Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

 Born: October 25, 1927

 Birthplace: Bronxville, New York, United States

Died: January 19, 1987

Location of death: Cape Cod, Massachusetts, United States

Nationality: American

Occupation: Psychologist, College Teacher

Moral development is the process thought which children develop proper attitudes and behaviours toward other people in society, based on social and cultural norms, rules, and laws.

Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg
 Level of Moral development
 Stage of Reasoning Approximate Age
“do’s and don’ts”
Stage 1: (Punishment and Obedience Orientation).

  • Right is obedience to power and avoidance of punishment.
  • (“I must follow the rules otherwise I will be punished”).

Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation.

  • Right is taking responsibility and leaving others to be responsible for themselves.
  • (”I must follow the rules for the reward and favor it gives”).
 ConventionalStage 3: Good-Boy-Nice Girl Orientation.

  • Right is being considerate: “uphold the values of other adolescents and adults” rules of society”.
  • (”I must follow the rules so I will be accepted”)

Stage 4: Society-Maintaining Orientation.

  • Right is being good, with the values and norms of family and society at large.
  • (”I must follow rules so there is order in the society”).
adolescence and adulthood
 PostconventionalStage 5: Social Contract Reorientation.

  • Right is finding inner “universal rights” balance between self-rights and societal rules – a social contract.
  • (”I must follow rules as there are reasonable laws for it”).

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle orientation.

  • Right is based on a higher order of applying principles to all human-kind; being non-judgmental and respecting all human life.
  • (”I must follow rules because my conscience tells me”).
 after 20
Three Levels of Moral Development

The child at the first and most basic level, the preconventional level, is concerned with avoiding punishment and getting needs met. This level has two stages and applies to children up to 10 years of age.

  • Punishment-Obedience stage. Children obey rules because they are told to do so by an authority figure (parent or teacher), and they fear punishment if they do not follow rules. Children at this stage are not able to see someone else’s side.
  • Individual, Instrumentation, and Exchange stage. Here, the behavior is governed by moral reciprocity. The  child will follow rules if there is a known benefit to him or her. Children at this stage also mete out justice in an eye-for-an-eye manner or according to Golden Rule logic. In other words, if one child hits another, the injured child will hit back. This is considered equitable justice. Children in this stage are very concerned with what is fair.Children will also make deals with each other and even adults. They will agree to behave in a certain way for a payoff. “I’ll do this, if you will do that.” Sometimes, the payoff is in the knowledge that behaving correctly is in the child’s own best interest. They receive approval from authority figures or admiration from peers, avoids blame, or behaves in accordance with their concept of self. They are just beginning to understand that others have their own needs and drives.

This level broadens the scope of human wants and needs. Children in this level are concerned about being accepted by others and living up to their expectations. This stage begins around age 10 but lasts well into adulthood, and is the stage most adults remain at throughout their lives.

  • Interpersonal Conformity is often called the “good boy/good girl” stage. Here, children do the right thing because it is good for the family, peer group, team, school, or church. They understand the concepts of trust, loyalty, and gratitude. They abide by the Golden Rule as it applies to people around them every day. Morality is acting in accordance to what the social group says is right and moral.
  • Law and Order or Social System and Conscience stage. Children and adults at this stage abide by the rules of the society in which they live. These laws and rules become the backbone for all right and wrong actions. Children and adults feel compelled to do their duty and show respect for authority. This is still moral behavior based on authority, but reflects a shift from the social group to society at large.

Some teenagers and adults move beyond conventional morality and enter morality based on reason, examining the relative values and opinions of the groups with which they interact. Few adults reach this stage.

  • Social Contract and Individual Rights stage. Individuals in this stage understand that codes of conduct are relative to their social group. This varies from culture to culture and subgroup to subgroup. With that in mind, the individual enters into a contract with fellow human beings to treat them fairly and kindly and to respect authority when it is equally moral and deserved. They also agree to obey laws and social rules of conduct that promote respect for individuals and value the few universal moral values that they recognize. Moral behavior and moral decisions are based on the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • Principled Conscience or the Universal/Ethical Principles stage. Here, individuals examine the validity of society’s laws and govern themselves by what they consider to be universal moral principles, usually involving equal rights and respect. They obey laws and social rules that fall in line with these universal principles, but not others they deem as aberrant. Adults here are motivated by individual conscience that transcends cultural, religious, or social convention rules. Kohlberg recognized this last stage but found so few people who lived by this concept of moral behavior that he could not study it in detail.




Dizon,. General Psychology. Manila: Rex Bookstore, 2003

Uriarte, Gabriel G. General Psychology. Manila, 2007 http://www.answers.com/Moral%20%20Development