Stages of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

Stages of Moral Development According to the Theory of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

According to Hendrikz (1986), moral development is the building up of a consistent set of values and ideas which can become a basis for making personal decisions about how to behave in relation to other people and the society in which we find ourselves. It consists eventually of a set of principles which, at best, enables us to react properly in new situations where rules which may have been previously accepted do not apply. The concept of morality is much more than obedience and acceptable; it is a process of making one’s own decisions.

Kohlberg(1984), says that moral growth proceeds in a succession of stages, each one based on, and gradually emerging from the previous one. These stages are universal and hence a part of the inborn human potential and as such is not dependent on culture or sub-culture. Morality is therefore not a collection of fixed traits or a something that we do or do not have, but a tendency to behave in a certain way which is to some extent related to the stage of development that has been reached.

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Kohlberg saw moral development as influenced by a child’s cognitive development (Ndambuki, 2011).According to him; children seem to undergo six stages of moral development which are organized into three general levels of moral progress.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Level I: The Pre-Conventional Level.

The morality at this level is externally governed. To a child, a good behavior is that which warrants a reward, while a bad behavior is that which calls for punishment (Ndambuki,2011). Children conform to rules due to the physical power of those who make them. Children are aware that the adults have the size and strength to enforce their dictates. There are two stages in this level and they are strongest in most children until six or seven years of age and often longer (Hendrikz, 1986). According to Ndambuki et al(2011), the six stages are as follows:

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Stage 1. The punishment and obedience orientation.

At this stage, children are faced with the difficulty of considering two viewpoints in a moral dilemma. For example, they would not know what to do if a person needs food and the only way to get that food is to get it from somebody else without consent. The dilemma here is“ can I steal to save a life? “ Thus they are not aware that people’s intention differs and they do this to conform to what is expected; chiefly to avoid being punished.

Stage 2. The naive hedonistic orientation

During this stage, a child begins to realize that people’s intentions can differ and this understanding is initially very concrete, a right action is what satisfies one’s needs. The children’s belief in being good to others implies that“ if you be nice to me I will be nice to you“ and “ you gave me your ball, so I will give you mine“.

Level II: The Conventional Level

A child shifts from believing that one behaves well to avoid being punished, to that one behaves well because it is good and right to do so. That conventional individual believes strongly in supporting and preserving the laws and rules of the society.

Stage 3. The good boy-good girl orientation.

The child does his best to do what is expected in order to be approved, good boy. In so doing a child will be a good person by being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, respectful and understanding of others.

He is able to put himself in others’ positions and begins to realize that his behavior has s social basis. Basically, the child gets a sense of pleasure at being good.

Stage 4. The social-order maintaining orientation.

Morality is no longer restricted to those with whom one has ties with. Instead, all people matter and their welfare is important. Laws are for maintaining order and so it’s important to have laws. A child at this stage does his best not to violate the wishes, rights, and welfare of others.

The child begins to accept that he must obey the rules of those in authority without question because it maintains the stability and safety of his own and wider environment.

Children at this age are very anxious that the rules of whatever games they play are clearly stated and strictly obeyed.  Although this level mainly covers the adolescent years, very many adults function good deal of their time at this level because it leads to a generally comfortable undemanding existence.

Level III: Post-Conventional Level

At this level, people not only out to maintain social order but to enter into principles of making choices which involve reasoning and consistency.

Stage 5. The social contract-legalistic orientation.

Here people realize that rules are flexible instruments for furthering human values. Questions like“ are these rules fair?“ are common. If there is need to change a rule to fit a certain situation, this will be done if a rule is good for the majority, then it is a good rule. One has an obligation to obey the rule (social contract orientation) and this calls for a free choice.

There is generally an individual’s belief that moral behavior is the result of an agreement with other people to behave to the general good of the community. Laws given by the properly established authority are to be obeyed to the extent that they preserve human rights. It is as though the individual has consciously agreed on a contract with fellow human beings to do nothing to harm them.

Stage 6. The universal ethical principle.

At this stage, individuals make their judgments on the basis of universal ethical principles the right action of an individual is defined by self-chosen ethical principles that are comprehensive, rational and universally applicable.

A principled person is principled whether there is a law or not, in which case one’s inner private conscience dictates his behavior. This is the highest level of moral behavior based on a universal ethical principle, laws being obeyed only when they do not conflict with that principle, which is that all human beings have a right to equality and personal dignity.

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Implications of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory to a Teacher.

Moral development concerns the process of learning rules and conventions about acceptable behavior often in relation to a person’s interactions with people. According to Kohlberg(1984), moral development progresses in line with cognitive development terms.

In Introduction to educational psychology, Hendriks has proposed the following implication and application of the theory by Kohlberg:

  1. School rules and ways of establishing and maintaining disciplined behavior should be examined to see if they fit in with what can be expected of the age group concerned.
  2. At younger age levels a certain number of clearly defined fixed rules are necessary and most children accept them because they make them feel safe and comfortable.
  3. As adolescence approaches, while essential rules of behavior must still exist, opportunities are needed for pupils to come to understand the value and purpose of each one and to make more suitable rules where necessary.
  4. A number of successful experiments have been carried out in allowing pupils under adult supervision, to conduct some of their own disciplinary affairs especially when they themselves have been made aware of the need for a standard of conduct and the results of breaking it. Young people who have had this kind of experience generally attain a higher level of personal behaviour because they have been helped to develop a sense of social responsibility on the other hand, young people from very rigid and rule-bound schools where pupils are not encouraged to question or even think about the rules may well be less mature in their personal behaviour
  5. Even children rarely act with complete consistency, at only one developmental level, they can be helped towards the next higher level by being encouraged to discuss among themselves and with their teachers some of the important moral issues of the day or those arising from subjects such as literature and history.
  6. Encouraging discussions and the exchange of ideas not with the aim of converting everyone to the same decision or of imposing a particular view on them but of breeding in them habits of rational decision making which must include the ability to see the matter from the point of view of others.
  7. The young children can be encouraged to think about some of the situations arising from stories told to them or to discuss how they could best help one of their number who is ill or injured or to solve a real discipline issue. The problem situations should be ones which the young children can realistically put themselves into and their ideas should be listened to seriously by teachers and fellow pupils which in itself is a good example of moral education here the teacher’s role should be to follow and perhaps suggest new aspects be looked at, rather than lead the discussion the teacher must never impose his or her own opinions or solutions.
  8. As children move towards adolescence, they can be faced with increasingly complicated problems arising from their environment. Discussions on questions such as “what would you have done?“, “ was he right or wrong?“, “ why?’
  9. In addition to direct discussions on problems, moral development can be encouraged by short written or impromptu plays created by the pupils or through role playing which involves one or more children putting forward a particular moral viewpoint, so that the class can discuss it.
  10. Teachers should be imaginative enough to find many opportunities for involving his pupils in moral issues at suitable levels in doing so, he will not only make his classroom an intellectually stimulating place but will also give his pupils important developmental opportunities.


Lawrence Kohlberg proposes three distinct levels of moral development namely:

  • The pre-conventional level(stage 1 & 2) – Children follow unvarying rules as a result of rewards and punishment.
  • The conventional level( stage 3 & 4) – Children approach problems in terms of their position as good responsible members of the society.
  • Post-conventional level( stage 5 & 6) – Universal moral principles-one’s inner conscience dictates his behaviour.

The following factors will promote moral growth:

  • Cognitive development; stimulation; exposure to conflicting views
  • Relevant social experience – interact with people who have different points of view Promotes “cognitive disequilibrium”
  • Opportunities to sort out differences with peers.

It is important for teachers to take into account the moral values and practices that exist among the different groups that they teach-when they and most of their pupils have a common experience there is very little difficulty but when they are mixed in cultural and ethnic origin or even in social class, the teachers will have to be particularly careful that genuine differences in moral customs and traditional values are treated with respect.

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