Theory of Moral Development

 Kohlberg created a number of scenarios such as
the ‘Heinz Dilemma’ to study people’s responses.
 He used these responses to develop his theory of
moral development.
 Moral development is defined as the change in
moral behaviour over time.
 Moral behaviour is the ability to distinguish right
from wrong and to behave accordingly.
 The stage theory was based on the idea that people
progress through a series of levels of moral
development, with each level divided into two
 Kohlberg believed that everybody passes through
these six stages, in order, and that no stages could
be skipped.
 Kohlberg named his three levels of moral
development pre-conventional, conventional and
 Pre-conventional level: children think in terms
of an external authority where acts are described
as wrong if they are punished and right if they lead
to some sort of positive consequence.
 Conventional level: older children view rules as
necessary for maintaining social order. Rules are
followed not so much to avoid punishment but to
show how virtuous they are and to win approval
from others. Moral thinking is inflexible and rules
should be rigidly enforced.
 Post-conventional level: adolescents and adults
decide on a personal set of ethics. Acceptance of
rules is less rigid and moral thinking tends to more
flexible. If one’s personal ethics and society’s rules
conflict then they may choose their own personal
beliefs or ethics to guide their behaviour.
 Stage 1: Punishment and obedience
Moral decisions are based primarily on fear of
punishment or the need to be obedient.
 Stage 2: Naïve reward – related to self
Moral reasoning is guided by satisfying one’s own
self-interests, which could involve making some sort
of bargain.
 Stage 3: Mutual interpersonal expectations,
relationships and conformity
Reasoning is guided by conforming to what other
important people believe is of value.
 Stage 4: Authority – law and order
Moral reasoning is determined by conforming to
society’s rules and laws.
 Stage 5: Social contract/ individual rights
Reasoning is determined by careful consideration of
all the alternatives and then trying to balance one’s
human rights with the laws of society.
 Stage 6: Individual principles and conscience
Reasoning is determined by principles that are quite
abstract, while simultaneously emphasising equity
and justice.
 Stage 1: Heinz should not steal the drug as he’ll be
caught and go to jail.
 Stage 2: Heinz should steal the drug to save his
wife, but he will have to pay a price for this and go
to jail.
 Stage 3: Heinz should steal the drug as this is what
his family would expect him to do.
 Stage 4: Heinz should not steal the drug because
of the effect on society if everybody did this sort of
 Stage 5: Heinz should steal the drug as life is more
important than money.
 Stage 6: Heinz should steal the drug – life is very
important and his wife’s life is a key aspect for
Heinz personally.
Dr Howe (a famous biologist) conducted numerous
studies demonstrating that simple organisms such
as worms and paramecia can learn through
conditioning. It occurred to him that perhaps he
could condition fertilised human ova to provide a
dramatic demonstration that abortions destroy
adaptable, living human organisms. This possibility
appeals to Dr Howe as he is very much against
However, there is no way to conduct the necessary
research on human ova without sacrificing the lives
of potential human beings.
He desperately wants to conduct the research, but
obviously, the sacrifice of human ova is completely
incompatible with his belief in the sanctity of
human life.
What should he do?
Dr Howe should do the research. Although it’s
wrong to kill, there’s greater good that can be
realised through his research.
2. Dr Howe shouldn’t do the research because
people will think that he’s a hypocrite and
condemn him.
3. Dr Howe should do the research because he may
become rich and famous as a result.
Post-conventional reasoning – commitment to
personal ethics is a characteristic of this level.
2. Conventional reasoning – concern about
approval of others is a characteristic of this level.
3. Pre-conventional reasoning – an emphasis on
positive and negative consequences is
characteristic of this level.
 A review of 45 Kohlberg-like studies supported his
theory that people seem to progress the through
the stages in the proposed order.
 As children get older, their moral reasoning alters
in predicted directions.
 Longitudinal studies found that over a 20-year
period, participants progressed through the first
four stages.
 The first four stages have also been found in many
 Most people never reach the stage 6 level of morality
and some people may skip stages or even go in reverse
 The dilemmas proposed by Kohlberg may be too
difficult for children to relate to, or too culturally
 Kohlberg only used males in his studies, which may
have caused a gender bias.
 People can show signs of several levels of reasoning at
the same time.