Kohlberg’s Theory Of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory of moral development

Kohblerg’s theory of moral development is one of the most important and influential models for explaining the development of our morality as humans.

Throughout our lives we have all developed our own morality, which cannot be transferred to others. Our values ​​not only distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the abstract world, but also influence our behavior, perceptions and thoughts. You could even say that sometimes they are so internalized that they affect our emotions as well.

At the same time , we all have our own moral compass. It has therefore always been difficult to create a universal moral compass. This problem has occupied many philosophers and thinkers since time immemorial. And as a result, many perspectives have arisen over the years.

The Kantian perspective of morality is based on group profit. However, there is also a utilitarian perspective, which is inspired by the well-being of the individual.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg wanted to step back from the meaning of morality and study its development. He didn’t care what was right or wrong. He was only interested in the path people travel to reach that idea of ​​right and wrong.

Based on multiple interviews and studies, he noted that children build their morality as they get older. Moral development takes place just like the development of other skills, such as language or logic.

In Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, there are three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Each of these levels is further divided into two phases. It is important to understand that we do not go through all the stages. Nor do we all reach the last level of development.

Below we explain in detail each of the stages of moral development.

Moral development according to Kohlberg

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development

Phase 1: focused on obedience and punishment

This phase of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is part of the preconventional level. Here we see that the person delegates all moral responsibility to an authority. The rewards or punishments awarded by this authority figure determine for him what is right and wrong.

For example, a child may think that not doing his homework is only wrong because his parents are outraging him for doing so.

This way of thinking hinders his ability to accept the existence of moral dilemmas. Moral dilemmas are problems that do not have a clear answer from a moral point of view. This is because the view of the authority figure formulates everything and the person legitimizes it.

This is the simplest level of moral development. It does not focus on the differences in interests or intentions behind certain behavior. The only factors that are relevant at this stage are consequences: rewards or punishments.

Phase 2: focused on individualism or hedonism

In the second stage of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, a new idea emerges. That idea implies that one’s interests may vary from individual to individual. While the criteria for determining whether something is right or wrong still depend on the consequences of our actions, they are no longer determined by others.

At this stage, the individual thinks that everything that benefits him is right. At the same time, anything that leads to loss and discomfort is inherently wrong.

This stage of moral development may seem very selfish, yet the individual may sometimes think it is good to meet the needs of others. However, this will only be the case if there is a pragmatic reciprocity or guarantee. By this we mean the idea that if you do something for someone, that person also has to do something for you in return.

This stage is slightly more complicated than the previous stage because the individual no longer leaves the construction of his morality to the authority figures around him. The reasoning, however, remains simple and selfish.

Phase 3: focused on interpersonal relationships

The conventional level of moral development, according to Kohlberg, begins at this stage. The individual must give up the characteristic selfishness of the previous stage, as he begins to build more and more complex relationships. For him, the most important thing now is to be accepted in a group. His idea of ​​morality will therefore revolve around this aspect.

At this stage, what is the right thing to do is determined by what pleases or helps others. Here, emphasis is placed on the good intentions behind one’s behavior and the degree to which this behavior is approved by others. The definition of morality is based on being a ‘good person’, i.e. being loyal, respectable, cooperative and kind.

Children standing in a circle

There is a very interesting test that can help determine whether children have reached this stage. The test consists of watching two videos:

  • One video shows a child bullying someone (this child does something naughty on purpose, even though it is a small thing).
  • In the other video, a kid does a lot more damage, but this time by accident (e.g. accidentally stains his clothes or breaks a glass).

A child who has already learned to look at a person’s intention to make a moral judgment will say that the child who intentionally caused harm behaved the worst, no matter how large or small the harm was.

However, a child who has not yet reached this stage in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development will say that the child who behaved the worst was the child who caused the most harm, regardless of his intentions.

Stage Four: Focusing on Authority and Maintaining Social Order

The individual no longer views morality based on what his group thinks. Instead , he begins to view it on the basis of society. What the people around him or his group think no longer matters. The criteria for determining whether something is right or wrong are based on whether something contributes to the maintenance of social order or whether it hinders it.

In this phase it is especially important that there is stability in society, and not chaos.

The individual therefore has great respect for laws and authorities. These become important because they restrict individual freedom in favor of social order or common good. Morality goes beyond personal ties and is tied to current law. He must not break these laws because they serve to maintain social order.

Phase: focused on social engagements

With this stage we also enter the last level of moral development. Level three is a level that very few people reach in their lifetime. In stage five, the individual begins to see morality as a flexible and variable matter. Good or evil only exist because society has established a number of moral criteria.

People in this stage understand the rationale behind laws and they defend or criticize a law based on that. Moreover, they do not see these laws as something that is fixed forever, but rather something that could possibly be improved. For people or children in this stage , morality means participating voluntarily in an accepted social system.

It is better for everyone to have certain social contracts.

Holding each other's hands

Phase 6: focused on the universal ethical principle

This last phase of Kohlberg’s theory is the most complex phase of the entire development process. Here the individual creates his own ethical principles. These are comprehensive, rational and universally applicable. They are abstract moral concepts that are difficult to explain and that go beyond existing laws.

The person builds his morality according to his own ideas of how society should be, and not according to the ideas of morality that society imposes on him.

An important aspect of this phase is its universal application. The individual applies the same criteria to others as to himself. Moreover, he treats others as he would like to be treated himself. At least that’s what he tries. If he does not, he is on a much simpler level, more comparable to the individualistic stage.

Now we know how morality develops in people according to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. This also gives us the opportunity to reflect on it ourselves. What stage of moral development are you in? 

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