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by Saul McLeod published 2011, updated 2013

Lawrence Kohlberg (1958) agreed with Piaget's (1932) theory of moral development in
principle but wanted to develop his ideas further.
He used Piaget’s story-telling technique to tell people stories involving moral dilemmas. In
each case he presented a choice to be considered, for example between the rights of some
authority and the needs of some deserving individual who is being unfairly treated.

One of the best known of Kohlberg’s (1958) stories concerns a man called Heinz who lived
somewhere in Europe.

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save
her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to
buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and
this was much more than the Heinz could afford.
Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained
to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay
the rest of the money later. The chemist refused saying that he had discovered the drug and
was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later
that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

Kohlberg asked a series of questions such as:

1. Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
2. Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?
3. What if the person dying was a stranger, would it make any difference?
4. Should the police arrest the chemist for murder if the woman died?

By studying the answers from children of different ages to these questions Kohlberg hoped to discover
the ways in which moral reasoning changed as people grew older. The sample comprised 72 Chicago
boys aged 10–16 years, 58 of whom were followed up at three-yearly intervals for 20 years (Kohlberg,

Each boy was given a 2-hour interview based on the ten dilemmas. What Kohlberg was
mainly interested in was not whether the boys judged the action right or wrong but the
reasons given for the decision. He found that these reasons tended to change as the
children got older. He identified three distinct levels of moral reasoning each with two sub
stages. People can only pass through these levels in the order listed. Each new stage
replaces the reasoning typical of the earlier stage. Not everyone achieves all the stages.

Level 1 - Pre-conventional morality

At the pre-conventional level (most nine-year-olds and younger, some over nine), we don’t
have a personal code of morality. Instead, our moral code is shaped by the standards of
adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules.

Authority is outside the individual and reasoning is based on the physical consequences of

• Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation. The child/individual is good in order

to avoid being punished. If a person is punished they must have done wrong.

• Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange. At this stage children recognize that there is not
just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have
different viewpoints.

Level 2 - Conventional morality

At the conventional level (most adolescents and adults), we begin to internalize the moral
standards of valued adult role models.

Authority is internalized but not questioned and reasoning is based on the norms of the
group to which the person belongs.

• Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships. The child/individual is good in order to be

seen as being a good person by others. Therefore, answers are related to the approval of

• Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order. The child/individual becomes aware of the wider
rules of society so judgments concern obeying rules in order to uphold the law and to avoid

Level 3 - Post-conventional morality

Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on
individual rights and justice. According to Kohlberg this level of moral reasoning is as far as
most people get. Only 10-15% are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for
stage 5 or 6 (post-conventional morality). That is to say most people take their moral views
from those around them and only a minority think through ethical principles for themselves.
• Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights. The child/individual becomes aware
that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when
they will work against the interest of particular individuals. The issues are not always clear
cut. For example, in Heinz’s dilemma the protection of life is more important than breaking
the law against stealing.

• Stage 6. Universal Principles. People at this stage have developed their own set of
moral guidelines which may or may not fit the law. The principles apply to everyone. E.g.
human rights, justice and equality. The person will be prepared to act to defend these
principles even if it means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay
the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment. Kohlberg doubted few people
reached this stage.

Critical Evaluation
Problems with Kohlberg's Methods
1. The dilemmas are artificial (i.e. they lack ecological validity)

Most of the dilemmas are unfamiliar to most people (Rosen, 1980). For example it is all very
well in the Heinz dilemma asking subjects whether Heinz should steal the drug to save his

However Kohlberg’s subjects were aged between 7 and 16. They have never been married,
and never been placed in a situation remotely like the one in the story. How should they
know whether Heinz should steal the drug?

2. The sample is biased

According to Gilligan (1977), because Kohlberg’s theory was based on an all-male sample,
the stages reflect a male definition of morality (it’s androcentric). Mens' morality is based on
abstract principles of law and justice, while womens' is based on principles of compassion
and care.

Further, the gender bias issue raised by Gilligan is a reminded of the significant gender
debate still present in psychology, which when ignored, can have a large impact on results
obtained through psychological research.

2. The dilemmas are hypothetical (i.e. they are not real)

In a real situation what course of action a person takes will have real consequences – and
sometimes very unpleasant ones for themselves. Would subjects reason in the same way if
they were placed in a real situation? We just don’t know.

The fact that Kohlberg’s theory is heavily dependent on an individual’s response to an

artificial dilemma brings question to the validity of the results obtained through this
research. People may respond very differently to real life situations that they find
themselves in than they do to an artificial dilemma presented to them in the comfort of a
research environment.
3. Poor research design

The way in which Kohlberg carried out his research when constructing this theory may not
have been the best way to test whether all children follow the same sequence of stage
progression. His research wascross-sectional , meaning that he interviewed children of
different ages to see what level of moral development they were at.

A better way to see if all children follow the same order through the stages would have been
to carry out longitudinal research on the same children.

However, longitudinal research on Kohlberg’s theory has since been carried out by Colby et
al. (1983) who tested 58 male participants of Kohlberg’s original study. She tested them 6
times in the span of 27 years and found support for Kohlberg’s original conclusion, that we
all pass through the stages of moral development in the same order.

Problems with Kohlberg's Theory

1. Are there distinct stages to moral development?

Kohlberg claims that there are but the evidence does not always support this conclusion.
For example a person who justified a decision on the basis of principled reasoning in one
situation (post conventional morality stage 5 or 6) would frequently fall back on conventional
reasoning (stage 3 or 4) in another story. In practice it seems that reasoning about right and
wrong depends more upon the situation than upon general rules.

What is more individuals do not always progress through the stages and Rest (1979) found
that one in fourteen actually slipped backwards. The evidence for distinct stages to moral
development looks very weak and some would argue that behind the theory is a culturally
biased belief in the superiority of American values over those of other cultures and

2. Does moral judgement match moral behavior?

Kohlberg never claimed that there would be a one to one correspondence between thinking
and acting (what we say and what we do) but he does suggest that the two are linked.
However Bee (1994) suggest that we also need to take account of:

a) habits that people have developed over time.

b) whether people see situations as demanding their participation.

c) the costs and benefits of behaving in a particular way.

d) competing motive such as peer pressure self interest and so on.

Overall Bee points out that moral behavior is only partly a question of moral reasoning. It is
also to do with social factors.

3. Is justice the most fundamental moral principle?

This is Kohlberg’s view. However Gilligan (1977) suggests that the principle of caring for
others is equally important. Furthermore Kohlberg claims that the moral reasoning of males
is often in advance of that of females.

Girls are often found to be at stage 3 in Kohlberg’s system (good boy-nice girl orientation)
whereas boys are more often found to be at stage 4 (Law and Order orientation). Gilligan

“the very traits that have traditionally defined the goodness of women, their care for and
sensitivity to the needs of others, are those that mark them out as deficient in moral

In other words Gilligan is claiming that there is a sex bias in Kohlberg’s theory. He neglects
the feminine voice of compassion, love and non-violence, which is associated with the
socialization of girls.

Gilligan reached the conclusion that Kohlberg’s theory did not account for the fact that
women approach moral problems from an ‘ethics of care’, rather than an ‘ethics of justice’
perspective, which challenges some of the fundamental assumptions of Kohlberg’s theory.
Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Lawrence Kohlberg was a developmental theorist of the mid-twentieth century who is best
known for his specific and detailed theory of children's moral development. His work
continues to be influential today and contemporary research has generally supported his
theory. (Colby, 1983; Rest, 1986; Walker, 1989, Walker &Taylor, 1991b).

Kohlberg developed a six stage theory of moral development, and he grouped these six
stages into three, higher-order levels of development: 1) the Pre-Conventional Level, 2) the
Conventional Level, and 3) the Post-Conventional or Principled Level. Each level is then
further sub-divided into two stages to make a total of six stages. The Pre-Conventional
Level includes: a) stage one, the punishment and obedience orientation, and b) stage two,
the instrumental purpose orientation. The Conventional Level includes: a) stage three, the
morality of interpersonal cooperation, and b) stage four, the social-order-maintaining
orientation. The Post-Conventional Level includes a) stage five, the social-contract
orientation, and b) stage six, the universal ethical principle orientation. This article focuses
on the particular stages of moral development associated with adolescent development.
Therefore, the discussion begins with stage three, the morality of interpersonal cooperation,
within the Conventional Level of moral reasoning. For more information about Kohlberg's
theory in general, or for a description of the developmental stages prior to stage three, see
the Middle Childhood Developmental Article.

According to Kohlberg's theory, moral development proceeds in a linear, step-wise fashion;

i.e., moral development proceeds gradually from one stage to the next, in a predictable,
ordered sequence. Although Kohlberg recognized each child progressed through these
stages at different rates, and acknowledged that some youth may never reach the highest
stages, his theory does not account for regression back to former, previously mastered
stages as do some other developmental theorists (such as Marcia's identity development

Kohlberg believed that by early adolescence most youth have reached the mid-level of
moral reasoning called the Conventional Level. At this level, morality is determined by social
norms; i.e., morality is determined by the rules and social conventions that are explicitly or
implicitly agreed upon by a group of people. These rules and customs function to serve to
the best interests of the group's majority, while simultaneously providing a structure that
maintains social order and limits discord among group members.

The Conventional Level is further subdivided into stage three and stage four. Stage three is
called the morality of interpersonal cooperation. At stage three, moral decisions are made
by anticipating how a moral decision would be judged by other influential group members.
Because youth at this stage wish to be considered a good person and judged in a favorable
light, their moral decisions will be based on whether or not their decisions would win the
approval of those people whose opinions matter to them.
For example, Anthony is hanging out with some new friends when one of his new friends
offers him a cigarette. If Anthony has reached stage three, the morality of interpersonal
cooperation, he might be thinking the following: "What if I try this cigarette and Grandpa
finds out? He'll think of me as a smoker. He already told me that he doesn't respect
smokers because they damage their health. My grandma would be disappointed in me, too.
She told me that smokers are weak people who need a crutch. This thought process will
likely dissuade Anthony from accepting a cigarette from his friend.

The next stage within the Conventional Level is stage four, and is called the social-order-
maintaining orientation. At this stage, morality is determined by what is best for the
majority of people. Furthermore, moral decisions reflect an understanding that the majority
of people benefit from a social order that fosters harmonious relationships among group
members. At this stage, youth understand that laws are intended to serve everyone's best
interest, and believe that societies function best when everyone strictly adheres to the law.
These youth will begin to compare their daily decisions, and the consequences of those
decisions, to the larger society's moral standards.

For instance, if Anthony from the previous example had reached stage four, the social-
order-maintaining orientation, and was offered a cigarette by his new friends, he may now
consider that it is illegal for youth to smoke. He may choose not to smoke because he
believes that if he smokes, he should be punished for breaking the law. He understands the
intent of the law is for his own benefit and protection, but he also understands the law
serves to benefit the larger society because when young people become addicted to nicotine
it poses a cost and a health risk to others.


Inspired by the work of Jean Piaget, developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was one of the
first researchers to study the moral development of the individual. Kohlberg presented his
experimental subjects with moral dilemmas in the form of little stories, then asked them to make
moral judgments about the behaviour of the main character in each story. By analyzing the reasons
that the subjects gave for their judgments (more than the judgments themselves), Kohlberg
identified three major levels of moral judgment, each of which he divided into two stages, for a total
of six successive stages in which each individual takes increasing account of other people in his or
her decisions about how to behave.

The first two stages, at level 1, preconventional morality, occur before the
individual has even become aware of social conventions.

At stage 1 (from about age 2 or 3 to about age 5 or 6), children seek mainly to avoid
the punishment that authority figures such as their parents can mete them
At stage 2 (from age 5 to age 7, or up to age 9, in some cases), children learn that it
is in their interest to behave well, because rewards are in store if they do.

The next two stages occur at level 2, conventional morality—so named because
at these stages it is no longer individuals such as parents, but rather social groups,
such as family and friends, that children perceive as the source of authority.

At stage 3 (from about age 7 to about age 12), children feel the need to satisfy the
expectations of the other members of their group. In so doing, children seek to
preserve rules that will lead to predictable behaviour.

At stage 4 (from age 10 to age 15, on average), the conventions that guide the
individual’s behaviour expand to include those of the society in which he or she
lives. In examining the justification for a given course of action, the individual
considers whether it is consistent with the norms and laws of this society.

Level 3, postconventional morality, is so named because in the last two stages,

which it comprises, the individual’s morality goes beyond the frame of reference of
any one particular society.

At stage 5 (starting as early as age 12, in some cases), individuals feel as if they
have freely entered into a contractual commitment with every person around them.
This commitment is based on a desire for consensus and a rational assessment of
the benefits that everyone can derive from the existence of these rules.

At stage 6, individuals’ judgments of good and bad become influenced by universal

moral principles. People at stage 6 agree that laws and societal values have a
certain validity, but if these laws conflict with their own principles of human dignity,
they will follow these principles, which they regard as an internally imposed

According to Kohlberg, people go through these six stages in the above order: most children have a
preconventional morality, and most adults have a conventional one. Kohlberg estimated that only 20
to 25% of the adult population attains the postconventional level of morality.

Somewhat later in his career, Kohlberg described stage 7, the “mystic stage”, which he regarded as
meta-ethical: in this stage, individuals become capable of problematizing any action or intention by
asking themselves why it might be moral.

Kohlberg’s model of moral development, though it can be criticized in many respects, is valuable in
that it focuses on certain central issues that individuals must address in constructing their
relationships with others.

The story of “Heinz’s moral dilemma” is a classic example of the kinds of problems that Kohlberg posed to his
subjects. Here is a brief version.

Heinz’s wife was very ill. Unless she could get a certain medicine, she could die at any time. But this medicine was
very expensive, and Heinz could not afford it. He went to the druggist anyway and asked if he could have the
medicine more cheaply, or even on credit. The druggist refused. What should Heinz do: let his wife die, or steal the

What interested Kohlberg was not so much the response that each of his subjects provided as the reasoning behind
it. Different subjects might choose the same solution to Heinz’s moral dilemma, but for different reasons that revealed
the differing foundations of their moral thinking.

For example, one child might say that Heinz had to let his wife die so that he would not go to prison, while another
might say that Heinz had to steal the drug, because otherwise God would punish him for having let his wife die. Or
one adult might say that Heinz had to let his wife die because stealing is against the law, while another adult might
say that Heinz had to steal the medicine because failing to help someone who is in danger is punishable by law.
Despite their differing answers, both adults would be displaying conventional moral reasoning characteristic of
Kohlberg’s stage 4.

A study was conducted of 183 political resisters in such areas as antinuclear politics and tax resistance. Compared
with non-resisters, these individuals rejected social and political authority more strongly and believed that individual
conscience was a better guide to conduct than the law was. These moral perspectives thus placed them at
Kohlberg’s stages 5 and 6. In comparison, conservatives were mainly at stage 4, and liberals at stage 5.

Theory of Moral Development

The Theory of Moral Development is a very interesting subject that stemmed
from Jean Piaget’s theory of moral reasoning. Developed by psychologist
Lawrence Kohlberg, this theory made us understand that morality starts from
the early childhood years and can be affected by several factors.
Morality can be developed either negatively or positively, depending on how an individual
accomplishes the tasks before him during each stage of moral development across his lifespan.

History of the Theory

How did Kohlberg come up with the theory of moral development? All his ideas started from the
research he performed with very young children as his subjects. He found out that children are faced
with different moral issues, and their judgments on whether they are to act positively or negatively
over each dilemma are heavily influenced by several factors. In each scenario that Kohlberg related
to the children, he was not really asking whether or not the person in the situation is morally right or
wrong, but he wanted to find out the reasons why these children think that the character is morally
right or not.
Levels and Stages of Moral Development
Level 1: Preconventional Morality

The first level of morality, preconventional morality, can be further divided into two stages: obedience
and punishment, and individualism and exchange.

Stage 1: Punishment- Obedience Orientation

Related to Skinner’s Operational Conditioning, this stage includes the use of punishment so that the
person refrains from doing 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 Relativist Orientation

In this stage, the person is said to judge the morality of an action based on how it satisfies the
individual needs of the doer. For instance, a person steals money from another person because he
needs that money to buy food for his hungry children. In Kohlberg’s theory, the children tend to say
that this action is morally right because of the serious need of the doer.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

The second level of morality involves the stages 3 and 4 of moral development. Conventional
morality includes the society and societal roles in judging the morality of an action.

Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation

In this stage, a person judges an action based on the societal roles and social expectations before
him. This is also known as the “interpersonal relationships” phase. For example, a child gives away
her lunch to a street peasant because she thinks doing so means being nice.

Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation

This stage includes respecting the authorities and following the rules, as well as doing a person’s
duty. The society is the main consideration of a person at this stage. For instance, a policeman
refuses the money offered to him under the table and arrests the offender because he believes this
is his duty as an officer of peace and order.

Level 3: Postconventional Morality

The post-conventional morality includes stage 5 and stage 6. This is mainly concerned with the
universal principles that relation to the action done.

Stage 5 : Social Contract Orientation

In this stage, the person is look at various opinions and values of different people before coming up
with the decision on the morality of the action.

Stage 6 : Universal Ethical Principles Orientation

The final stage of moral reasoning, this orientation is when a person considers universally accepted
ethical principles. The judgment may become innate and may even violate the laws and rules as the
person becomes attached to his own principles of justice.
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development are an adaptation of the Piaget Stages.
According to the theory, moral reasoning develops in six stages, each more adequate at
responding to moral dilemmas than the one before. See also: Erikson Stages
Pre-Conventional Morality
This is the stage that all young children start at (and a
Obedience few adults remain in). Rules are seen as being fixed and
or absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it
Stage 1
Punishment means avoiding punishment.
As children grow older, they begin to see that other
people have their own goals and preferences and that
often there is room for negotiation. Decisions are made
Self- based on the principle of "What's in it for me?" For
Stage 2 Interest example, an older child might reason: "If I do what
mom or dad wants me to do, they will reward me.
Therefore I will do it."

Conventional Morality
By adolescence, most individuals have developed to
this stage. There is a sense of what "good boys" and
Social "nice girls" do and the emphasis is on living up to social
Stage 3 Conformity expectations and norms because of how they impact
day-to-day relationships.

By the time individuals reach adulthood, they usually

Law and consider society as a whole when making judgments.
Stage 4 Order The focus is on maintaining law and order by following
Orientation the rules, doing one's duty and respecting authority.

Post-Conventional Morality
At this stage, people understand that there are
differing opinions out there on what is right and wrong
and that laws are really just a social contract based on
majority decision and inevitable compromise. People at
Social this stage sometimes disobey rules if they find them to
Stage 5 Contract be inconsistent with their personal values and will also
argue for certain laws to be changed if they are no
longer "working". Our modern democracies are based
on the reasoning of Stage 5.

Few people operate at this stage all the time. It is based

Stage 6 Universal on abstract reasoning and the ability to put oneself in
Ethics other people's shoes. At this stage, people have a
Orientation principled conscience and will follow universal ethical
principles regardless of what the official laws and rules

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development constitute an adaptation of a psychological

theory originally conceived by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Kohlbergbegan work on this topic
while a psychology graduate student at the University of Chicago[1] in 1958, and expanded and
developed this theory throughout his life.

The theory holds that moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behavior, has six
identifiable developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its
predecessor.[2] Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment far beyond the ages studied
earlier by Piaget,[3] who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive
stages.[2] Expanding on Piaget's work, Kohlberg determined that the process of moral development
was principally concerned with justice, and that it continued throughout the individual's lifetime,[4] a
notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of such research.[5][6]

The six stages of moral development are grouped into three levels: pre-conventional morality,
conventional morality, and post-conventional morality.

For his studies, Kohlberg relied on stories such as the Heinz dilemma, and was interested in how
individuals would justify their actions if placed in similar moral dilemmas. He then analyzed the form
of moral reasoning displayed, rather than its conclusion,[6] and classified it as belonging to one of six
distinct stages.[7][8][9]

There have been critiques of the theory from several perspectives. Arguments include that it
emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other moral values, such as caring;[10] that there is such an
overlap between stages that they should more properly be regarded as separate domains; or that
evaluations of the reasons for moral choices are mostly post hoc rationalizations (by both decision
makers and psychologists studying them) of essentially intuitive decisions.[11]

Nevertheless, an entirely new field within psychology was created as a direct result of Kohlberg's
theory, and according to Haggbloom et al.'s study of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th
century, Kohlberg was the 16th most frequently cited psychologist in introductory psychology
textbooks throughout the century, as well as the 30th most eminent overall.[12]
Kohlberg's scale is about how people justify behaviors and his stages are not a method of ranking
how moral someone's behavior is. There should however be a correlation between how someone
scores on the scale and how they behave, and the general hypothesis is that moral behaviour is
more responsible, consistent and predictable from people at higher levels.[13]


Kohlberg's six stages can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-
conventional, conventional and post-conventional.[7][8][9] Following Piaget's constructivist requirements
for a stage model, as described in his theory of cognitive development, it is extremely rare to regress
in stages—to lose the use of higher stage abilities.[14][15] Stages cannot be skipped; each provides a
new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but
integrated with them.[14][15]

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

(How can I avoid punishment?)

2. Self-interest orientation

(What's in it for me?)

(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

(Social norms)
(The good boy/girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

(Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles

(Principled conscience)

The understanding gained in each stage is retained in later stages, but may be
regarded by those in later stages as simplistic, lacking in sufficient attention to
The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults can
also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners at this level judge the morality of an action by its
direct consequences. The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stages of moral
development, and is solely concerned with the self in an egocentric manner. A child with pre-
conventional morality has not yet adopted or internalized society's conventions regarding what is
right or wrong, but instead focuses largely on external consequences that certain actions may

In Stage one (obedience and punishment driven), individuals focus on the direct consequences of
their actions on themselves. For example, an action is perceived as morally wrong because the
perpetrator is punished. "The last time I did that I got spanked so I will not do it again." The worse
the punishment for the act is, the more "bad" the act is perceived to be.[16] This can give rise to an
inference that even innocent victims are guilty in proportion to their suffering. It is "egocentric,"
lacking recognition that others' points of view are different from one's own.[17] There is "deference to
superior power or prestige."[17]

An example of obedience and punishment driven morality would be a child refusing to do something
because it is wrong and that the consequences could result in punishment. For example, a child's
classmate tries to dare the child to skip school. The child would apply obedience and punishment
driven morality by refusing to skip school because he would get punished. Another example of
obedience and punishment driven morality is when a child refuses to cheat on a test because the
child would get punished

Stage two (self-interest driven) expresses the "what's in it for me" position, in which right behavior is
defined by whatever the individual believes to be in their best interest but understood in a narrow
way which does not consider one's reputation or relationships to groups of people. Stage two
reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might further
the individual's own interests. As a result, concern for others is not based on loyalty
or intrinsic respect, but rather a "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." mentality.[2] The lack of
a societal perspective in the pre-conventional level is quite different from the social contract (stage
five), as all actions have the purpose of serving the individual's own needs or interests. For the stage
two theorist, the world's perspective is often seen as moral relativism.

An example of self-interest driven is when a child is asked by his parents to do a chore. The child
asks "what's in it for me?" The parents would offer the child an incentive by giving a child an
allowance to pay them for their chores. The child is motivated to do chores for self-interest. Another
example of self-interest driven is when a child does their homework in exchange for better grades
and rewards from their parents
The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. To reason in a
conventional way is to judge the morality of actions by comparing them to society's views and
expectations. The conventional level consists of the third and fourth stages of moral development.
Conventional morality is characterized by an acceptance of society's conventions concerning right
and wrong. At this level an individual obeys rules and follows society's norms even when there are
no consequences for obedience or disobedience. Adherence to rules and conventions is somewhat
rigid, however, and a rule's appropriateness or fairness is seldom questioned.[7][8][9]

In Stage three (good intentions as determined by social consensus), the self enters society by
conforming to social standards. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as it
reflects society's views. They try to be a "good boy" or "good girl" to live up to these
expectations,[2] having learned that being regarded as good benefits the self. Stage three reasoning
may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a
person's relationships, which now begin to include things like respect, gratitude and the "golden
rule". "I want to be liked and thought well of; apparently, not being naughty makes people like me."
Conforming to the rules for one's social role is not yet fully understood. The intentions of actors play
a more significant role in reasoning at this stage; one may feel more forgiving if one thinks, "they
mean well ..."[2]

In Stage four (authority and social order obedience driven), it is important to obey
laws, dictums and social conventions because of their importance in maintaining a functioning
society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for individual approval exhibited in
stage three. A central ideal or ideals often prescribe what is right and wrong. If one person violates a
law, perhaps everyone would — thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and rules.
When someone does violate a law, it is morally wrong;culpability is thus a significant factor in this
stage as it separates the bad domains from the good ones. Most active members of society remain
at stage four, where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside force.[2]

The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, is marked by a growing realization
that individuals are separate entities from society, and that the individual’s own perspective may take
precedence over society’s view; individuals may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles.
Post-conventional moralists live by their own ethical principles — principles that typically include
such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice. People who exhibit post-conventional morality
view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms — ideally rules can maintain the general social
order and protect human rights. Rules are not absolute dictates that must be obeyed without
question. Because post-conventional individuals elevate their own moral evaluation of a situation
over social conventions, their behavior, especially at stage six, can be confused with that of those at
the pre-conventional level.

Some theorists have speculated that many people may never reach this level of abstract moral

In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and
values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community.
Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not promote the
general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet “the greatest good for the greatest
number of people."[8] This is achieved through majority decision and
inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract
reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in
justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Legal
rights are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deonticmoral action. Decisions are
not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in
the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[18] This involves an individual imagining what they would do in
another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.[19] The resulting
consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the
individual acts because it is right, and not because it avoids punishment, is in their best interest,
expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he
found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.[15]

Further stages[edit]
In Kohlberg's empirical studies of individuals throughout their life Kohlberg observed that some had
apparently undergone moral stage regression. This could be resolved either by allowing for moral
regression or by extending the theory. Kohlberg chose the latter, postulating the existence of sub-
stages in which the emerging stage has not yet been fully integrated into the personality.[8] In
particular Kohlberg noted a stage 4½ or 4+, a transition from stage four to stage five, that shared
characteristics of both.[8] In this stage the individual is disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and
order reasoning; culpability is frequently turned from being defined by society to viewing society itself
as culpable. This stage is often mistaken for the moral relativism of stage two, as the individual
views those interests of society that conflict with their own as being relatively and morally
wrong.[8]Kohlberg noted that this was often observed in students entering college.[8][15]

Kohlberg suggested that there may be a seventh stage — Transcendental Morality, or Morality of
Cosmic Orientation — which linked religion with moral reasoning.[20] Kohlberg's difficulties in
obtaining empirical evidence for even a sixth stage,[15] however, led him to emphasize the speculative
nature of his seventh stage.[5]
Theoretical assumptions (philosophy)[edit]

Kohlberg's stages of moral development are based on the assumption that humans are inherently
communicative, capable of reason, and possess a desire to understand others and the world around
them. The stages of this model relate to the qualitative moral reasonings adopted by individuals, and
so do not translate directly into praise or blame of any individual's actions or character. Arguing that
his theory measures moral reasoning and not particular moral conclusions, Kohlberg insists that
the form and structure of moral arguments is independent of the content of those arguments, a
position he calls "formalism".[6][7]

Kohlberg's theory centers on the notion that justice is the essential characteristic of moral reasoning.
Justice itself relies heavily upon the notion of sound reasoning based on principles. Despite being a
justice-centered theory of morality, Kohlberg considered it to be compatible with plausible
formulations of deontology[18] and eudaimonia.

Kohlberg's theory understands values as a critical component of the right. Whatever the right is, for
Kohlberg, it must be universally valid across societies (a position known as "moral
universalism"):[7] there can be no relativism. Moreover, morals are not natural features of the world;
they are prescriptive. Nevertheless, moral judgments can be evaluated in logical terms of truth and

According to Kohlberg: someone progressing to a higher stage of moral reasoning cannot skip
stages. For example, an individual cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer judgments
(stage three) to being a proponent of social contracts (stage five).[15] On encountering a moral
dilemma and finding their current level of moral reasoning unsatisfactory, however, an individual will
look to the next level. Realizing the limitations of the current stage of thinking is the driving force
behind moral development, as each progressive stage is more adequate than the last.[15] The
process is therefore considered to be constructive, as it is initiated by the conscious construction of
the individual, and is not in any meaningful sense a component of the individual's innate dispositions,
or a result of past inductions.
Formal elements[edit]

Progress through Kohlberg's stages happens as a result of the individual's increasing competence,
both psychologically and in balancing conflicting social-value claims. The process of resolving
conflicting claims to reach an equilibrium is called "justice operation." Kohlberg identifies two of these
justice operations: "equality," which involves an impartial regard for persons, and "reciprocity," which
means a regard for the role of personal merit. For Kohlberg, the most adequate result of both
operations is "reversibility," in which a moral or dutiful act within a particular situation is evaluated in
terms of whether or not the act would be satisfactory even if particular persons were to switch roles
within that situation (also known colloquially as "moral musical chairs").[6]

Knowledge and learning contribute to moral development. Specifically important are the individual's
"view of persons" and their "social perspective level", each of which becomes more complex and
mature with each advancing stage. The "view of persons" can be understood as the individual's
grasp of the psychology of other persons; it may be pictured as a spectrum, with stage one having
no view of other persons at all, and stage six being entirely socio-centric.[6] Similarly, the social
perspective level involves the understanding of the social universe, differing from the view of
persons in that it involves an appreciation of social norms.

Examples of applied moral dilemmas[edit]

Kohlberg established the Moral Judgement Interview in his original 1958 dissertation.[4] During the
roughly 45-minute tape recorded semi-structured interview, the interviewer uses moral dilemmas to
determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The dilemmas are fictional short stories
that describe situations in which a person has to make a moral decision. The participant is asked a
systemic series of open-ended questions, like what they think the right course of action is, as well as
justifications as to why certain actions are right or wrong. The form and structure of these replies are
scored and not the content; over a set of multiple moral dilemmas an overall score is derived.[4][9]

Heinz dilemma[edit]
A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma: Heinz Steals the
Drug In Europe.[5]
A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought
might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The
drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce.
He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's
husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $
1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it
cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make
money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?[5]

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do.
Kohlberg's theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of
their response.[7] Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six

Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would consequently be put
in prison, which would mean he is a bad person.

Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200, not how much the druggist
wanted for it. Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.

Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he
saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Heinz should not steal the
medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would probably experience anguish over a jail
cell more than his wife's death.

Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to
be a good husband.

Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he tried to do
everything he could without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.

Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing,
making it illegal.
Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as
well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the
law; actions have consequences.

Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose
life, regardless of the law.

Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to compensation. Even if
his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.

Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is
a more fundamental value than the property rights 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.


One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other values, and
so may not adequately address the arguments of those who value other moral aspects of
actions. Carol Gilligan has argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly androcentric.[10] Kohlberg's theory
was initially developed based on empirical research using only male participants; Gilligan argued
that it did not adequately describe the concerns of women.[21] Kohlberg stated that women tend to get
stuck at level 3, focusing on details of how to maintain relationships and promote the welfare of
family and friends. Men are likely to move on to the abstract principles, and thus have less concern
with the particulars of who is involved.[22] Consistent with this observation, Gilligan's theory of moral
development does not focus on the value of justice. She developed an alternative theory of moral
reasoning based on the ethics of caring.[10] Critics such as Christina Hoff Sommers, however, argued
that Gilligan's research is ill-founded, and that no evidence exists to support her conclusion.[23]

Kohlberg's stages are not culturally neutral, as demonstrated by its application to a number of
different cultures.[1] Although they progress through the stages in the same order, individuals in
different cultures seem to do so at different rates.[24] Kohlberg has responded by saying that although
different cultures do indeed inculcate different beliefs, his stages correspond to underlying modes of
reasoning, rather than to those beliefs.[1][25]

Another criticism of Kohlberg’s theory is that people frequently demonstrate significant inconsistency
in their moral judgements.[26] This often occurs in moral dilemmas involving drinking and driving and
business situations where participants have been shown to reason at a subpar stage, typically using
more self-interest driven reasoning (i.e., stage two) than authority and social order obedience driven
reasoning (i.e., stage four).[26][27] Kohlberg’s theory is generally considered to be incompatible with
inconsistencies in moral reasoning.[26] Carpendale has argued that Kohlberg’s theory should be
modified to focus on the view that the process of moral reasoning involves integrating varying
perspectives of a moral dilemma rather than simply fixating on applying rules.[27] This view would
allow for inconsistency in moral reasoning since individuals may be hampered by their inability to
consider different perspectives.[26] Krebs and Denton have also attempted to modify Kohlberg’s
theory to account for a multitude of conflicting findings, but eventually concluded that the theory is
not equipped to take into consideration how most individuals make moral decisions in their everyday

Other psychologists have questioned the assumption that moral action is primarily a result of formal
reasoning. Social intuitionists such as Jonathan Haidt, for example, argue that individuals often
make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights, or abstract
ethical values. Thus the arguments analyzed by Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists could
be considered post hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions; moral reasoning may be less relevant
to moral action than Kohlberg's theory suggests.[11]

Continued relevance[edit]

Kohlberg's body of work on the stages of moral development has been utilized by others working in
the field. One example is the Defining Issues Test (DIT) created in 1979 byJames Rest,[29] originally
as a pencil-and-paper alternative to the Moral Judgement Interview.[30] Heavily influenced by the six-
stage model, it made efforts to improve the validitycriteria by using a quantitative test, the Likert
scale, to rate moral dilemmas similar to Kohlberg's.[31] It also used a large body of Kohlbergian theory
such as the idea of "post-conventional thinking".[32][33] In 1999 the DIT was revised as the DIT-2;[30] the
test continues to be used in many areas where moral testing is required,[34] such as divinity, politics,
and medicine.[35][36][37]


Lawrence Kohlberg was a moral philosopher and student of child development. He was director
of Harvard's Center for Moral Education. His special area of interest is the moral development of
children - how they develop a sense of right, wrong, and justice.

Kohlberg observed that growing children advance through definite stages of moral development
in a manner similar to their progression through Piaget's well-known stages of cognitive
development. His observations and testing of children and adults, led him to theorize that
human beings progress consecutively from one stage to the next in an invariant sequence, not
skipping any stage or going back to any previous stage. These are stages of thought
processing, implying qualitatively different modes of thinking and of problem solving at each

These conclusions have been verified in cross-cultural studies done

in Turkey, Taiwan, Yucatan, Honduras, India, United States, Canada, Britain, and Israel.
An outline of these developmental stages follows:


AGES: Up to 10-13 years of age, most prisoners
Behavior motivated by anticipation of pleasure or pain.


Avoidance of physical punishment and deference to power. Punishment is an automatic

response of physical retaliation. The immediate physical consequences of an action
determine its goodness or badness. The atrocities carried out by soldiers during the
holocaust who were simply "carrying out orders" under threat of punishment, illustrate
adults as well as children may function at stage one level. "Might makes right."

QUESTIONS: What must I do to avoid punishment? What can I do to force my will upon


Marketplace exchange of favors or blows. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."
is: "Do unto others as they do unto you." Individual does what is necessary,
concessions only as necessary to satisfy his own desires. Right action consists of what
instrumentally satisfies one's own needs. Vengeance is considered a moral duty. People
are valued in terms of their utility. "An eye for an eye."

QUESTIONS: What's in it for me? What must I do to avoid pain, gain pleasure?


FOCUS: Significant Others, "Tyranny of the They" (They say….)

AGES: Beginning in middle school, up to middle age - most people end up here
Acceptance of the rules and standards of one's group.


Right is conformity to the stereotypical behavioral, values expectations of one's society

peers. Individual acts to gain approval of others. Good behavior is that which pleases or
helps others within the group. Everybody is doing it." Majority understanding ("common
sense") is seen as "natural." One earns approval by being conventionally "respectable"
"nice." Peer pressure makes being different the unforgivable sin. Self sacrifice to group
demands is expected. Values based in conformity, loyalty to group. Sin is a
breach of the
expectations of one's immediate social order (confuses sin with group, class norms).
Retribution, however, at this stage is collective. Individual vengeance is not allowed.
Forgiveness is preferable to revenge. Punishment is mainly for deterrence. Failure to
punish is "unfair." "If he can get away with it, why can't I?" Many religious people end up

QUESTION: What must I do to be seen as a good boy/girl (socially acceptable)?


Respect for fixed rules, laws and properly constituted authority. Defense of the given
and institutional order for its own sake. Responsibility toward the welfare of others in the
society. "Justice" normally refers to criminal justice. Justice demands that the wrongdoer
be punished, that he "pay his debt to society," and that law abiders be rewarded. "A
day's pay for a good day's work." Injustice is failing to reward work or punish demerit.
behavior consists of maintaining the social order for its own sake. Self-sacrifice to larger
social order is expected. Authority figures are seldom questioned. "He must be right.
the Pope (or the President, or the Judge, or God)." Consistency and precedent must be
maintained. For most adults, this is the highest stage they will attain.

QUESTION: What if everyone did that?

STAGE 4 ½: The Cynic

Between the conventional stages and the post-conventional Levels 5 and 6, there is a
transitional stage. Some college-age students who come to see conventional morality as
socially constructed, thus, relative and arbitrary, but have not yet discovered universal
ethical principles, may drop into a hedonistic ethic of "do your own thing." This was well
noted in the hippie culture of the l960's. Disrespect for conventional morality was
infuriating to the Stage 4 mentality, and indeed was calculated to be so. Kohlberg found
that some people get "stuck" in this in-between stage marked by egoism and skepticism,
never able to completely leave behind conventional reasoning even after recognizing its
inadequacies. Such people are often marked by uncritical cynicism ("All politicians are
crooks…nothing really matters anyway"), disillusionment and alienation.

QUESTION: Why should I believe anything?


FOCUS: Justice, Dignity for all life, Common Good

AGES: Few reach this stage, most not prior to middle age


Moral action in a specific situation is not defined by reference to a checklist of rules, but
from logical application of universal, abstract, moral principles. Individuals have natural
inalienable rights and liberties that are prior to society and must be protected by society.
Retributive justice is repudiated as counterproductive, violative of notions of human
Justice distributed proportionate to circumstances and need. "Situation ethics." The
statement, "Justice demands punishment," which is a self-evident truism to the Stage 4
mind, is just as self-evidently nonsense at Stage 5. Retributive punishment is neither
rational nor just, because it does not promote the rights and welfare of the individual and
inflicts further violence upon society. Only legal sanctions that fulfill that purpose are
imposed-- protection of future victims, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Individual acts out
mutual obligation and a sense of public good. Right action tends to be defined in terms
general individual rights, and in terms of standards that have been critically examined
agreed upon by the whole society--e.g. the Constitution. The freedom of the individual
should be limited by society only when it infringes upon someone else's freedom.
Conventional authorities are increasingly rejected in favor of critical reasoning. Laws are
challenged by questions of justice.

QUESTIONS: What is the just thing to do given all the circumstances? What will bring
most good to the largest number of people?


An individual who reaches this stage acts out of universal principles based upon the
equality and worth of all living beings. Persons are never means to an end, but are ends
themselves. Having rights means more than individual liberties. It means that every
individual is due consideration of his dignity interests in every situation, those interests
being of equal importance with one's own. This is the "Golden Rule" model. A list of
inscribed in stone is no longer necessary. At this level, God is understood to say what is
right because it is right; His sayings are not right, just because it is God who said them.
Abstract principles are the basis for moral decision making, not concrete rules. Stage
6 individuals are rare, often value their principles more than their own life, often seen as
incarnating the highest human potential. Thus they are often martyred by those of lower
stages shamed by seeing realized human potential compared with their own partially
realized levels of development. (Stoning the prophets, killing the messenger). Examples:
Mohandas Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth, Gautamo Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dag

QUESTIONS: What will foster life in its fullest for all living beings? What is justice for all?



One must progress through the stages in order, and one cannot get to a higher stage without
passing through the stage immediately preceding it. Higher stages incorporate the thinking and
experience of all lower stages of reasoning into current levels of reasoning but transcends them
for higher levels. (e.g, Stage Four reasoning will understand the reasoning of Stages 1-3 but will
reason at a higher level) A belief that a leap into moral maturity is possible is in sharp contrast to
the facts of developmental research. Moral development is growth, and like all growth, takes
place according to a pre-determined sequence. To expect someone to grow into high moral
maturity overnight would be like expecting someone to walk before he crawls.



If Johnny is oriented to see good almost exclusively as that which brings him satisfaction, how
will he understand a concept of good in which the "good" may bring him no tangible pleasure
at all. The moral maxim "It is better to give than to receive" reflects a high level of
development. The child who honestly asks you why it is better to give than to receive, does so
because he does not and cannot understand such thinking. To him, "better" means better for
him. And how can it be better for him to give, than to get. Thus, higher stages can comprehend
lower stages of reasoning though they find it less compelling. But lower stages cannot
comprehend higher stages of reasoning.



The person has questions and problems the solutions for which are less satisfying at his present
level. Since reasoning at one stage higher is intelligible and since it makes more sense and
resolves more difficulties, it is more attractive. For example, two brothers both want the last
piece of pie. The bigger, stronger brother will probably get it. The little brother suggests they
share it. He is thinking at level two, rather than at level one. The solution for him is more
attractive: getting some rather than none. An adult who functions at level one consistently will
end up in prison or dead.



The person who is growing, will look for more and more adequate ways of solving problems. If
he has no problems, no dilemmas, he is not likely to look for solutions. He will not grow
morally. (The Hero, prior to his calling, lives in comfortable stagnation. Small towns are
notorious for their low level "provincial" reasoning). In the apple pie example. The big brother,
who can just take the pie and get away with it, is less likely to look for a better solution than the
younger brother who will get none and probably a beating in the struggle. Life crises often
present opportunities for moral development. These include loss of one's job, moving to another
location, death of a significant other, unforeseen tragedies and disasters.


Development of moral reasoning is not automatic. It does not simply occur in tandem with
chronological aging. If a child is spoiled, never having to accommodate for others needs, if he is
raised in an environment where level two thinking by others gets the job done, he may never
generate enough questions to propel him to a higher level of moral reasoning. People who live
in small towns or enclaves within larger cities and never encounter those outside their tribal
boundaries are unlikely to have cause to develop morally. One key factor in development of
moral reasoning is the regularity with which one encounters moral dilemmas, even if only
hypothetically. Kohlberg found that the vast majority of adults never develop past conventional
moral reasoning, the bulk of them coming to rest in either Stage 3 Tribal or Stage 4 Social
Conventional stages. This is partly because the reinforcement mechanisms of the "common
sense" of everyday life provided little reason or opportunity to confront moral dilemmas and thus
one's own moral reasoning.


A. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice

- Women are socialized differently from men.
- Concerns for the other (nurturing, serving behaviors connected to socially
female roles) prevent women from developing moral reasoning per
Kohlberg's model

- Gilligan proposes three level of female development


- BUT, these levels seem to parallel Kohlberg's pre-conventional, conventional and post-
conventional levels
- Gilligan also produced little data to support her critique of Kohlberg, her former mentor

B. Charles Bailey, UCF

- Kohlberg's model is biased against conservative worldviews, values in favor of liberal

- But Kohlberg's model does not consider content of reasoning, only process
- Some conservatives reason at post-conventional levels, some radicals at pre-
conventional levels
- BUT, ongoing studies of Kohlberg's model by James Rest at University of Minnesota
have documented both the regularity of more liberal worldviews found in higher
levels of moral development as well as the potential for conservative content to
argued at post-conventional levels
Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development - Explained & Illustrated

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was a well-known theorist in the field of moral development. He
posed moral dilemmas (e.g., Heinz Dilemma) to his subjects then asked questions to probe their
reasons for recommending a specific course of action.

The Heinz Dilemma

1. Scenario 1

A woman was near death from a unique kind of cancer. There is a drug that might save her.
The drug costs $4,000 per dosage. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he
knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about
$2,000. He asked the doctor scientist who discovered the drug for a discount or let him pay
later. But the doctor scientist refused.

Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

2. Scenario 2

Heinz broke into the laboratory and stole the drug. The next day, the newspapers reported the
break-in and theft. Brown, a police officer and a friend of Heinz remembered seeing Heinz last
evening, behaving suspiciously near the laboratory. Later that night, he saw Heinz running
away from the laboratory.

Should Brown report what he saw? Why or why not?

3. Scenario 3

Officer Brown reported what he saw. Heinz was arrested and brought to court. If convicted, he
faces up to two years' jail. Heinz was found guilty.

Should the judge sentence Heinz to prison? Why or why not?

Stages of Moral Reasoning

From his research, he identified six stages of reasoning at three levels.

Chart of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation

Level One:
Pre-conventional Morality
Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation

Level Two: Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation

Conventional Morality Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation

Level Three:
Post-Conventional Morality
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Movement through the Stages

Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning is a stage theory. In other words, everyone goes through the
stages sequentially without skipping any stage. However, movement through these stages are not
natural, that is people do not automatically move from one stage to the next as they mature. In stage
development, movement is effected when cognitive dissonance occurs ... that is when a person
notices inadequacies in his or her present way of coping with a given moral dilemma.

But according to stage theory, people cannot understand moral reasoning more than one stage ahead
of their own. For example, a person in Stage 1 can understand Stage 2 reasoning but nothing beyond
that. Therefore, we should present moral arguments that are only one stage ahead of a person's
present level of reasoning to stimulate movement to higher stages.

This article (in 4 parts) is an attempt to use illustrations to help explain the six stages and to show
how cognitive dissonance can be created by throwing up the inadequacies of the different stages of


Moral Developments and Moral Reasoning

This section investigates how we examine our own moral standards and apply them to concrete

situations and issues. It first looks at the process of moral development itself.

We sometimes assume that a person's values are formed during childhood and do not change.

In fact, a great deal of psychological research, as well as one's own personal experience,
demonstrates that as people mature, they change their values in very deep and profound ways.

Just as people's physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities develop as they age, so also their

ability to deal with moral issues develops as they move through their lives.

Moral Reasoning & Kohlbergs' Resaech

Lawrence Kohlberg identified six stages of moral development:

Level One: Pre-conventional Stages

1. Punishment and Obedience Orientation - At this stage, the physical consequences of an

act wholly determine the goodness or badness of that act. The child's reasons for doing

the right thing are to avoid punishment or defer to the superior physical power of

authorities. There is little awareness that others have needs similar to one's own.

2. Instrument and Relativity Orientation- At this stage, right actions become those that can

serve as instruments for satisfying the child's own needs or the needs of those for whom

the child cares.

At these first two stages, the child is able to respond to rules and social expectations and can

apply the labels good, bad, right, and wrong. These rules, however, are seen as something

externally imposed on the self. Right and wrong are interpreted in terms of the pleasant or

painful consequences of actions or in terms of the physical power of those who set the rules.

Level Two: Conventional Stages

Maintaining the expectations of one's own family, peer group, or nation is now seen as valuable

in its own right, regardless of the consequences.

1. Interpersonal Concordance Orientation - Good behavior at this early conventional stage

is living to the expectations of those for whom one feels loyalty, affection, and trust,

such as family and friends. Right action is conformity to what is generally expected in

one's role as a good son, daughter, brother, friend, and so on.

2. Law and Order Orientation - Right and wrong at this more mature conventional stage

now come to be determined by loyalty to one's own larger nation or surrounding

society. Laws are to be upheld except where they conflict with other fixed social duties.

Business Ethics MGT610


Level Three: Post-conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Stages

1. Social Contract Orientation - At this first post-conventional stage, the person becomes

aware that people hold a variety of conflicting personal views and opinions and

emphasizes fair ways of reaching consensus by agreement, contract, and due process.

2. Universal Ethical Principles Orientation - At this final stage, right action comes to be

defined in terms of moral principles chosen because of their logical comprehensiveness,

universality, and consistency.

At these stages, the person no longer simply accepts the values and norms of the groups to

which he or she belongs. Instead, the person now tries to see situations from a point of view

that impartially takes everyone's interests into account. The person questions the laws and

values that society has adopted and redefines them in terms of self-chosen moral principles that

can be justified in rational terms.

Kohlberg's own research found that many people remain stuck at an early stage of moral

development. His structure implies that later stages are better than the earlier ones. Kohlberg

has been criticized for this implication, and for not offering any argument to back it up.

Carol Gilligan, a feminist psychologist, has also criticized Kohlberg's theory on the grounds

that it describes male and not female patterns of moral development. Gilligan claims that there

is a "female" approach to moral issues that Kohlberg ignores.

Both Gilligan and Kohlberg agree that there are stages of growth in moral development,

moving from a focus on the self through conventional stages and onto a mature stage where we

critically and reflectively examine the adequacy of our moral standards. Therefore, one of the

central aims of ethics is the stimulation of this moral development by discussing, analyzing,

and criticizing the moral reasoning that we and others do, finding one set of principles "better"

when it has been examined and found to have better and stronger reasons supporting it.
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Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development(1981)

While not a specific ethical system, the work of a cognitive psychologist,

Lawrence Kohlberg, can shed light on why people make different ethical
judgements. Kohlberg suggests that as people mature, so does their
understanding of ethical issues. At different stages, people have different
sources of motivation, and thus may make different ethical judgements. The
following material identifies the six stages of moral development proposed by
Kohlberg and the accompanying motivational factors.

Stage One: The "obedience and punishment" stage. We all begin our lives at
this stage, by obeying those in authority, or, more precisely, to those with the
power to punish.

Primary motivation: to avoid punishment; motivation and the actual act itself
are both irrelevant to the ethical decision-making.

Stage Two: The "individualism and reciprocity" stage. Right or wrong

decisions are made on the basis of what is best for the person making the
decision, though some negotiation with others may be necessary to attain
what I want.

Primary motivation: my self-interest; meeting one's own needs is the primary

concern, not the rightness or wrongness of the act or its consequences
(except for me).

Stage Three: The "interpersonal conformity" stage or the "good boy/nice girl"
stage. Right or wrong is determined by what others close to us expect of us.
The expectations of others are our guidelines.

Primary motivation: to be a good team player; thus actions are judged by the
type of motive or the type of person likely to perform the action. Did the
person "mean well"; was the person doing the act basically a "good person"?
Stage Four: The "social system" or "law-and-order" stage. An individual has a
part to play in a society which is to do one's duty and to obey the rules and
laws. There are fixed rules and duties that one must honor. Kohlberg thought
that most adult Americans were "stuck" at this stage of moral development.

Primary motivation: to keep society as a whole going (or to keep some

institution going); motives and consequences are irrelevant in judging an
action; an act is always right or wrong depending on the laws and duties.

Stage Five: The "social contract" stage. Here the individual moves beyond
the fixed rules, duties, and laws to think about wider values and
responsibilities: life, liberty, etc. The utilitarian appeal of "greatest good for the
greatest number" often is invoked in this stage. Thus, one believes that there
are moral values/rights that may be independent of society's laws.

Primary motivation: "what could all of us in principle agree to?"; generally,

means do not justify the ends, though the circumstances and/or one's motives
might modify this judgment.

Stage Six: The stage of "universal ethical principles." Now, instead of thinking
what is best for the greatest number, higher ethical laws are invoked.
Concerns such as respect for the dignity of each person, basic equality for all,
and treating people as ends not means are prevalent concepts in this stage--
which Kohlberg thought that few attained (like Maslow's self-actualization).

Primary motivation: following these higher ethical principles; good motives do

not make an act right (or not wrong). However, if someone acts based on a
higher ethical principle, then the act is not wrong. Hence, deviation from the
rules may be "right."

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

in Business
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development presents a six-stage model of the way morality develops in
modern individuals. Although the model is largely focused on adolescent morality, each of the six
stages can shed light into the way people think in the workplace, or the way entrepreneurs think
about morality as they build their companies. Understanding the relevance of Kohlberg's six stages
of moral development in business can be helpful for developing human-resources policies and
incentive systems, and can be especially insightful when trying to understanding younger
employees' behavior and decision-making.
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Punishment and Obedience

In stage one, people believe that rules are absolute and handed down from unquestionable
authorities. This stage is most prevalent in children under 10 years old, but some adults in the
workplace still display this type of moral orientation. Some employees may work best within a strict
structure, and can be more motivated by fear of consequences than ambition or pride in
accomplishment. This can be especially true of teenage employees, who see their current jobs as no
more than temporary income opportunities.

Individualism and Exchange

In the second stage, people begin to believe that the concepts of right and wrong are not
encapsulated in formal rules, and that the morality of a given action depends on the perspective and
needs of the individual performing the action. Employees in this stage can make decisions directly
opposed to the needs of their employers, as long as they can justify their actions based on personal
needs. When managing employees at this stage, it is important to make sure they see their own
compensation and conditions of employment as just and fair.

Interpersonal Relationships
In stage three, people move outside of considerations of individual morality, considering the moral
norms and structures that come from relationships. In this stage, the underlying assumption is that
"right" and "wrong" can be determined by an action's contribution to or detraction from social
harmony. Employees in this stage can make decisions that resonate with the values of their
employer, but which are not necessarily in the best interest of outside stakeholders. When managing
people at this stage, clearly communicate the importance of ethical interactions with customers,
suppliers and other outsiders.

Social Order
Stage four introduces a slight evolution from stage three. People interpret morality through the same
social lens as stage three, but with a wider perspective. In this stage, people are concerned with the
norms and structures of society as a whole, rather than only their own family, friends and workplace.

Social Contract and Individual Rights

In this stage, ideas of morality begin to supersede societal norms, allowing for the morality of acts
like civil disobedience, which break social norms in the protection of individual rights. Individuals are
seen as having the "right" to break rules, as long as those rules do not act in direct opposition to the
basic structure of a social contract. At this stage, an employee may consider it a moral act to break a
workplace rule to make a statement about the fairness of HR policies. When employees at this stage
act out, it can be wise to listen to and address their concerns.

Universal Principles
According to Kohlberg, the final stage of moral development is achieved when people learn to see
moral dilemmas through the perspectives of everyone involved in a situation. Suddenly, it's not just
about relationships, social norms and individual rights. Morality becomes a function of all of these
things combined, culminating in an understanding of the outcome of actions based on others'
subjective biases and an appreciation of the dignity and rights of all people.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development in Business

Lawrence Kohlberg's theory on the development of morality has been widely influential in psychology, feminist
studies and even in business ethics. Kohlberg's theories can help business owners and managers understand how
their employees and other key stakeholders interact with the organization and its leadership at various stages of
growth. Kohlberg's six stages are categorized into three levels.

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The preconventional level of moral development addresses the earliest reactions that children are likely to have to
their surroundings and relationships. At the earliest stage, the child will almost always defer judgment to someone in
control and does not have many desires of her own. The second stage begins when the child starts rudimentarily
looking out for her own needs. She will show love and affection, and her actions will largely be motivated by a
desire to please authority figures. When applied to business, the preconventional level explains the reactions of
many employees when they first join an organization. There is often apprehension about pleasing the boss and a
desire to perform work diligently and without much upset.

Kohlberg says that as a person matures morally, she enters into the conventional stages of good interpersonal
relationships and a sense of maintaining social order. This normally occurs in the teenage years, when the person
will start to develop more intense relationships with others that go beyond self-service, and she will want to obey
authority not for reward, but because she sees it as a way to maintain order and secure justice. In business, this
conventional stage of morality is witnessed as employees become more comfortable working within the organization
and with their co-workers and supervisors. While the employee will ideally still want to be productive with her time,
her focus begins to shift to the better good of the company as opposed to purely selfish motives.

Related Reading: Stages in the Process of Starting a New Business

Kohlberg's highest stages of moral development are called postconventional and involve a recognition of the social
contract and of universal ethical principles. A social contract is the idea that people have to give up certain rights in
exchange for other rights or for protection. This is the recognition that free speech has restrictions, that certain laws
are meant for the greater good and that ethical principles work in conjunction to help society's members live better
lives. In the business setting, the postconventional stage is likely to be seen in employees who have a long history
with the company. These employees may have risen to management positions and are keen to secure a sense of
rights and responsibilities among their subordinates.

Implementing Kohlberg's Stages

While Kohlberg's stages of moral development are an interesting way to think about the growth of individuals, they
do not readily correspond to all business situations. Some employees may enter at higher stages than others, and
likewise, some employees may never progress past certain stages of thought. An adept manager or business owner is
able to meet employees where they are and to enact company-wide policies and procedures that work to secure
effective and efficient workplaces without the need to constantly think in terms of moral development.