Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Although Kohlberg’s stages of moral development do not directly parallel Piaget’s stages, Kohlberg was inspired and informed by Piaget’s work. By examining these two theories side by side, it is possible to get a sense of how our concepts of the world around us (our descriptive concepts) influence our sense of what we ought to do in that world (our normative concepts). Kohlberg theorized that there were 6 stages of moral development, separated into 3 levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Age ranges are considerably more vague in Kohlberg’s theory, as children vary quite significantly in their rate of moral development.

At the pre-conventional level, children are only interested in securing their own benefit. This is their idea of morality. They begin by avoiding punishment, and quickly learn that by pleasing others they can secure positive benefits as well. No other ethical concepts are available to children this young. The parallel with Piaget’s sensorimotor phase is obvious – for a child whose conceptual framework does not extend beyond their own senses and movements, the moral concepts of right and wrong would be difficult to develop.

The conventional level is the one in which children learn about rules and authority. They learn that there are certain “conventions” that govern how they should and should not behave, and learn to obey them. At this stage, no distinction is drawn between moral principles and legal principles. What is right is what is handed down by authority, and disobeying the rules is always by definition “bad.” This level is split into two stages: in the first, children are interested in pleasing others and securing the favor of others. In the second, they extend that principle to cover the whole of their society, believing that morality is what keeps the social order intact. Kohlberg believed that many people stay in this stage for their whole lives, deriving moral principles from social or religious authority figures and never thinking about morality for themselves.

At the post-conventional level, children have learned that there is a difference between what is right and wrong from a moral perspective, and what is right and wrong according to the rules. Although they often overlap, there are still times when breaking a rule is the right thing to do. Post-conventional moral principles are either utilitarian principles of mutual benefit (closely related to the “social order” stage, but universal and non-authoritarian in nature)

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

piaget's theory

Like Piaget, Kohlberg has come under fire in recent years from cross-cultural psychologists who believe his theory is simply a codification of Western (post-modern Western liberal, to be precise) notions of justice and morality. Other moral and political cultures may not believe, for example, in universal principles independent of the social order. These critics charge that Kohlberg’s ideas are simply an attempt to make his own moral beliefs appear to be psychological facts. His theory also seems to have a troubling normative aspect – that is, it seems to suggest that certain kinds of moral reasoning are better than others. This, of course, presupposes certain moral assumptions, and so from a philosophical perspective Kohlberg’s argument is circular.

There are also some studies that indicate that children as young as 6 can attain vague concepts of universal ethical principles – they may be able to distinguish between a rule that says “no hitting” (universal and moral) and one that says “kids must sit in a circle during story-time” (conventional, arbitrary, and non-moral). Since Kohlberg’s theory questions whether even teenagers can attain this level of moral reasoning, these studies throw considerable doubt on his conclusions. The best conjecture, however, may be that Kohlberg’s stages describe not a one-way process of psychological growth for an individual, but a categorization of different types of moral values, which may be developed and prioritized differently for different individuals and moral cultures.

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