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Kohlberg's Level Three - Postconventional Morality

... so-called because the moral principles that underline the conventions of a society are understood.

Chart of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development
Level One:
Pre-conventional Morality
Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation
Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation
Level Two:
Conventional Morality
Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation
Level Three:
Post-Conventional Morality
Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society ... with an emphasis upon the possibility of changing law in terms of rational consideration of social utility (rather than rigidly maintaining it in terms of Stage 4 law and order)." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Summary: The concern is social utility or public interest. While rules are needed to maintain social order, they should not be blindly obeyed but should be set up (even changed) by social contract for the greater good of society. Right action is one that protects the rights of the individual according to rules agreed upon by the whole society.

Possible Stage 5 responses to Heinz Dilemma:
  • Heinz should steal the drug because everyone has the right to life regardless of the law against stealing. Should Heinz be caught and prosecuted for stealing then the law (against stealing) needs to be reinterpreted because a person's life is at stake.

  • The doctor scientist's decision is despicable but his right to fair compensation (for his discovery) must be maintained. Therefore, Heinz should not steal the drug.

Note: Opposite responses could be given at each stage or different reasons could be given for the same response.

Inadequacy of Stage 5 reasoning: How do we arrive at a consensus on the rules that are good for society? Should a majority group impose their preferences on a minority group? What if you disagree with the decision of the majority? Would you then disobey "their" rules?

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

Lawrence Kohlberg: "Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the golden rule, the categorical imperative) and are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons." (Duska, R. and Whelan, M., 1975)

Explanatory Notes:
  • The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

  • The Categorical Imperative: "Act so as to treat any rational being as an end-in-himself and never merely as a means." In other words, a moral law that is unconditional or absolute and which does not depend on any ulterior motive or end. Compare "You shall not steal" with "Do not steal if you want respect in the community." The former is an end-in-itself ... a categorical imperative.

Summary: The concern is for moral principles ... an action is judged right if it is consistent with self-chosen ethical principles. These principles are not concrete moral rules but are universal principles of justice, reciprocity, equality and human dignity.

Possible Stage 6 response to Heinz Dilemma: Heinz should steal the drug to save his wife because preserving human life is a higher moral obligation than preserving property.

Inadequacy of Stage 6 reasoning: Our conscience is not an infallible guide to behaviour because it works according to the principles we have adopted. Moreover, who or what determines these universal principles?

A vivid illustration of our conscience not being an infallible guide is the story of the Sawi people of New Guinea (now called Irian Jaya). In the early 1960s, they were cannibals. In Sawi legend, their heroes weren't those who took the greatest number of heads, but those who were the most deceitful in befriending their victims before taking their heads. Friendship before betrayal would not prick their conscience because treachery was an ideal. So when missionaries, Don and Carol Richardson told them the story of Christ's life, who do you think was the real hero to the Sawi people? Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus! ( Source: Peace Child by Don Richardson )


Although moral reasoning does not necessarily lead to moral action, the latter is based in part on one's capacity to reason about moral choices. Kohlberg was more concerned with the reasoning of the action than the action itself. And that reasoning when acted upon becomes our motivation.

Jesus made it clear that our motivation is just as important as our action (Matt. 6:1-18 c.f. Acts 4:36-5:11). Therefore, we (parents) need to go beyond living an exemplary lifestyle to sharing and explaining the reasons of our actions. If we don't, our children may attribute wrong reasons (and values) to our right actions!

We could also teach moral reasoning by discussing moral dilemmas that our children are likely to face in their daily lives ... probing for & challenging their reasoning and sharing a biblical perspective. In the context of moral dilemmas, biblical action flows from the following:

  1. Knowing the issues involved in a moral dilemma

  2. Understanding the biblical imperatives, principles and values pertinent to the moral dilemma

  3. Believing in these imperatives and principles

  4. Integrating them into our value structure

  5. Having the desire and commitment to obey or follow them

Moral reasoning cannot be divorced from moral values. The inevitable question as seen in (2) above: What values are pertinent to the moral dilemma? Moral education is more than leading our children upward from one stage of reasoning to the next. It includes the teaching of biblical values. We need to teach both ... moral reasoning and moral content.

The challenge is to teach in such a way that matches a child's present stage of moral reasoning (or one stage ahead). As mentioned in the introduction, children cannot understand moral reasoning more than one stage ahead of their own. We can teach bible stories, biblical commands, principles and values to children emphasizing accordingly:
Stage 1: consequences of disobedience

Stage 2: blessings of obedience

Stage 3: obedience pleases God while disobedience grieves God

Stage 4: role as a child/servant of God and as a member of the community of faith

Stage 5: unity of the community of faith

Stage 6: consistency with the two great commands to love God and love our neighbour
It is important to recognize that a child without the Spirit of God will not and cannot accept the things of God, whatever stage of reasoning the child may be in (1 Cor. 2:14).
The person without the Spirit
does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God
but considers them foolishness, and
cannot understand them
because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
Therefore, teach God's love and forgiveness expressed through Jesus and His care and protection for the little ones.

Kohlberg's Level Three - Postconventional Morality Sep 2000 Alan S.L. Wong; Updated August 2011