Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Moral Development: Forming a Sense of Rights and Responsibilities

Morality is a system of beliefs about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity. Moral beliefs are related to, but not identical with, moral behavior: it is possible to know the right thing to do, but not actually do it. It is also not the same as knowledge of social conventions, which are arbitrary customs needed for the smooth operation of society. Social conventions may have a moral element, but they have a primarily practical purpose. Conventionally, for example, motor vehicles all keep to the same side of the street (to the right in the United States, to the left in Great Britain). The convention allows for smooth, accident-free flow of traffic. But following the convention also has a moral element, because an individual who chooses to drive on the wrong side of the street can cause injuries or even death. In this sense, choosing the wrong side of the street is wrong morally, though the choice is also unconventional.

When it comes to schooling and teaching, moral choices are not restricted to occasional dramatic incidents, but are woven into almost every aspect of classroom life. Imagine this simple example. Suppose that you are teaching, reading to a small group of second-graders, and the students are taking turns reading a story out loud. Should you give every student the same amount of time to read, even though some might benefit from having additional time? Or should you give more time to the students who need extra help, even if doing so bores classmates and deprives others of equal shares of “floor time”? Which option is more fair, and which is more considerate? Simple dilemmas like this happen every day at all grade levels simply because students are diverse, and because class time and a teacher’s energy are finite.

Embedded in this rather ordinary example are moral themes about fairness or justice, on the one hand, and about consideration or care on the other. It is important to keep both themes in mind when thinking about how students develop beliefs about right or wrong. A morality of justice is about human rights—or more specifically, about respect for fairness, impartiality, equality, and individuals’ independence. A morality of care, on the other hand, is about human responsibilities—more specifically, about caring for others, showing consideration for individuals’ needs, and interdependence among individuals. Students and teachers need both forms of morality. In the next sections therefore we explain a major example of each type of developmental theory, beginning with the morality of justice.

Kohlberg’s morality of justice

One of the best-known explanations of how morality of justice develops was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1991). Using a stage model similar to Piaget’s, Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development, grouped into three levels. Individuals experience the stages universally and in sequence as they form beliefs about justice. He named the levels simply preconventional, conventional, and (you guessed it) postconventional. The levels and stages are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Moral stages according to Kohlberg
Moral stage Definition of what is “good”
Preconventional Level
Stage 1: Obedience and punishment Action that is rewarded and not punished
Stage 2: Market exchange Action that is agreeable to the child and child’s partner
Conventional Level
Stage 3: Peer opinion Action that wins approval from friends or peers
Stage 4: Law and order Action that conforms to the community customs or laws
Postconventional Level
Stage 5: Social contract Action that follows socially accepted ways of making decisions
Stage 6: Universal principles Action that is consistent with self-chosen, general principles

Preconventional justice: obedience and mutual advantage

The preconventional level of moral development coincides approximately with the preschool period of life and with Piaget’s preoperational period of thinking. At this age the child is still relatively self-centered and insensitive to the moral effects of actions on others. The result is a somewhat short-sighted orientation to morality. Initially (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), the child adopts an ethics of obedience and punishment—a sort of “morality of keeping out of trouble.” The rightness and wrongness of actions is determined by whether actions are rewarded or punished by authorities such as parents or teachers. If helping yourself to a cookie brings affectionate smiles from adults, then taking the cookie is considered morally “good.” If it brings scolding instead, then it is morally “bad.” The child does not think about why an action might be praised or scolded; in fact, says Kohlberg, he would be incapable at Stage 1 of considering the reasons even if adults offered them.

Eventually the child learns not only to respond to positive consequences, but also learns how to produce them by exchanging favors with others. The new ability creates Stage 2, an ethics of market exchange. At this stage the morally “good” action is one that favors not only the child, but another person directly involved. A “bad” action is one that lacks this reciprocity. If trading the sandwich from your lunch for the cookies in your friend’s lunch is mutually agreeable, then the trade is morally good; otherwise it is not. This perspective introduces a type of fairness into the child’s thinking for the first time. But it still ignores the larger context of actions—the effects on people not present or directly involved. In Stage 2, for example, it would also be considered morally “good” to pay a classmate to do another student’s homework—or even to avoid bullying or to provide sexual favors—provided that both parties regard the arrangement as being fair.

Conventional justice: conformity to peers and society

As children move into the school years, their lives expand to include a larger number and range of peers and (eventually) of the community as a whole. The change leads to conventional morality, which are beliefs based on what this larger array of people agree on—hence Kohlberg’s use of the term “conventional.” At first, in Stage 3, the child’s reference group are immediate peers, so Stage 3 is sometimes called the ethics of peer opinion. If peers believe, for example, that it is morally good to behave politely with as many people as possible, then the child is likely to agree with the group and to regard politeness as not merely an arbitrary social convention, but a moral “good.” This approach to moral belief is a bit more stable than the approach in Stage 2, because the child is taking into account the reactions not just of one other person, but of many. But it can still lead astray if the group settles on beliefs that adults consider morally wrong, like “Shop lifting for candy bars is fun and desirable.”

Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands even more, he or she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends. He or she is therefore more likely to encounter disagreements about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order, in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what the majority of society believes. Now, an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from ethical mistakes. A community or society may agree, for example, that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect, or that a factory owner is entitled to dump waste water into a commonly shared lake or river. To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these require further stages of moral development.

Postconventional justice: social contract and universal principles

As a person becomes able to think abstractly (or “formally,” in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from acceptance of what the community does believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed. The new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract. Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that respect the rights of the people affected. Consider, for example, the laws in some areas that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In what sense are the laws about this behavior ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? Were cyclists consulted and did they give consent? Or how about doctors or the cyclists’ families? Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes should be. In focusing on the processes by which the law was created, however, individuals are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of the position they take about wearing helmets. In this sense, beliefs on both sides of a debate about an issue can sometimes be morally sound even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it should help to avoid mindless conformity to conventional moral beliefs. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to the content of what gets decided. In principle (and occasionally in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, for example, but would deciding this by due process make it ethical? The realization that ethical means can sometimes serve unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), but also other principles, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or the sacredness of the natural environment. At Stage 6, the universal principles will guide a person’s beliefs even if the principles mean disagreeing occasionally with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).

Gilligan’s morality of care

As logical as they sound, Kohlberg’s stages of moral justice are not sufficient for understanding the development of moral beliefs. To see why, suppose that you have a student who asks for an extension of the deadline for an assignment. The justice orientation of Kohlberg’s theory would prompt you to consider issues of whether granting the request is fair. Would the late student be able to put more effort into the assignment than other students? Would the extension place a difficult demand on you, since you would have less time to mark the assignments? These are important considerations related to the rights of students and the teacher. In addition to these, however, are considerations having to do with the responsibilities that you and the requesting student have for each other and for others. Does the student have a valid personal reason (illness, death in the family, etc.) for the assignment being late? Will the assignment lose its educational value if the student has to turn it in prematurely? These latter questions have less to do with fairness and rights, and more to do with taking care of and responsibility for students. They require a framework different from Kohlberg’s to be understood fully.

One such framework has been developed by Carol Gilligan, whose ideas center on a morality of care, or system of beliefs about human responsibilities, care, and consideration for others. Gilligan proposed three moral positions that represent different extents or breadth of ethical care. Unlike Kohlberg, Piaget, or Erikson, she does not claim that the positions form a strictly developmental sequence, but only that they can be ranked hierarchically according to their depth or subtlety. In this respect her theory is “semi-developmental” in a way similar to Maslow’s theory of motivation (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995). Table 2 summarizes the three moral positions from Gilligan’s theory

Table 2: Positions of moral development according to Gilligan
Moral position Definition of what is morally good
Position 1: Survival orientation Action that considers one’s personal needs only
Position 2: Conventional care Action that considers others’ needs or preferences, but not one’s own
Position 3: Integrated care Action that attempts to coordinate one’s own personal needs with those of others

Position 1: caring as survival

The most basic kind of caring is a survival orientation, in which a person is concerned primarily with his or her own welfare. If a teenage girl with this ethical position is wondering whether to get an abortion, for example, she will be concerned entirely with the effects of the abortion on herself. The morally good choice will be whatever creates the least stress for herself and that disrupts her own life the least. Responsibilities to others (the baby, the father, or her family) play little or no part in her thinking.

As a moral position, a survival orientation is obviously not satisfactory for classrooms on a widespread scale. If every student only looked out for himself or herself, classroom life might become rather unpleasant! Nonetheless, there are situations in which focusing primarily on yourself is both a sign of good mental health and relevant to teachers. For a child who has been bullied at school or sexually abused at home, for example, it is both healthy and morally desirable to speak out about how bullying or abuse has affected the victim. Doing so means essentially looking out for the victim’s own needs at the expense of others’ needs, including the bully’s or abuser’s. Speaking out, in this case, requires a survival orientation and is healthy because the child is taking caring of herself.

Position 2: conventional caring

A more subtle moral position is caring for others, in which a person is concerned about others’ happiness and welfare, and about reconciling or integrating others’ needs where they conflict with each other. In considering an abortion, for example, the teenager at this position would think primarily about what other people prefer. Do the father, her parents, and/or her doctor want her to keep the child? The morally good choice becomes whatever will please others the best. This position is more demanding than Position 1, ethically and intellectually, because it requires coordinating several persons’ needs and values. But it is often morally insufficient because it ignores one crucial person: the self.

In classrooms, students who operate from Position 2 can be very desirable in some ways; they can be eager to please, considerate, and good at fitting in and at working cooperatively with others. Because these qualities are usually welcome in a busy classroom, teachers can be tempted to reward students for developing and using them. The problem with rewarding Position 2 ethics, however, is that doing so neglects the student’s development—his or her own academic and personal goals or values. Sooner or later, personal goals, values, and identity need attention and care, and educators have a responsibility for assisting students to discover and clarify them.

Position 3: integrated caring

The most developed form of moral caring in Gilligan’s model is integrated caring, the coordination of personal needs and values with those of others. Now the morally good choice takes account of everyone including yourself, not everyone except yourself. In considering an abortion, a woman at Position 3 would think not only about the consequences for the father, the unborn child, and her family, but also about the consequences for herself. How would bearing a child affect her own needs, values, and plans? This perspective leads to moral beliefs that are more comprehensive, but ironically are also more prone to dilemmas because the widest possible range of individuals are being considered.

In classrooms, integrated caring is most likely to surface whenever teachers give students wide, sustained freedom to make choices. If students have little flexibility about their actions, there is little room for considering anyone’s needs or values, whether their own or others’. If the teacher says simply: “Do the homework on page 50 and turn it in tomorrow morning,” then the main issue becomes compliance, not moral choice. But suppose instead that she says something like this: “Over the next two months, figure out an inquiry project about the use of water resources in our town. Organize it any way you want—talk to people, read widely about it, and share it with the class in a way that all of us, including yourself, will find meaningful.” An assignment like this poses moral challenges that are not only educational, but also moral, since it requires students to make value judgments. Why? For one thing, students must decide what aspect of the topic really matters to them. Such a decision is partly a matter of personal values. For another thing, students have to consider how to make the topic meaningful or important to others in the class. Third, because the time line for completion is relatively far in the future, students may have to weigh personal priorities (like spending time with friends or family) against educational priorities (working on the assignment a bit more on the weekend). As you might suspect, some students might have trouble making good choices when given this sort of freedom—and their teachers might therefore be cautious about giving such an assignment. But the difficulties in making choices are part of Gilligan’s point: integrated caring is indeed more demanding than the caring based only on survival or on consideration of others. Not all students may be ready for it.

Character development: Integrating ethical understanding, care, and action

The theories described so far all offer frameworks for understanding how children grow into youth and adults. Those by Maslow, Kohlberg, and Gilligan are more specific than the one by Erikson in that they focus on the development of understanding about ethics. From a teacher’s point of view, though, the theories are all limited in two ways. One problem is that they focus primarily on cognition—on what children think about ethical issues—more than on emotions and actions. The other is that they say little about how to encourage ethical development. Encouragement is part of teachers’ jobs, and doing it well requires understanding not only what students know about ethics, but also how they feel about it and what ethical actions they are actually prepared to take.

Many educators have recognized these educational needs, and a number of them have therefore developed practical programs that integrate ethical understanding, care, and action. As a group the programs are often called character education, though individual programs have a variety of specific names (for example, moral dilemma education, integrative ethical education, social competence education, and many more). Details of the programs vary, but they all combine a focus on ethical knowledge with attention to ethical feelings and actions (Elkind & Sweet, 2004; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Narvaez, 2010). Character education programs goes well beyond just teaching students to obey ethical rules, such as “Always tell the whole truth” or “Always do what the teacher tells you to do.” Such rules require very little thinking on the part of the student, and there are usually occasions in which a rule that is supposedly universal needs to be modified, “bent,” or even disobeyed. (For example, if telling the whole truth might hurt someone’s feelings, it might sometimes be more considerate—and thus more ethical—to soften the truth a bit, or even to say nothing at all.)

Instead, character education is about inviting students to think about the broad questions of his or her life, such as “What kind of person should I be?” or “How should I live my life?” Thoughtful answers to such broad questions help to answer a host of more specific questions that have ethical implications, such as “Should I listen to the teacher right now, even if she is a bit boring, or just tune out?” or “Should I offer to help my friend with the homework she is struggling with, or hold back so that learns to do it herself?” Most of the time, there is not enough time to reason about questions like these deliberately or consciously. Responses have to become intuitive, automatic, and embodied—meaning that they have to be based in fairly immediate emotional responses (Narvaez, 2009). The goal of character education is to develop students’ capacities to respond to daily ethical choices not only consciously and cognitively, but also intuitively and emotionally. To the extent that this goal is met, students can indeed live a good, ethically responsible life.

Schoolwide programs of character education

In the most comprehensive approaches to character education, an entire school commits itself to developing students’ ethical character, despite the immense diversity among students (Minow, Schweder, & Markus, 2008). All members of the staff—not just teachers and administrators, but also custodians, and educational assistants—focus on developing positive relationships with students. The underlying theme that develops is one of cooperation and mutual care, not competition. Fairness, respect and honesty pervade class and school activities; discipline, for example, focuses on solving conflicts between students and between students and teachers, rather than on rewarding obediance or punishing wrong-doers. The approach requires significant reliance on democratic meetings and discussions, both in classrooms and wherever else groups work together in school.

Classroom programs of character education

Even if a teacher is teaching character education simply within her own classroom, there are many strategies available. The goal in this case is to establish the classroom as a place where everyone feels included, and where everyone treats everyone else with civility and respect. Conflicts and disagreements may still occur, but in a caring community they can be resolved without undue anger or hostility. Here are a few ways to work toward this sort of classroom:

  • Use class meetings to decide on as many important matters as possible—such as the expected rules of behavior, important classroom activities, or ongoing disagreements.
  • Try arranging for students to collaborate on significant projects and tasks.
  • Arrange a “Buddies” program in which students of different grade levels work together on a significant task. Older students can sometimes assist younger students by reading to them, by listening to them read, or both. If an older student is having trouble with reading himself or herself, furthermore, a reading buddies program can sometimes also be helpful to the older student.
  • Familiarize students with conflict resolution strategies, and practice using them when needed.
  • Many areas of curriculum lend themselves to discussions about ethical issues. Obvious examples are certain novels, short stories, and historical events. But ethical issues lurk elsewhere as well. Teaching nutrition, for example, can raise issues about the humane treatment of animals that will be slaughtered for food, and about the ethical acceptability of using large amount of grains to feed animals even though many people in the world do not have enough to eat.
  • Service learning projects can be very helpful in highlighting issues of social justice. Planning, working at and reflecting about a local soup kitchen, tutoring students from low-income families, performing simple repairs on homes in need: projects like these broaden knowledge of society and of the needs of its citizens.

References

Berkowitz, M. & Bier, M. (2006). What works in character education: A research-driven guide for educators. St. Louis, MO: Center for Character and Citizenship.

Brown, L. & Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the crossroads: Women’s psychology and girls’ development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elkind, D. & Sweet, F. (2006). How to do character education. Accessed February 1, 2011 at http://www.goodcharacter.com/Article_4.html.

Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. Basel: S. Karger.

Minow, M., Shweder, R., & Markus, H. (Eds.). (2008). Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Narvaez, D. (2010). Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on psychological science, 5(2), 162–181.

Taylor, J. & Gilligan, C., & Sullivan, A. (1995). Between voice and silence: Women and girls, race and relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.