Stages of Moral Development notes

by Lawrence Kohlberg (1971)

I. Preconventional Level

At this level, the child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but he interprets the labels in terms of either the physical or hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels. The level is divided into the following three stages:

Stage 0: Egocentric judgement. The child makes judgements of good on the basis of what he likes and wants or what helps him, and bad on the basis of what he does not like or what hurts him. He has no concept of rules or of obligations to obey or conform independent of his wish.

Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are values in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority (the latter is stage 4).

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. Right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms such as those of the market place. Elements of fairness, reciprocity, and equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch your", not loyalty, gratitude, or justice.

II. Conventional Level

At this level, the individual perceives the maintenance of the expectations of his family, group, or nation as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order and identifying with the persons or group involved in it. The level consists of the following two stages:

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or "good boy-nice girl" orientation. Good behavior is what pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or "natural" behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention -- "he means well" becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being "nice".

Stage 4: The "law and order" orientation. The individual is oriented toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists in doing one's duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

III. Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level.

The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual's own identification with the group. The level has the two following stages:

Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation (generally with utilitarian overtones). Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right action is a matter of personal values and opinions. The result is an emphasis upon the "legal point of view", but with an additional emphasis upon the possibility of changing the law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of stage 4 "law and order"). Outside the legal realm, free agreement, and contract, is the binding element of obligation. The "official" morality of the American government and Constitution is at this stage.

Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of the human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.

Notes and Caution

This quotation is taken from the table in "the Proceedings of the Conference on Psychology and the Process of Schooling in the Next Decade: Alternative Conceptions", Editor Maynard C. Reynolds. Kohlberg's contribution was entitled "The concepts of Developmental Psychology as the Central Guide to Education: Examples from Cognitive, Moral, and Psychological Education." The document is further marked "A publication of the Leadership Training Institute/Special education, sponsored by the Bureau of Educational Personnel Development, U.S. Office of Education". Unfortunately, the reprint copy I have is not dated. The latest reference in it is 1971, but one sentence in the paper gives 1972 as the date of the same reference, which I think it possibly an error. I attributed 1971 as the year for the levels in the form quoted here.

I obtained my copy of the reprint from "The Center for Moral Education" at Harvard University many years ago. That organization is no longer listed as part of Harvard's organization, and email inquiries have gone unanswered.

As I look at other reprints, I find a 1973 Journal of Philosophy article which does not include the Stage 0. Another article in 1975 also does not have the Stage 0 in it.

Kohlberg contrasts Stage 0 with other theories in a couple of other tables in the article, so he may have made a "custom alteration" to the theory for the purpose of this particular set of comparisons.

In table 3, Kohlberg's Stage 0 is ranked with Piaget's Symbolic, intuitive thought.

In table 4, his Stage 0 is ranked with Peck & Havighurst (1960) amoral, C. Sullivan, Grant & Sulivan (1961) presocial, Harvey Hunt & Schroeder (1961) Sub-1, Sovinger (1966) presocial, and Vanden Daele (1968) excitation oriented.

One of the most influential critiques of the Kohlberg theory is to be found in Carol Gilliganís In a Different Voice (1982). Gilligan argues that Kohlbergís rule-oriented conception of morality has an orientation toward justice, which she associates with stereotypically male thinking, whereas women and girls are perhaps more likely to approach moral dilemmas with a "care" orientation. One important issue in moral theory that the Kohlberg-Gilligan debate raises is that of the role and importance of moral feelings in the moral life. The Philosophy of Childhood, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


by Charles Kramer

Level I: Pre-conventional methods: The use of the words "the child is responsive" is so general that the reader may wonder whether the author has and provides evidence that "every" child is responsive. Does he assume that all age groups are concerned, that children of all cultures have been assessed and that a significant number of children have been observed interpreting labels in terms as indicated. If so, how many children, Boys and Girls, Caucasian or from all ethnic groups and/or of different IQ, spoken or written language performance levels, and where have indeed been observed so as to authorize the generalizations stated about the abstract "pre-conventional" level and stages?

Stage 0, 1 and 2: Egocentric judgment, punishment and obedience orientation, instrumental relativist orientation:

Is this verified for a given percentage of various samples of children (How, when, where, by whom) or is this valid for a very large "parent population" including representative samples of children, mixing origin, years of schooling, personal status (orphan, one-parent family, only child and children with brothers and sisters, in the US, Australia, Africa, Japan , China, etc.), health condition, physical and/or mental skills development etc.? When was the data collected, how, by whom, using which methods for observation, recording, analysis and comparisons?

Level II: Conventional level. The author switches from the words "the child is" to the words the individual perceives. Does this include or exclude children of both sexes, all ages, members of all cultural or only a few cultural groups? What year or in what years where the observations gathered, recorded, analyzed and by whom? Would statistics be provided to support the generalizations stated?

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or "good boy-nice girl" orientation. Are the concepts of "good boy" and/or "nice girls" observed similarly in most or many cultural environments? Are there significant differences that have been noted in various cultural environments, periods, locations? Is "meaning well" taken in account in a comparable way in different social settings?

Stage 4: Law and authority possibly refer to an array of beliefs, attitudes, reactions, strength and structure of institutions? What is the data the author refers to when he writes "the individual" is oriented towards authority, etc. Every individual? Everywhere? May "right behavior" refer to very different concepts in diverse places, at different times?

III. Post-conventional, autonomous, or principle level. The emphasis on "legal point of view", "Official morality" might hardly fit the interpretations that are made by individuals, groups, nations. If, on the other hand, the sequence is universal, what is the evidence produced?

I would suggest that the statements presented should be documented and that the type and methods of observations should be referred to. At least Jean Piaget, as an experimental psychologist, backed up most of his statements about child intelligence, moral development stages etc. by his experimental specific research work and detailed methodology. (Kindalll)

Kohlberg, on the other hand, offers wide generalizations and presents beliefs that need, in my view, to be documented and substantiated, providing insight in his methodology and specifying his statistics.

Even if some of his statements may be found "convincing" by some, and fitting their own belief system, the whole set may be found doubtful by others, like myself, for lack of evidence or demonstration.

Comments by Charles Kramer 00/12/16.

Correspondence directly related to this page: Vogel, Kindall (Note: email regarding this topic is considered public correspondence and will be posted to this site unless I am explicitly requested not to do so.)

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 12:55 and has been accessed 11637 times at 0 hits per month.