A theory developed by Lawrence Kohlberg outlining the stages that an individual progresses through in their moral reasoning. Heavily influenced by the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the American educational philosopher John Dewey, Kohlberg thought that human beings advanced in their ethical understanding in a progressive way.

The stages are classified in the following manner:

  1. First Level : Pre-conventional - Characterized by behavior motivated by the anticipation of basic physical pleasure or pain, this level tends to include mostly young children and infants, though this primitive understanding of morality is seen in many adults, as well.
    • Stage 01 : An amoral stage in which the individual simply avoids that which is purely painful and desires pleasure. No sense of obligation or authority has developed yet in this stage; the individual is guided by nothing except hir basic desires.
    • Stage 1 : Obedience and Punishment - In this stage, the individual obeys rules set forth by any given authority figure in order to avoid punishment. The emphasis here is on the immediate physical consequences of a negative action as initiated by a figure in power.
    • Stage 2 : Individualism, Instrumentalism and Exchange - The individual modifies the behavior somewhat at this stage, instead conforming to society's rules in order to receive basic physical rewards. Here, the individual does only what is necessary to gain satisfaction within the context of the present moment.
  2. Second Level : Conventional - This attitude is generally found in the majority of individuals, where the approval and sanction of others is of the utmost importance. The law, as defined by authority, is central to fulfilling perceived obligations of duty.
    • Stage 3 : "Good Boy/Girl" - During this stage, the individual behaves in a moral way to gain approval and acceptance from others. Rather than seeking only to fulfill simplistic physical needs, this stage is characterized by conformity to others' desires. The individual defines right and wrong in the context of the whim of the group. Punishment is handled in a similar way: "If he can get away with it, why can't I?"
    • Stage 4 : Law and Order - The individual obeys authority in this stage to avoid guilt, defending the given institutional structure for its own sake. Often, a strong sense of duty towards others develops here.
  3. Third Level : Post-conventional - In the transition from conventional morality, the individual begins to recognize the arbitrary nature of socially dictated ethical principles. If the individual is able to see that universal principles need to be defined in order to act correctly, they can advance to the third level. Otherwise, they often regress to a level one type of irrationally hedonistic attitude where rebellion for its own sake is valued.
    • Stage 5 : Social Contract - In this stage, the individual becomes concerned with individual rights and laws defined within a social context.
    • Stage 6 : Principled Conscience - Here, the individual is guided entirely by hir individually defined conscience according to universal moral principles.

1 Some sources deny the existence of this stage; one source that confirms it can be found at this site: http://www.xenodochy.org/ex/lists/moraldev.html


  1. http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/kohlberg.html
  2. http://www.dushkin.com/connectext/psy/ch03/kohlberg.mhtml
  3. http://aggelia.com/htdocs/kohlberg.shtml
This view of morality has been criticized as gender-biased, most notably by Carol Gilligan. It places the highest value on universal moral principles, but these become clearest when they lead to conflict with society's established ethos. Consider two people, one whose self-justifying ends focus on fundamental human rights and personal freedom, and another who is at the same stage of development, but gives intrinsic value to relationships and community. The former is more likely to be a troublemaker, and thus stand out as someone who believes strongly in an independent morality. The latter will direct hir energy towards producing consensus and avoiding destructive kinds of conflict, which makes hir seem more conventional and socially conditioned.

You don't have to be a feminist to notice that most women tend to form larger, more complex social networks than most men, or that men make more frequent use of domination and social posturing. These tendencies suggest that women who are fully postconventional in their morality might still choose to obey an unjust law, choose a family over a career, or subordinate their own desires to others'. This is not because they're unable to think beyond social approval and societal reward and punishment -- it's because they value harmony highly enough to give up other concerns.

Another gender-based criticism of Kohlberg is that he views logical reasoning as being the mechanism for moral development -- one generalizes the rules one learns, from stage to stage, until reaching a point where the moral calculus can be completely pure, proceeding from the first principles of one's morality rather than from irrational feelings or social dogma. But the story of scholarly feminism in the last 40 years has largely been about the redemption of emotion as a legitimate tool of reason. That discussion is beyond the scope of this node, but suffice it to say that feelings about what is proper and what is an abomination help us hedge our bets against thinking we understand something we don't, and potentially overreaching ourselves. Women may be more likely to realize this, and discard reason as the ultimate tool of morality even though they're perfectly capable of using it instrumentally -- and may even use reason to justify this decision.

Overall, Kohlberg's model is useful insofar as it illuminates the journey most people make from unreflective selfishness to life as part of a culture to -- if they play their cards right -- enlightenment or self-actualization. However, measures of moral development that do not carefully consider the most distal reasoning behind a judgement threaten to overrate rebellious behavior and miss the virtues of care-oriented thinking.

For more on Gilligan Vs. Kohlberg, see http://www.stolaf.edu/people/huff/classes/handbook/Gilligan.html, or Gilligan's book In a Different Voice.

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