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Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development


Lawrence Kohlberg is best known for his model on the stages of moral development. Kohlberg developed his six-stage theory on moral development while working on his doctorate degree. His theory was inspired by the research of Jean Piaget and has changed the way sociologists and psychologists look at moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Early Life and Education

Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York in 1927. After World War II, he helped to smuggle Jewish refugees past the British blockage of Palestine, and in 1969, he returned to Israel to study the morality of young people in its collective settlements. He enrolled at the University of Chicago and was able to complete his bachelor's degree in only one year, 1948, because his scores on the admissions test were so high. He then earned his doctorate degree in 1958. He was the assistant professor of psychology at Yale University from 1956 until 1961 when he spent a year at the Advanced Center for Behavioral Science from 1961 until 1962. He then became an assistant, and then associate professor of psychology and human development at the University of Chicago from 1962 until 1967. He spent the next ten years as a professor of education and social psychology (Bookrags).

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg became interested in Jean Piaget's theories of moral development in children and adolescents while studying for his doctorate degree. His research involved studying American boys. Piaget's two stages of moral development were the basis for Kohlberg's six stages (Bookrags). Kohlberg’s model for moral development and moral reasoning, while similar to Piaget’s, is more complex. Kohlberg’s theory includes three levels of moral reasoning. The three levels that Kohlberg described are Level 1: Pre-Conventional morality, Level 2: Conventional Morality, and Level 3: Post-Conventional morality. Each of these levels are divided into two stages, for a total of six stages (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 375).

Level 1 – Pre-Conventional

The first level, Pre-Conventional morality is typically found in children between the ages of 4 and 10 years old. This level consists of Stage 1 and Stage 2.

The first stage of this level, or Stage 1, is described as “orientation toward punishment and obedience.” Children in this stage tend to obey rules only to avoid punishment.

The second stage, Stage 2, is “instrumental purpose and exchange.” In this stage, children’s actions are based on consideration of what others can do for them. They follow rules simply out of self-interest (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 376).

Level 2 - Conventional

The second level in Kohlberg’s model, Conventional morality, is generally reached between ages 10 and 13, though some individuals never move beyond this level. This level includes Stage 3 and Stage 4.

Stage 3 is concerned with “maintaining mutual relations, approval of others, and the golden rule.” In this stage, children evaluate acts according to the motives behind them and can take circumstances into account. Children in this stage want to help others, can judge the intentions of others, and can develop their own ideas regarding morality.

Stage 4 refers to “social concern and conscience.” At this stage, individuals are concerned with respecting authority, maintaining social order, and doing their duty within society. In this stage, an act is considered wrong if it harms others or violates a rule or law (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 376).

Level 3 – Post-Conventional

The final level, Post-Conventional morality, is reached in early adolescence or young adulthood, though some individuals never reach this level. This level is comprised of Stage 5 and Stage 6.

Stage 5 is the stage concerned with “morality of contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law.” In this stage, individuals value the will of the majority and the well-being of society. Though individuals at this stage can recognize that there are times when human need and the law are conflicted, they believe that it is better if people simply follow the law.

In Stage 6, individuals are more concerned with the “morality of universal ethical principles.” In this stage, individuals do what they think is right, even if it is in conflict with the law. At this stage, people act according to their internalized standards of morality (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 376).

Because so few people attain Level 3, Kohlberg questioned the validity of this level, though he later proposed an additional seventh stage, which he described as the “cosmic” stage, in which individuals are able to consider the effect of their actions on the universe as a whole (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 377).

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Impact of Kohlberg’s Theory

Kohlberg’s theory, which built on Piaget’s research, profoundly shifted the way in which we view moral development. Researchers now study how individuals base moral judgments on their understanding of the social world, rather than seeing morality as simply the attainment of “control over self-gratifying impulses” (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 377).


Kohlberg's research has been criticized by other researchers, most notably by Carol Gilligan, who noted that Kohlberg focused exclusively on male children in his studies of moral reasoning. Gilligan concluded through a series of studies that males and females develop different standards of morality. She claims that boys have a “justice perspective,” whereas girls have a “care and responsibility perspective” when judging morality. Because of this, she criticizes Kohlberg’s model for focusing on the male “justice perspective” and treating male rule-based reasoning as morally superior (Macoinis 76). Further research has, however, found little support for Gilligan’s claims of a male bias in Kohlberg’s model (Papalia, Olds, and Feldman 378). Another problem with Kohlberg’s research is that he focused primarily on the development of children in America, and it is still unclear as to whether or not his model applies to people in other societies (Macoinis 76).


Lawrence Kohlberg was an important figure in sociology and psychology. Though his research has been criticized, Kohlberg’s model of the moral development of children has become an important sociological and developmental theory. His research has profoundly shifted the way we look at moral development.


BOOKRAGS STAFF. "Lawrence Kohlberg". 2005. October 29 2009.


Macionis, John J. "Socialization: From Infancy to Old Age." Society: The Basics. 10th ed. Upper

Saddle River: Pearson Education International, 2009. 70-95. Print.

Papalia, Diane E, Sally Wendkos Olds, and Ruth Duskin Feldman. "Physical and Cognitive Development in Adolescence." Human Development. 11th ed. Boston: McGraw, 2009. 352-87. Print.

Questions & Answers

Question: How can I as a teacher apply Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development in the classroom?

Answer: Understanding Kohlberg's theory of moral development can help you to understand your students, and help you to guide them in their moral development. Young students may be at different stages of moral development than their peers, but you can have your students do different classroom activities to help strengthen their moral character.

In stage one, young children are primarily motivated to behave appropriately to avoid punishment. Understanding this stage can help you to set a code of conduct for your students to encourage good behavior. Perhaps you implement clear punishments, such as loss of privileges, for students who break your classroom rules.

In stage two, young children become more motivated to behave and follow the rules if they are offered rewards. Consider implementing a system to reward students who follow the rules and who exhibit helpful behaviors in the classroom.

By stage three, which most children reach between the ages of 10 and 13, children begin to think more about other people around them, and how their behavior affects other people, and how other people perceive them. At this stage, you can help to strengthen your students' moral character by allowing them to help you to create a code of conduct, thereby letting them be responsible, in part, for the classroom rules that they will be expected to follow.

Allow time for group projects and activities to give students at different stages of development the opportunity to work together and to learn how their behavior affects others in a social context.

Question: The more morally mature a person becomes, the more likely the person is to obey the moral norms of his or her society. Is this true?

Answer: Yes and no. This is true to a point. By stage four, according to Kohlberg's model, people are concerned with respecting authority, maintaining social order, and doing their duty within society. In this stage, an act is considered wrong if it harms others or violates a rule or law.

At stage 5, the first stage of level 3, people come to value the will of the majority and the well-being of society above all else. Though individuals at this stage can recognize that there are times when human need and the law are conflicted, they believe that it is better if people simply follow the law.

If a person attains stage 6, and not everyone does, people become more concerned with the “morality of universal ethical principles.” In this stage, people begin to do what they believe is right, even if it conflicts with the law or the moral norms of their society. At this stage, people act according to their internalized standards of morality. A person in this stage is willing to break the moral norms of their society if they believe that the moral norms are wrong.

So up until stage 5, a person becomes more likely to obey the moral norms of their society as they mature morally. If they move past stage 5 to stage 6, they will only obey moral norms if they agree with them, and ignore moral norms that they disagree with.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber


Nas on November 29, 2019:

I have not got all the six stages of moral development I saw only three levels were can I get the level 4-6


Rhoder Otieno on July 14, 2019:

How does Kohlbers model apply to social work?

john m. poirier on May 11, 2019:

Neither Kohlberg or Piaget, in their respective and rather parallel theories of child development, pay attention or give respect to the influence of genetic and temperamental differences among children that no doubt play an imphas m uch to do with ortant part in all aspects of development (social, cognitive, moral, etc.). Studies clearly demonstrate that both heredity and life experience contribute to account for a person's intellect, which is an important predictor of curiosity and desire to explore and discover. Absent such tendencies, neither Piaget or Kohlberg would have formulated their theories to begin with. Intelligence also has much to do with self-awareness and reflection, perspective-taking abilities, and critical thinking, which, in turn, play important roles in moral, cognitive, and other aspects of development.

Children also come into the world with different temperaments, including impulse control, ability to be soothed, patience, and, as with intelligence, a propensity to be curious and an exploring nature. Temperamental variations will assuredly influence one's progression through Kohlberg's moral stages and Piaget's cognitive ones.

My comments are not intended to diminish the work of these accomplished men. Our understanding of human development relies on those who lay the foundation for further examination, which is what my comments are inviting.

Datucan Rachman on August 21, 2018:

appreciate it