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Lawrence Kohlberg

Stage Based Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) modified and elaborated Piaget's work, and laid the groundwork for the current debate within psychology on moral development. Consistent with Piaget, he proposed that children form ways of thinking through their experiences which include understandings of moral concepts such as justice, rights, equality and human welfare. Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment beyond the ages studied by Piaget, and determined that the process of attaining moral maturity took longer and was more gradual than Piaget had proposed. On the basis of his research, Kohlberg identified six stages of moral reasoning grouped into three major levels. Each level represented a fundamental shift in the social-moral perspective of the individual. At the first level, the preconventional level, a person's moral judgments are characterized by a concrete, individual perspective. Within this level, a Stage 1 heteronomous orientation focuses on avoiding breaking rules that are backed by punishment, obedience for its own sake and avoiding the physical consequences of an action to persons and property. As in Piaget's framework, the reasoning of Stage 1 is characterized by ego-centrism and the inability to consider the perspectives of others. At Stage 2 there is the early emergence of moral reciprocity. The Stage 2 orientation focuses on the instrumental, pragmatic value of an action. Reciprocity is of the form, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." The Golden Rule becomes, "If someone hits you, you hit them back."

At Stage 2 one follows the rules only when it is to someone's immediate interests. What is right is what's fair in the sense of an equal exchange, a deal, an agreement. At Stage 2 there is an understanding that everybody has his(her) own interest to pursue and these conflict, so that right is relative (in the concrete individualist sense).


Individuals at the conventional level of reasoning, however, have a basic understanding of conventional morality, and reason with an understanding that norms and conventions are necessary to uphold society. They tend to be self-identified with these rules, and uphold them consistently, viewing morality as acting in accordance with what society defines as right. Within this level, individuals at Stage 3 are aware of shared feelings, agreements, and expectations which take primacy over individual interests. Persons at Stage 3 define what is right in terms of what is expected by people close to one's self, and in terms of the stereotypic roles that define being good - e.g., a good brother, mother, teacher. Being good means keeping mutual relationships, such as trust, loyalty, respect, and gratitude. The perspective is that of the local community or family. There is not as yet a consideration of the generalized social system. Stage 4 marks the shift from defining what is right in terms of local norms and role expectations to defining right in terms of the laws and norms established by the larger social system. This is the "member of society" perspective in which one is moral by fulfilling the actual duties defining one's social responsibilities. One must obey the law except in extreme cases in which the law comes into conflict with other prescribed social duties. Obeying the law is seen as necessary in order to maintain the system of laws which protect everyone.


Finally, the post conventional level is characterized by reasoning based on principles, using a "prior to society" perspective. These individuals reason based on the principles which underlie rules and norms, but reject a uniform application of a rule or norm. While two stages have been presented within the theory, only one, Stage 5, has received substantial empirical support. Stage 6 remains as a theoretical endpoint which rationally follows from the preceding 5 stages. In essence this last level of moral judgment entails reasoning rooted in the ethical fairness principles from which moral laws would be devised. Laws are evaluated in terms of their coherence with basic principles of fairness rather than upheld simply on the basis of their place within an existing social order. Thus, there is an understanding that elements of morality such as regard for life and human welfare transcend particular cultures and societies and are to be upheld irrespective of other conventions or normative obligations. These stages (1-5) have been empirically supported by findings from longitudinal and cross-cultural research (Power et al., 1989).


Moral Education


Kohlberg used these findings to reject traditional character education practices. These approaches are premised in the idea that virtues and vices are the basis to moral behavior, or that moral character is comprised of a "bag of virtues", such as honesty, kindness, patience, strength, etc. According to the traditional approach, teachers are to teach these virtues through example and direct communication of convictions, by giving students an opportunity to practice these virtues, and by rewarding their expression. However, critiques of the traditional approach find flaws inherent in this model. This approach provides no guiding principle for defining what virtues are worthy of espousal, and wrongly assumes a community consensus on what are considered "positive values". In fact, teachers often end up arbitrarily imposing certain values depending upon their societal, cultural, and personal beliefs. In order to address this issue of ethical relativity, some have adopted the values-clarification approach to moral education. This teaching practice is based on the assumption that there are no single, correct answers to ethical dilemmas, but that there is value in holding clear views and acting accordingly. In addition, there is a value of toleration of divergent views. It follows, then, that the teacher's role is one of discussion moderator, with the goal of teaching merely that people hold different values; the teacher does attempt to present her views as the "right" views.


Kohlberg rejected the focus on values and virtues, not only due to the lack of consensus on what virtues are to be taught, but also because of the complex nature of practicing such virtues. For example, people often make different decisions yet hold the same basic moral values. Kohlberg believed a better approach to affecting moral behavior should focus on stages of moral development. These stages are critical, as they consider the way a person organizes their understanding of virtues, rules, and norms, and integrates these into a moral choice (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989). In addition, he rejected the relativist view point in favor of the view that certain principles of justice and fairness represent the pinnacle of moral maturity, as he found that these basic moral principles are found in different cultures and subcultures around the world (Kohlberg & Turiel, 1971).


The goal of moral education, it then follows, is to encourage individuals to develop to the next stage of moral reasoning. Initial educational efforts employing Kohlberg's theory were grounded in basic Piagetian assumptions of cognitive development. Development, in this model, is not merely the result of gaining more knowledge, but rather consists of a sequence of qualitative changes in the way an individual thinks. Within any stage of development, thought is organized according to the constraints of that stage. An individual then interacts with the environment according to their basic understandings of the environment. However, the child will at some point encounter information which does not fit into their world view, forcing the child to adjust their view to accommodate this new information. This process is called equilibration, and it is through equilibration that development occurs. Early moral development approaches to education, therefore, sought to force students to ponder contradiction inherent to their present level of moral reasoning.


The most common tool for doing this was to present a "moral dilemma" (see Classroom Practices) and require students to determine and justify what course the actor in the dilemma should take. Through discussion, students should then be forced to face the contradictions present in any course of action not based on principles of justice or fairness.




While Kohlberg appreciated the importance and value of such moral dilemma discussions, he held from very early on that moral education required more than individual reflection, but also needed to include experiences for students to operate as moral agents within a community. In this regard, Kohlberg reconciled some of the differences in orientation that existed between the theories of moral growth held by Piaget and Durkheim. In order to provide students with an optimal context within which to grow morally, Kohlberg and his colleagues developed the "just community" schools approach towards promoting moral development (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989). The basic premise of these schools is to enhance students' moral development by offering them the chance to participate in a democratic community. Here, democracy refers to more than simply casting a vote. It entails full participation of community members in arriving at consensual rather than "majority rules" decision-making. One primary feature of these schools is their relatively small size (often they are actually schools within schools), aimed at providing the students with a sense of belonging to a group which is responsive to individual needs. The central institution of these schools is a community meeting in which issues related to life and discipline in the schools are discussed and democratically decided, with an equal value placed on the voices of students and teachers. An underlying goal of these meetings is to establish collective norms which express fairness for all members of the community. It is believed that by placing the responsibility of determining and enforcing rules on students, they will take prosocial behavior more seriously. At the same time, this approach stems from the cognitive-developmentalist view that discussion of moral dilemmas can stimulate moral development.



Dr. Ann Higgins D'Alessandro 

However, this is not to say that just community school simply leaves students to their own devices; teachers play a crucial leadership role in these discussions, promoting rules and norms which have a concern for justice and community, and ultimately enforcing the rules. This role is not an easy one, as teachers must listen closely and understand a student's reasoning, in order to help the student to the next level of reasoning. This requires a delicate balance between letting the students make decisions, and advocating in a way which shows them the limits in their reasoning. A primary advantage to the Just Community approach is its effectiveness in affecting students actions, not just their reasoning. Students are, in effect, expected to "practice what they preach", by following the rules determined in community meetings.


The most comprehensive and authoritative source for work on Kohlberg's approach to moral education is to be found in : Power, F. C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989). "Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education." New York: Columbia University Press.

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