Lawrence Kohlberg
Moral Development Theory
By: Heidi Kreuter and Ryan Day
• Born on October 25, 1927 in Bronxville, New York
• Attended Andover Academy in Massachusetts, a private
high school for bright and usually wealthy students
• Before college he was an engineer on an old freighter
carrying refugees from parts of Europe to Israel
• Studied psychology at the University of Chicago
• First became a clinical psychologist before creating his own
• Spent many years researching how an individual develops
their own moral codes
• Died in 1987 of a possible suicide
Central Tenets of Theory
Influenced by the work of Jean Piaget
Somewhat different than other theories
Looked for process, not the product
Believed moral thinking progressed
through 6 stages
– These stages were grouped into three
general levels:
Pre-Conventional Level
• Moral reasoning starts out as being totally
based on the notion of punishment and
• Child is responsive to cultural rules and labels
of good and bad, right or wrong based on
those notions.
Conventional Level
• Attitude is not only one of conformity to
personal expectations and social order, but of
loyalty to it, of actively maintaining,
supporting, and justifying the order and
identifying with the persons or group involved
in it.
Post-Conventional Level
• Genuine concern for others and the need to
satisfy one’s conscience.
• Makes effort to define moral values and
Pre-Conventional Stage
The concern is for self. Good behaviour is
associated with avoiding punishment.
Instrumental Relativist
Concrete individual interests. Is aware of
others’ interests.
Conventional Stage
Good Boy – Nice Girl
Law and Order Orientation
Lives up to others’ expectations and desires
group approval.
Concern for larger society.
The maintenance of law and order.
Post-Conventional Stage
Social Contract Orientation
Concern is social utility or public interest.
Universal Ethical Principle
Follows self-chosen ethical principles, even
when they conflict with the laws.
You are an impoverished man who needs a
certain medicine for your wife who is gravely
ill. A seller of the drug is charging ten times its
value. Will you steal the medicine to save your
wife? Why or why not?
The details of the hypothetical situation can then be
altered slightly to bring out the nuances of a
person’s moral reasoning (e.g. does it depend on
how ill the wife is, how poor the husband is,
whether it is a small family owned drugstore or a
nationwide chain store, etc.). The most important
point here, however, is that we are not concerned
with the choice made – we are concerned with
why the person is making the choice.
Stage 1:
“No, I wouldn’t steal the drug because I would
be punished. The law says stealing is wrong.”
Stage 2:
“No, I wouldn’t steal the drug because while I
want to save my wife, being punished would
be worse than losing her. I could just get
married again.”
Stage 3:
“No, I wouldn’t steal the drug because people
would see me as a selfish thief who breaks
rules just for their own benefit.”
Stage 4:
“No, I wouldn’t steal the drug because there is
a greater good to be maintained – rules exist
in order to protect all members of society. If I
were to act on my own selfish behalf and
steal, it would set a dangerous precedent with
terrible long term ramifications.”
Stage 5:
“No, I wouldn’t steal the drug, though it would
pain me miserably. I believe the rights of my
wife to the drug are valid, but they must be
balanced against the rights of the drugist. Her
rights to life are greater – I believe the drugist
is acting immorally, and that he should be
implored to sell it cheaper, but I would stop
short of stealing and breaking laws that all of
us have decided to accept as good members
of society.”
Stage 6:
“I would steal the drug, administer it to my
wife, and then turn myself in to the police. I
would then demand that I be punished to the
full extent of the law. While stealing is
reprehensible, my ethical principles value life
above property, and therefore, to be true to
myself and to life itself, I must break the lesser
law in order to follow the greater good.”
Traditional Model
• Rejected by Kohlberg
• Based on the idea that virtues and vices are
basis to moral behaviour
• Moral character is comprised of a “bag of
• Taught through:
– Example
– Direct communication of convictions
– By giving students an opportunity to practice
these virtues
– By rewarding their expression
• Flaws to traditional method:
– No guiding principle for defining what virtues are
– Wrong assumptions on community consensus on
what are considered “positive values”
– Teachers tend to impose their own values/beliefs
Moral Education
• Better approach
• Based on assumption that there are no single,
correct answers to ethical dilemmas
• Encourages individuals to develop to the next
stage of moral reasoning through discussions
• Forces students to think outside the box
Practical Tactics for Teachers
• Have students discuss controversial moral
• Role Playing
• Exploration of Cultural Groups
• Direct Instruction
Gifted Students
• There are signs that many gifted children have
moral sensitivity
• Benefit greatly from exploring and
understanding Kohlberg’s theory
– Organize thoughts and provide insight into human
– Understand moral development of their peers
– Take different perspectives
– Expose themselves to levels higher than their
present moral level
Sara Porter
• What stage is she at?
• Gifted
• Leadership Role
W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136.
Dana, Nancy F., & Lynch-Brown, Carol (1991). Moral development of the gifted: Making a case for
children's literature. Roeper Review. 14(1), 13-16.