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