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Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Kohlberg's stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. This theory holds that moral reasoning, which Kohlberg thought to be the basis for ethical behavior, has developmental stages. From the results of his studies at Harvard's Center for Moral Education with colleague Sandy Roney-Hays, Kohlberg concluded that there are six identifiable stages of moral development. These stages can be classified into three levels. Note that these stages are known by various names.



Level 1 (Pre-conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation

Level 2 (Conventional)

3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (The good boy/good 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)

An explanation of the stages

The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults can also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners in the pre-conventional level judge the morality of an action by its direct consequences. The pre-conventional level is divided into two stages: stage one (obedience and punishment orientation); stage two (self-interest orientation).

In stage one, individuals focus on the direct consequences that their actions will have for themselves. For example, they think that an action is morally wrong if the person who commits it gets punished.

Stage two espouses the what's in it for me position; right behavior being defined by what is in one's own best interest. Stage two reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might furthers one's own interests, such as "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." Concern for others is not based on loyalty or intrinsic respect in stage two.

The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adults and older children. Persons who reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing these actions to social rules and expectations.

The conventional level is divided into two stages: stage three (conformity orientation); stage four (law-and-order morality).

Individuals whose moral reasoning is in stage three seek approval from other people. They try to be a good boy or good girl having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships.

Stage four, individuals think it is important to obey the laws and social conventions because of its importance to maintaining society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for approval exhibited in stage three.

The post-conventional level is divided into two stages: stage five (social contract orientation); stage six (principled conscience).

Persons in stage five have certain principles to which they may attach more value than laws, such as human rights or social justice. In this reasoning, actions are wrong if they violate these ethical principles. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than dictums, and must be changed when necessary (provided there is agreement). By this reasoning laws that do not promote general social welfare, for example, should be changed. (Democratic governments are ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.)

In stage six, the final stage, moral reasoning is based on the use of abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. While Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he had difficulty finding participants who use it. It appears that people rarely if ever reach stage six of Kohlberg's model.

Kohlberg also observed that there is a stage 4 or 4+ which is a transition from stage four to stage five. This stage is where people have become disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning and become moral relativists. This transition stage may result in either progress to stage five or in regression to stage four.

Kohlberg further speculated that a seventh stage may exist (Transcendental Morality) which would link religion with moral reasoning (See James Fowler 's stages of faith).


Kohlberg used moral dilemmas to determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The dilemmas are short stories in which a person has to make a moral decision. The participant is asked what this person should do. A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma:

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?

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. The point of interest is the justification that the participant offers. Below are examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages. It is important to keep in mind that these arguments are only examples. It is possible that a participant reaches a completely different conclusion using the same stage of reasoning:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because otherwise he will be put in prison.
  • 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.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine, because his wife expects it.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the law prohibits stealing.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine, because everyone has a right to live, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because the scientist has a right to fair compensation.
  • 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 that violates the golden rule of honesty and respect.
  • Stage seven (transcendental morality): Heinz should not steal the medicine, because he and his wife should accept the sickness as part of the natural cycle of life-and-death and instead enjoy their time left together.

Theoretical assumptions

The stages of Kohlberg's model refer to reasoning, not to actions or to people themselves. Kohlberg insists that the form of moral arguments is independent of the content of the arguments. According to Kohlberg, moral reasoning is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for moral action . Additionally, Piaget's stages of cognitive development are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the development of moral reasoning. It is important to remember that he posits justice as the a priori summum bonum (justice is assumed to be equal with moral virtue).

According to Kohlberg, a person who progresses to a higher stage of moral reasoning cannot skip stages. For example, a person cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer opinions (stage three) to being a proponent of social contracts (stage five). However, when persons encounter a moral dilemma and find their current level of moral reasoning unsatisfactory, they will look to the next level. Discovery of the limitations of the current stage of thinking promotes moral development.


One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other values. As a consequence of this, it may not adequately address the arguments of people who value other moral aspects of actions. For example, Carol Gilligan has argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly male-centric. His theory was the result of empirical research using only male particants. Gilligan argued that Kohlberg's theory therefore did not adequately describe the concerns of women. She developed an alternative theory of moral reasoning that is based on the value of care. Although recent research has generally not found any gender differences in moral development, Gilligan's theory illustrates that theories on moral development do not need to focus on the value of justice.

Other psychologists have challenged the assumption that moral action is primarily reached by formal reasoning . For example, social intuitionists assume that people often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights and abstract ethical values. If this is true, the arguments that Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists have analyzed are often no more than post-hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions. This would mean that moral reasoning is less relevant to moral action than it seems.

Last updated: 06-02-2005 17:36:52
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