A Look At Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

A Look At Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development - Toolshero

Moral development is a complex topic that is still being researched; its core tenants are still contested, even amongst neuroscientists, psychological researchers, and professional psychologists. However, over the years there have been a few notable theorists and practitioners who have furthered our understanding of moral development by theorizing about the process of moral maturation. Lawrence Kohlberg was one such practitioner. You might need a Masters in Mental Health Counseling to understand Kohlberg or any of his primary influences in full; what follows will provide a summary focusing on Kohlberg’s theories and how they relate to those of his predecessors.

Early Icons of Moral Development Theory

Sigmund Freud

Theories of moral development date back to the originator of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud drew many conclusions about the progress of individual morality, his primary insight being that the Superego suppresses the Ego and replaces or augments our selfish instincts with the values and actions that we see as pleasing the people representing the strongest social influences on our life. Despite their other differences, B.F. Skinner, one of history’s most influential psychological theorists and the most important figure in the school of thought known as Behaviorism, agreed with Freud that moral development arose primarily as a result of external forces and conditioned behaviors.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was perhaps the first notable developmental psychologist to oppose this notion, instead theorizing that humans go through two primary phases of moral development. According to Piaget, the initial phase, known as the Heteronomous Phase, is characterized by external influences and the primacy of authority figures. Rules and authority are seen as absolute, and a basic faith in justice predominates, with a general assumption that bad behavior will be punished in some way. Piaget’s second phase, the Autonomous Phase, begins during teenage years and becomes dominant as people enter into adulthood. The Autonomous Phase consists of the child’s awakening to the importance of intentions and the complexities behind the moral significance of actions, including the idea that morals are not universal, that other people have different ideas of right and wrong, and that rules must sometimes be bent or broken in order to achieve an optimally moral outcome.

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The Moral Mixology of Lawrence Kohlberg

Kohlberg’s work consisted primarily of exploration and further explication of Piaget’s concepts. Like Piaget, Kohlberg believed in the primacy of moral thought and reasoning, rather than emphasizing behavioral patterns and the process of their formation, like Freud and Skinner. He also emphasized the notion of a linear process of ongoing moral maturation throughout the lifetime of the individual, rather than assuming, like Skinner, that behaviors simply changed throughout life as a consequence of whether or not they are reinforced or punished.

Kohlberg further elaborated on Piaget’s stage-oriented theory, positing that moral development occurred over the course of three phases, each consisting of two stages, for a total of six stages: pre-conventional, consisting of obedience and self-interest; conventional, composed of conformity and authority; and post-conventional, comprised of the social contract, and universal ethics.
The Moral Mixology of Lawrence Kohlberg - Toolshero

The Pre-Conventional Stages

The pre-conventional phase is the first and least mature phase of moral development, lasting until around age nine. During this phase, the behavior of the child is, as postulated by Freud and Skinner, largely or almost exclusively conditioned by a combination of natural instincts and the behaviors that are rewarded or punished by their parents and other perceived authority figures. People in this stage of development are primarily concerned with their own needs, and whether or not they are breaking any perceived “rules” to meet them.

Stage One: Punishment & Obedience Orientation

In the first stage, obedience, children are primarily concerned with whether or not they are doing things that please their parents. Kohlberg calls this “Punishment and Obedience Orientation”. They look to their parents for approval, replicating behaviors that elicit positive responses, and avoiding doing things that cause them to be punished. They are only just beginning to conceive of things as right or wrong in the most basic sense. If they are not punished for something, and it feels good, it must be a good thing; if they are punished, it must be bad.

The Second Stage: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation

As this sense of reward and punishment develops, the child enters the second stage: self-interest. In this stage, the child begins actively seeking not only the approval from their parents that they desire, but rather any other outcome that gives them the same feeling of reward. Kohlberg refers to this stage as Instrumental-Relativist Orientation. If something feels good, they do it.

Children in this stage tend to be impulsive and selfish, but not exclusively so – they can be quite considerate and even calculating, if they believe it serves their interests. For example, a child in this phase might tell on their sibling for doing something naughty, not so much out of the best interest of their sibling or a sense of abstract right and wrong, but simply because they know this behavior will be praised.
Instrumental-Relativist Orientation - Toolshero

The Conventional Stages

The conventional phase entails acceptance of rules and a faith in authority to act to serve the needs of the community. In this phase, adolescents begin to have internalized abstract concepts of right and wrong, as conditioned by the morals and standards of behavior that have been demonstrated by those they perceive as authority figures; instead of seeking reward and avoiding punishment, they begin to impose those rules upon themselves out of a sense of duty. They also assume that others exhibit this same behavior, and that conformity to these rules is good for everyone.

The Third Stage: Good Boy / Nice Girl

The third stage, conformity, was what Kohlberg called the “good boy, nice girl” stage. Early adolescents begin to care explicitly what others think of them, not just because they receive an explicit reward or praise, but because they begin to perceive value in conformity. This herd-like behavior stems from the desire to fit in with a group, live up to the expectations of others, and be a part of a larger collective.

In the fourth stage, this collective instinct develops into a value for hierarchy. Kohlberg termed this the “law and order orientation.” Older adolescents begin appreciating power dynamics and the order and structure brought about by authority. This is the beginning of appreciation of abstract morality, and the origin of our modern systems of law. In this stage, the consensus evolves from a positive social value into an abstract form of authority in itself.

The Post-Conventional Stages

The post-conventional phase instantiates what we most commonly think of as morality: a truly abstract sense of right and wrong, and a consideration of how those determinations are made and what their consequences might be. According to the theory, not everyone develops to this level – indeed, Kohlberg theorized that only 10-15% of adults ever develop a truly abstract sense of right and wrong, and actively, meaningfully question the reasons they or others might hold those beliefs.

The Fifth Stage: Social Contact Orientation

His concept of the fifth stage, which he called, the “social contract orientation,” is primarily characterized by thoughts of what is best for society. Actions are viewed not in isolation, but in the larger context of what is good or bad for society. People in this stage also begin to consider that others might have beliefs that differ from theirs. This moral relativism enables them to empathize not only with the feelings of others, but to deeply consider their motivations for taking an action, and whether or not they might outweigh the immediate consequences.

The sixth Stage: Universal Ethical pPinciples

The final stage, termed “universal ethical principles” by Kohlberg, is arrived at when people transcend this moral relativism and arrive at the conclusion that there are truly such things as good and evil in the most abstract and absolute sense. People at this stage maintain strong moral convictions regardless of their circumstances, and will be willing to risk breaking laws or even endangering themselves if they deem that it is necessary to achieve a truly moral and good outcome in a situation.

Kohlberg & The Heinz Dilema

Kohlberg is known for using what he called the Heinz Dilemma to illustrate different responses that a complex moral situation might elicit from people depending on the stage of development that they are in. In the Heinz Dilemma, a man named Heiz is married to a woman who is dying from cancer. The local pharmacist happens to possess a new drug that might save her, which he personally discovered. Heinz wanted to buy the medicine for his wife, but the pharmacist, wanting to capitalize upon his brilliant invention, was charging ten times the cost of making the drug to his customers.

This was far more than Heinz would be able to afford – after raising money from family and friends, he was only able to come up with half the cost of the medicine. He tried to explain to the pharmacist that his wife would die without treatment, and begged for pharmacist to show mercy and sell the drug at a discount, or at least offer a payment plan. The pharmacist refused, insisting that his invention was valuable and that he had a right to profit from his discovery. In order to save his wife, Heinz waited until nightfall, broke into the pharmacist’s office, and stole the drug for her.

Can you imagine what Kohlberg might have predicted that people at each stage of moral development might have done? His answers are more complex than one might assume, and might surprise you.

What would you do in Heinz’s shoes?

Vincent van Vliet
Article by:

Vincent van Vliet

Vincent van Vliet is co-founder and responsible for the content and release management. Together with the team Vincent sets the strategy and manages the content planning, go-to-market, customer experience and corporate development aspects of the company.

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