Kohlberg’s Six-Stage Development Theory

Kohlberg, a former Professor at Harvard University, developed the six-stage theory via extensive case study work. Its basic idea is that there are three levels, each containing two stages, of moral development. His theory adds to the claims of Piaget among others that philosophical/critical reasoning is acquired progressively.

Kohlberg’s classification is as follows:

Level Stage Social Orientation
Pre-conventional 1 Obedience and Punishment
2 Individualism, Instrumentalism and Exchange
Conventional 3 ‘Good boy/girl’
4 Law and Order
Post-conventional 5 Social Contract
6 Principled Conscience

Pre-conventional is early level development and is observed in children, particularly of primary school age. In the first stage, individuals act according to social norms because they are told to do so by a figure of authority, usually involving the threat or application of punishment in case of disobedience. In the second stage, individuals are motivated to behave obediently out of self-interest, for instance, obtaining reward or avoiding punishment.

Conventional is middle level development found in society. In the third stage, individuals are motivated to act according to social norms out of desire to gain the approval of others, for instance, other people in one’s community. In the fourth stage, one develops an awareness of what is right behaviour according to the law, as well responding to obligations of duty.

Post-conventional is the level of development that Kohlberg did not believe most adults obtained during their life times. In the fifth stage, the individual develops a genuine concern for the welfare of others, particularly those others with whom one has no direct contact i.e. outside of one’s immediate community. In the sixth stage, the individual finds her highest attainment in respect for the universal principle and the demands of her individual conscience.

It is interesting to note that moral development depends to a large extent on social interactions. For example, individuals progress through the stages by being exposed to examples of moral dilemmas that require response at a higher level. This has implications for moral education, insofar as Kohlberg’s theory would seem to suggest that individuals can be ‘taught’ to become better people. Nevertheless, he maintained that it is impossible to skip stages in development, say by going from 2 straight to 4.

Some Criticisms

Kohlberg has come under criticism for inherent gender bias, following from evidence that he based female moral development entirely on the model which was tested exclusively on male case studies.

The validity of his research has been further questioned. Given that the moral dilemmas are artificial, it is arguable whether the subjects tested would have reacted in the same way had the situation arisen in real life. There would seem to be a difference in knowing what one ought to do versus how one actually acts in a given situation.

Kohlberg’s theory emphasises the role of justice in moral reasoning. This could be problematic in light of other motivations for moral action, such as compassion, ethics of care, empathy, sympathy.

Finally, Kohlberg’s findings may only be relevant for Western cultures which tend to emphasise individualistic thinking over collective consciousness. Thus, one should be cautious about extracting generalisations from his findings.


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