by Saul McLeod published 2011
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.
Kohlberg told several dilemma stories and asked many such questions to discover how people reasoned about moral issues. 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.
Kohlberg Stages of Moral Development
Level 1 - Pre-conventional morality
Authority is outside the individual and reasoning is based on the physical consequences of actions.
• 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
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 others.
• 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 guilt.
Level 3 - Post-conventional morality
Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice.
• 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.
Criticism of Kohlberg’s theory comes from Gilligan, who argues that the theory is androcentric (male bias) after Kohlberg reporting that most men were at stage 4 while most women were at stage 3.
claims that the female participants of Kohlberg’s study
were being judged using a male standard due to the
gender bias of Kohlberg’s original research, which was
based solely on studying men. 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.
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. 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.
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 was cross-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. He 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.
Colby, A., Kohlberg, L., Gibbs, J., & Lieberman, M. (1983). A longitudinal study of moral judgment. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48 (1-2, Serial No. 200). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47 (4).
Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2011). . Retrieved from
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