Moral Development – Lawrence Kohlberg

American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, built upon the cognitive development and moral reasoning work of Jean Piaget, theorizing that humans develop through six stages of morality across three categories.

Preconventional: Morality is Determined by Consequences
Stage 1. Obedience & Punishment: Children behave to avoid being punished. Punishment means we must have done something wrong; rewards mean we must have done something right. Obedience and moral judgments are based on punishment and rewards.
Stage 2. Self-Interest: Rules handed down by “the authority” remain supreme. Meanwhile, increasingly motivated by self-interest, children start to recognize that there are several ways of looking at things. While consequences remain the primary driver, children start to consider alternatives.

Conventional: Morality is Determined by Social Rules
Stage 3. Interpersonal Relationships & Conformity: Children’s behaviors are driven by the approval of others; conformity to the niceties of interpersonal relationships guides moral judgments. The social construct compels children to internalize and comply with societal norms.
Stage 4. Authority & Maintaining the Social Order: Children become aware of the wider rules of society. Moral judgment compels obedience to the law; we value authority and strive to maintain social order.

Postconventional: Morality is Determined by an Individual’s Values
Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights: We know that rules offer a blanket of utilitarian protection of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Sometimes, issues are not always clear-cut; rules are reasonable if they serve the right purpose.
Stage 6. Universal Principles: At this rarely attained stage, we are guided by universal ethical principles. We know the rules, we know why they exist, and we view them through the subjective lens that they are only valid if grounded in justice, which is accompanied by a duty to disobey unjust rules. The driver of behavior and the highest moral principle is compassion.

As we grow, the drivers of our moral compass change. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development analyzes the thought processes that occur as we decide whether a behavior is right or wrong. Building upon previous learnings, humans progress through six stages of moral development that guide our responses to moral dilemmas.

Across history, the uncommon individual reaches Stage 6, where universal principles are valued more highly than the law. Jesus Christ flipped over the tables of corrupt money changers in the temple. Harriet Tubman helped establish the Underground Railroad. Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man. Sometimes, when the law is on the wrong side of morality, society needs an enlightened and uncommon hero to take a stand.

Moral Development Moral Education and Kohlberg by Brenda Munset

Moral Development, Moral Education, and Kohlberg
by Brenda Munsey

Kohlbergianism from a variety of complementary perspectives: philosophical, psychological, religious, and educational. A review in the journal ETHICS calls this book “essential reading for anyone interested in the current issues in moral education.”

The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice by Lawrence

The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice by Lawrence Kohlberg

Examines the theories of Socrates, Kant, Dewey, Piaget, and others to explore the implications of Socrates’ question, “what is a virtuous man, and what is a virtuous school and society which educates virtuous men?”

Kohlberg’s Theory

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