Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development:


Kohlberg’s model is the most influential of a number of competing theories that explained that how youngsters develop their sense of right and wrong. He modified and expanded upon Jean Piaget’s work who theorized that moral development is determined by cognitive development.

Kohlberg’s theory is based on moral reasoning rather than on overt behaviour. He presented his subjects with moral dilemmas and asked them what the actors in the dilemma should do and most importantly, Why.

The following is a summary of one of the dilemmas Kohlberg presented.

The Heinz Dilemma:

“A woman in Europe was near death and only one druggist had the medicine to save her. The druggist was charging too much and the husband was unable to afford the medicine, got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the rug for his wife should the husband has done that?

The answer Kohlberg was not interested in, that whether Heinz was right or wrong but in the reasoning of each participant’s he classified his theory into various stages of moral development.”


Kohlberg classified his theory into three levels and each level is further broken down to stages.

Level1. Pre-conventional Morality (4-10 years)

Stage 1 Obedience and Punishment orientation:

In stage 1, right and wrong is determined by what is punished. The child assumes that powerful authority hand down fixed set of rules which he or she must unquestionably obey. To the Heinz dilemma, the child typically says that Heinz was wrong to steal the drug because “it’s against the law or “it’s bad to steal” as if this were all these were to it.”

Stage: 2 Naïve Reward Orientation:

In stage 2, right and wrong is determined by what is rewarded. At this stage, children take into consideration their own individual interests and based their actions to actions to best serve their interests. In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best served Heinz’s needs.

Level 2 Conventional Morality (10-13) years.

Stage 3 Good boy/Bad boy orientation:

Right and wrong is determined by other’s approval or disapproval. Children at this stage believe that people should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in “good” ways. In the Heinz dilemma they would argue that Heinz was right to steal the drug because “he was a good man who wanting to save her”. The subjects of stage 3 thought of druggist as “selfish”, “greedy” and “only interested in himself, not another life”

Stage 4: Authority Orientation/Maintaining social order:

At this stage, right and wrong is determined by society’s rules and regulations, which should be obeyed rigidly. In case of Heinz dilemma, subjects argued that they understands that Heinz’s motives were good, but they cannot condone the theft what would happen if we all started breaking the laws whenever we felt we had a good reason? The results would be chaos; society couldn’t function.

Level III-Post Conventional Level

Stage 5 Social Contract Orientation:-

At this stage, the individual’s moral judgment are internalized in such a way that he response positively to authority only if he agrees with the principles upon which the demands of authority are based. The individuals at this stage begin to think in rational terms, valuing the rights of human beings and the welfare of the society. In the Heinz dilemma, the some participant at stage 5 may thinks that Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law and some form opinion that Heinz should not steal the medicine because the druggist has the right to compensation. Even if his wife is sick; it does not make his action right.

Stage 6: Individual Principles & Conscience Orientation:

At this stage, the contrasting forces for making moral judgments are highly internalized. The decisions of an individual are now based upon his conscience and the belief in universal principles of respect, justice and equality he does what he, as an individual thinks right regardless of legal restrictions or the opinions of others. In Heinz’s dilemma, the participant at this stage argued that Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property right of another person Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

Evaluating Kohlberg’s theory:

The central idea has received reasonable support progress in moral reasoning and is indeed closely related to cognitive development. Studies also show that youngsters generally do progress through kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning in the order that he proposed. Furthermore relations between age and level of moral reasoning are in the predicted directions. However, there is great variation in the age at which people reach specific stages. Finally evidence suggested that moral reasoning is predictive of moral behaviour, although the association is modest. Although, these findings support the utility of kholberg’s model, like all influential theorists, he has his critics. They have raised the following issues.

  1. It is not unusual to find that a person shows signs of several adjacent levels of moral reasoning at a particular point in development. This mixing of stages is a problem for virtually all stage theories.
  2. Does moral reasoning necessarily lead to moral behaviour? Kohlberg’s theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what one ought to do versus actual actions.
  3. Is justice the only aspect of moral reasoning one should consider? Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg’s theory overemphasizes the concept of justice when making moral choice. Factors such as compassion, caring and other interpersonal feelings may play an important role in moral reasoning.
  4. Does kohlberg’s theory overemphasize western philosophy? Individualistic cultures emphasize personal rights while collectivist cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern cultures may have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg’s theory does not account for.
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