Lawrence Kohlberg

“Morality refers to the capacity to make judgments about what is right versus what is wrong…it is preferring to act in ways that are judged to be right, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 222).”


Kohlberg is another stage-theorist in the field of human development (Broderick, 2010). He focused on the nature of moral reason and its development in late childhood and adolescence. His theory is comprised of three primary stages: a pre-conventional stage, conventional stage, and post-conventional stage.  Like Piaget and Erickson, he stated that this development was hierarchical and progressive in nature (Broderick, 2010).

Within each stage, Kohlberg conceived a qualitatively unique pattern of thought (Kassin, 2001; Rest, 1969). Kohlberg’s stages are based on unique patterns of moral thinking (Kassin, 2001; Rest, 1969). In other words, rather than just on prosocial behavior in itself, Kohlberg felt it is more important to understand what produces it (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010)

According to Kohlberg, moral behavior has innate biological origins and is more than just a set of socially defined concepts (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000). Additionally moral reasoning includes both emotional and cognitive components (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000).  A child’s developing understanding of concepts and their emotional reactions them together produce a child’s developing moral thought (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000).

Piaget’s influence

Kohlberg studied Piaget’s States of Development and in particular of individual’s moral development in early childhood.  Like William Perry, Kohlberg beat his theory on Piaget’s insights, whose discussion of moral development only includes childhood stages and milestones.   Piaget’s stages of moral development includes three stages: (1) Premoral Period, (2) Heteronomous Morality, and (3_ Autonomous Morality (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).

Premoral Period

Piaget described preschool aged children as having premoral thjinking since they appear unconcerned about established rules or moral standards, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).  At this age, they make up their own rules, and are focused instead on making sense of sensory information and developing motor abilities.

Heteronomous Morality

Around the age of 5 children begin to display heteronomous morality (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). This moral thinking involves following rules determined by authority figures.   At this stage, children have an absolutist moral standard in which rules are strictly adhered to and immutable, (Broderick & Blewwitt, 2010).  They must be obeyed, and violations always result in punishment.

Autonomous Morality

As individuals enter adolescence, their thinking becomes more autonomous.  “They begin to understand that rules are based on social agreements that can be changed, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 224).” Consequently, they are understood as being arbitrary, and open for negotation in accordance with the principles of “cooperation, equality, and reciprocity. (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).

Stages of Moral Development


As is noted in the above diagram, Kohlberg further refines Piaget’s insights by providing a much more detailed description of individual moral development.  “Unlike Piaget’s dilemmas, which focused on everyday challenges…., (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225)” Kohlberg’s challenges involve extraordinary challenges, that produce broad philosophical concerns.  His stages of moral development are described in greater detail below:

Preconventional Level

Occurring between the ages of 2-7, pre-conventional morality is guided by the consequences of one’s actions.  Behavior at this stage is guided by the concepts of punishment and reward (Rosenthal, 2005).  Broderick & Blewitt, (2010) note that this stage reflects Piaget’s heteronomous moral level. Thinking is guided by a self-serving standards and authority is unquestioned.  This Level contains two stages described as follows:

STAGE #1: “Punishment & Obedience”

During this stage, the child “obeys in order to avoid punishment and because authority is assumed to be superior or right.  Rules are interpreted literally, no judgment is involved, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”

STAGE #2: “Concrete, Individualistic Orientation”

Next, in the pre-conventional level is the development of of an individualistic and instrumental orientation.  During this stage, the child follows rules in order to serve his or her own interests.  Occasionally, this stage also involves a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010)”, as other’s needs are also considered at times.

Conventional Level

Occurring during early adolescence, the conventional level involves “living up to standards set by your family, the nation or your culture, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  Consistent with Piaget’s autonomous morality, this thinking depends on the approval of others.  Success is a “byproduct of your ability to identify with those in power and live according to socially-defined rules, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  It contains two substages:

Stage #3: Good Boy / Good Girl Morality

During this stage, morality is guided by a desire to attain approval from others (Rosenthal, 2005). Described as the “Social-Relational Perspective” in Broderick & Blewitt (2010), it focuses on activities and attitudes helpful to one’s social group, (i.e. helpfulness, forgiveness, and generosity).

Stage #4: Law and Order Morality

During this stage, members are focused on maintaining social order (Rosenthal, 2005).  Behaviors are guided by social order and geared toward the contribution of the social system.  Individuals are oriented toward valuing obeying the law and working hard.

Postconventional Level

In Kohlberg’s final stage of morality individuals act on the basis of self-defined principles, (Rosenthal, 2005).  Post-conventional morality is defined by universal principles.   It includes the following sub-stages:

Stage #5: Prior Rights & Social Contract

During this stage, “individuals want to maintain respect with equals in the community, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  Moral thought is based upon the social contract and serving “democratic principles and individual rights, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”

Stage #6: Universal Ethical Principles

In Kohlberg’s final stage of moral development, individual’s are concerned with adhering universal ethical principles and equal rights.  “Abstract moral principles are valued over anything else (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”


Broderick, P.C. & Blewitt, P. (2010). Life Span Development: Human Development for Helping Professionals. (3rd. Ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Puka, B. (2002). The DIT and the ‘Dark Side’ of Development. Journal Of Moral Education, 31(3), 339-352. doi:10.1080/0305724022000008157
Kassin, Paul. (2001). Psychology. (3rd Ed.). Upper Saddle Creek River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rest, J., Turiel, E., & Kohlberg, L. (1969). Level of moral development as a determinant of preference and comprehension of moral judgments made by others. Journal Of Personality, 37(2), 225-252.
Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society. 37(2) 36-41.


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