this rule here.”


“One should not cheat as this is against general ethics.


What are the main criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development?

The following are the major concerns of Kohlberg’s reasoning:

  • Self is Intrinsically Entirely Good

    Kohlberg in his theory assumes that the nature of the ‘Self’ that controls and makes use of the cognitive system is intrinsically entirely good.

    The natural human tendency to undergo aggression, self-deception, narcissism, and exploitation of others is simply not recognized in this theory.

    The very notion that human beings have an autonomously good self is highly unrealistic.

    Many psychologists like Sigmund Freud have already proposed that unconscious violence, envy, and deceptiveness often lie underneath the conscious thought of human beings.

    They suggest that the very idea that the conscious self knows the underlying reason for what it does is an illusion.

    Studying the various events in human history such as the Holocaust, the increase in racism, and violence based on hatred, psychologists have concluded that it is quite hard to describe the human self as completely good.

    Besides this, many psychologists also observed that humans also have a strong natural tendency for aggression. And this tendency often makes humans unjust.

    Then some social psychologists suggested that humans suffer from “Self-Serving Bias”. That is, the tendency to see oneself in a favorable light often to the disadvantage of others.

    So, it’s quite typical of humans to give credit to their efforts when achieving success and blaming others when experiencing a failure.

    Therefore, the implied argument that there is no natural human tendency to evil in itself questions Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development.

  • Theory Expresses Masculine View of Morality

    Kohlberg Moral Development Theory presents the masculine view of morality. One of Kohlberg’s colleagues, Carol Gilligan noted that the initial study was undertaken by Kohlberg in 1958 and it was run only on young American male subjects.

    However, the study was generalized to all human beings in all the eras. Also, Carol Gilligan claimed that Kohlberg was fixated on male values such as rationality, individuality, and liberality.

    Such an obsession with male values was the reason behind adult females being placed at the lower stages of moral development as compared to males.

    That is, females were restricted to Stage 3 of Moral Development whereas males tended to be closer to Stage 4.

    However, Kohlberg, along with other psychologists proclaimed that the difference between the level of moral development in males and females was quite small.

    Furthermore, even when the difference was significant, the psychologists claimed that it was due to males being more educated compared to the low scoring females.

    Thus, according to Kohlberg, the scores about moral development for men and women would be equal if the factors like education, job status, and other environmental factors are constant.

    Carol Gilligan explained the very reasons as to why women adopt a different approach towards resolving the moral problems relative to the men.

    Gilligan revisited Heinz’s dilemma and proclaimed that the dilemma itself changes with the possible outcomes of the dilemma. That is, Heinz would either let his wife die or he kills the druggist and is in jail brutalized by the violence.

    Now, the resolution of the dilemma is not concerned with whose life is important, that is the druggist or Heinz’s Wife. Rather it now depends on the fact that the continuation of one’s life is dependent on the sacrifice of the other.

    So, given this, it becomes clear that the women focus on the issue of sacrifice and why guilt becomes inevitable for them irrespective of what the resolution is?

    Women incline to reconstruct hypothetical dilemmas into real-life situations. They see the situation from the nature of the people.

    This shifts their judgment away from hierarchical principles and the formal procedures of decision making. However, these principles and procedures are important for scoring better at Kohlberg’s highest stages.

    About the Heinz Dilemma, women believe that the violence inherent in the dilemma would compromise the justice in any of the probable resolutions.

    Thus, women recast the moral judgment from consideration of the good to a choice between evils.

    Gilligan rightly pointed out that Kohlberg focused only on justice and ignored the moral worth of other principles like caring or having mercy.

    So, despite the effective critique put forth by Gilligan, Kohlberg did not modify his moral development theory.

    This is because if he would have considered including new principles like caring, having mercy, empathy, and interpersonal sensitivity, he would have compromised to the adherence to his abstract cognitive representation of moral development.

  • Rejection of Moral Relativism

    Kohlberg’s Theory of Development rejected the very idea of moral relativism, that is, differences in moral judgments across different peoples and their own particular cultures. He believed that there are certain rational principles of judgment that are valid across all cultures.

    Kohlberg emphasized that when it comes to understanding morality, the concept of cognitive flexibility and differentiation in the mental structure of children across cultures does not hold true.

    Psychologists like Jean Piaget while proposing the Stages of Cognitive Development propounded that there exists greater cognitive flexibility and differentiation. Also, the higher a child moves the developmental phases, the greater ability he gets to present correct answers.

    This is because such a child gets a better understanding of the externalities and objective truth such as the truth about logic or an understanding of the perceptual reality.

    However, Kohlberg ridiculed such external or objective possibilities. He explained that when a person is at the lower stage of moral development, he discovers that the moral questions seem too complex and too confusing to him with regard to the concepts that he currently makes use of.

    Thus, this compels the person to work on harmonizing the hidden and explicit aspects of intellectual activity and their consistency in the production of new knowledge; achieve new levels of understanding and self-understanding.

    This is known as the process of cognitive integration. Now, this process leads an individual to develop a new set of principles that give him the capability to handle moral issues.

    Thus, as and when the individual reaches a new and higher stage in the developmental process, he acquires new knowledge and understanding. This new knowledge allows the individual to resolve contradictory beliefs and ideas which is further supported by role-taking.

    Role taking means the tendency to react to others as one would react to oneself, that is, entering into the shoes of others and then reacting. Such an attitude helps the individual to develop a natural concern for fairness and justice.

    In addition to this, Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory proposed that this cognitive adequacy is value-neutral. This means that Kohlberg did not claim that this role taking tendency and the pattern of reasoning that comes along are good.

    He suggested these are a part of the natural developmental characteristics of the human mind just like the other forms of natural growth and development.

    But, despite holding a neutral view on the development of such values, he had quite contradictory ideas related to the matter. For instance, he proposed that children at each stage of moral development understand the basic values like the value of human life and hence empathize with others.

    This means that people at different stages of moral development recognize that life is good. Thus, Kohlberg had the tendency to move between the neutral description of morality, to valuing things like life, to role-taking, to the value of development per se, is a common confusion.

    So, it is clear that Kohlberg proposes that morality is relative to some principle and there is no way to choose correct or incorrect principles. He considers that there is no absolute moral basis for making a moral judgment about the principles of morality.

    This means that though he was consistently denying the validity of moral relativism, he himself comes down to promoting morality relativism.

    However, Lawrence Kohlberg Theory does defend the principle of justice on the basis of some external parameters. These include:

    • The principle of justice is universal in nature. That is, it applies to all persons and actions.
    • This Principle is prescriptive, that is, it states what needs to be done.
    • The Principle of Justice is autonomous or works independently as it does not demand anything from any authority as far as moral matters are concerned.

    Thus, if Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development describe the Principle of Justice as the highest order in the natural moral development of an individual, there is a challenge in such a proposition.

    This is because there are some other sets of principles that fulfill such requirements but are ignored by Kohlberg. These include the Principle of Utility, the Principle of Mercy, and the Principle of Responsible Love.

  • No Moral Responsibility

    One of the challenges faced by Lawrence Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development is the very way in which cognitive and moral development takes place in an individual.

    Kohlberg gives no logic with regards to holding a person responsible for his moral choices. This means that if an individual is inadequately morally developed, he cannot be held responsible for making bad choices.

    There are many people who are born and brought up in an environment wherein their moral development does not take place adequately. That is, they are not mentally endowed to reach higher stages of moral development.

    As per Kohlberg’s Theory, if superior moral life is dependent on complex moral development, how can an individual be blamed for his moral failures?

    There are many individuals who score at Stages 1, 2, or 3. Is it really their fault? Is Kohlberg trying to propose people who are criminals score lower just at moral cognition?

    This weakness of Lawrence Kohlberg Theory is one of the reasons that compelled Kohlberg to acknowledge that direct teaching of right or wrong is mandatory in the actual classroom setting.

    Thus, by acknowledging such a fact, Lawrence Kohlberg departed from his rigid non-judgmental cognitive approach.

  • Lawrence Kohlberg’s Atheism

    Kohlberg stated that if any individual made an appeal to the Principles or Rules, it was equivalent to making an appeal to God. This means that if a person reached Stage 4 of moral development, he was considered authoritative.

    Thus, Kohlberg placed the authority of an autonomous individual instead of the authority of God at the center of his theory.

    This means that Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is atheistic in its understanding of the moral life. Such an assumption is made by Kohlberg on non-empirical and non-rational grounds.

    Thus, Kohlberg’s Theory does not support the very religious idea that true freedom comes from freedom from the ‘Self’ and its “Narcissism”. That is obedience to the ‘Self’ and the obedience to God both mean obedience to authority.

    But Kohlberg assumed that obedience to the Self was higher to the obedience to God. This belief of presuming the Self to be authoritative is a cultural norm and belongs to Stage 3 and Stage 4.

    The modern critics consider the assumption of the Self to be authoritative as false. This means that Kohlberg’s belief can be viewed as the consequence of the influence of the mid 20th American Secular Social environment.

    Furthermore, it is not clear how Kohlberg considered the presumed autonomous self to be a moral standard that falls in Stage 4, that is, caring for the community. That is, to Kohlberg, a conviction in the sacredness of life and the ideology of God’s presence in everyone is equivalent to a moral standard that comes under Stage 4.

  • Rejection of Non-Verbal Aspects of Human Psychology

    Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development Theory is based on an assumption that the moral life of an individual is driven by rational, logical, or cognitive factors. That is, human rationality in terms of verbal aspects is important for the moral development of an individual.

    However, this common tendency of many theorists like Kohlberg of overlooking the intrinsic or non-verbal aspects of human psychology has been criticized over the years.

    If one observes carefully, Kohlberg completely ignores the powerful emotional and non-verbal determinants of moral development.

    A few psychologists proclaim that a child as young as one year has the ability to showcase compassion and other prosocial behaviors. There is evidence that proves that the ability to showcase empathy as well as feeling for others starts at a very young age.

    Such empathetic behavior leads to selflessness even among some one-year-olds. But as per Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and Jean Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development, children as young as one year are cognitively underdeveloped and hence lack the capacity to think about doing good.

    That means they are entirely selfish. However, psychologists like Hoffman propose that children have empathy and selflessness at a very early age. Even, the interpersonal foundation of women’s moral thought in the Gilligan theory of Moral Development supported by the very idea of empathy.

    This means that Kohlberg proposes that the moral life of younger children is inadequate. However, the emergence of strong evidence for empathy as the foundation of early moral life acts as a strong criticism of Kohlberg’s Stage I.

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Jean Piaget was of the view that watching children playing games and asking them questions provided a realistic understanding of how moral development took place in children.

Piaget’s Techniques to Study Moral Development in Children

Jean Piaget closely studied the moral development in children by adopting two different techniques.

  1. Studying Children Playing Games

    The first technique involved Piaget studying children while playing a game. He studied boys playing the game of ‘marbles’ and girls playing ‘hide-and-seek’ to understand how morality developed in children. In this, he let children explain to him the rules of the game. This helped Piaget understand how children themselves understood the rules and how children from various age groups related to the rules.

  2. Narrating a Short Story

    The second approach used to study moral understanding was that of narrating a short story to children. In the story, Piaget would describe some kind of misbehavior either by a child or by an adult.

    He would then provide children with possible corrective actions and ask them to choose from the actions the ones that could be suggested to the offender. He would also ask children to point out the actions that were fair and just and that which were not and why.

    Then, he would differentiate between the punishment strategies of ‘Expiation’ and ‘Reciprocity’.

    ‘Expiation’ referred to some kind of penal punishment like spanking or confinement. ‘Reciprocity’ meant that the child must be shown the outcome of his or her neglect. In other words, contrary to expiation, the child must clearly understand the need to behave cooperatively.

Moral Judgements in Children

Piaget revealed that when it comes to moral judgments in children, they think morally in terms of:

  • Moral Heteronomy (4 to 7 years)

    Moral heteronomy is also called as moral realism. Piaget suggested that younger children, aged 4 to 7 years, saw morality in terms of rules that are fixed by authorities like parents, school, law, etc.

    They believe that these rules are absolute and unchangeable and breaking these rules would invite severe punishment. Thus, guilt is determined by the degree to which these rules are broken and not by the intention or reasons behind such a behavior.

    Thus, in the eyes of these younger children, a bigger loss is worse than a small loss inflicted with bad intent.

  • Moral Autonomy (9 to 10 years)

    This is the kind of moral judgment that comes later, typically around 10 years. This is the age when children understand that rules are formulated based on mutual consent for underlying reasons for equality and justice.

    Unlike Moral Heteronomy, older children think that rules are not fixed and can be altered when need be. At this age, children are able to see rules from the point of view of society or other children or adults.

    Thus, Jean Piaget observed that younger children were not able to see rules from a broader perspective. That is, they considered rules to be absolute and egocentrism played its part.

    He also observed that stages of moral development in children are not distinct. Children are able to make certain autonomous moral judgments before others.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development Ages

The developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget. Kohlberg was one of the first researchers to study moral development in children.

He presented children with short stories of moral dilemmas and asked them to make moral judgments about the behavior of the main character of the story. Thus, by studying reasons provided by the experimental subjects, he laid out three different levels of moral development, each level having two stages.

The following table provides a snapshot of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development together with the ages.

Serial No.Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral DevelopmentAge
Preconventional Level


Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation

Stage 2: Naive Hedonistic Orientation (exchanging favors)

From 2 – 3 yrs to 5 – 6 yrs


From 5 – 7 yrs and up to 9 yrs in some cases

Conventional Level


Stage 3: Good Boy-Good Girl Orientation

Stage 4: Social Order-Maintaining Orientation

From 7 – 12 yrs


From 10 – 15 yrs

Post-Conventional Stage


Stage 5: Legalistic Orientation

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles Orientation

Starts from 12 yrs


16 yrs and above


Gilligan Theory of Moral Development

Carol Gilligan proposed that Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was biased towards men. This is because Lawrence Kohlberg studied moral thinking only in some of the privileged white men and boys.

She proposed that women appear to be deficient in moral development when measured on Kohlberg’s scale of morality. Women’s moral judgment represented the third stage in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

At this stage, morality is understood in interpersonal terms and good behavior meant having good intentions and having feelings of compassion, love, and empathy. Thus, traits that conventionally define the goodness of a woman are the ones that make women lacking in moral development as per Kohlberg’s theory.

In contrast to this, Gilligan believed that women faced a lot of psychological issues. Women’s perspective on moral development involved caring which impacted human relationships.

Therefore, she proposed a theory that has the same three stages as that in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Accordingly, the stages may have the same names, but they vary in the method.

Gilligan Theory of Moral Development Stages

  • Pre-conventional Level

    At this stage, a person is concerned for oneself and is bothered about one’s own survival. Thus, a person’s attitude might be selfish, but this is a transition phase. That is the person figures out the connection between oneself and others.

  • Conventional Level

    In this stage of moral development, the person feels responsible and feels for others. According to Gilligan, such moral thinking can be found in mothers and wives. Although at times it may also lead to forgetting oneself in the process of feeling for others.

  • Post-conventional Level

    At this stage, a person agrees with the principle of accepting oneself as well as others. But, some people may never reach this level of moral development.

    Lawrence Kohlberg held that women can never reach the Post-conventional level of moral development. But as per Gilligan’s findings, women find it difficult to attain this level for they care for the relationships.

    Thus, Gilligan proposed that the post-conventional level of moral development can be tackled based on two types of thinking. These are care-based morality, found in women, and justice-based morality, found in men.

Two Types of Thinking

  • Care-based Morality

    This is the kind of morality found in women. Care-based morality is based on the principles of:

    • Interconnected relationships
    • Justice that lays emphasis on avoiding violence
    • Helping other people
    • Worrying less about matters of fairness for women are connected to their mothers
  • Justice-based Morality

    This is the kind of moral thinking found in men. Justice-based morality is based on the principles of:

    • The world is made of independent individuals who communicate with each other
    • Justice which means avoiding inequality
    • Safeguarding individuality
    • More worried about inequality as men have the need of distinguishing themselves from their mothers.
Advanced Psychology