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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development - Explained & Illustrated

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was a well-known theorist in the field of moral development. He posed moral dilemmas (e.g., Heinz Dilemma) to his subjects then asked questions to probe their reasons for recommending a specific course of action.

The Heinz Dilemma

  1. Scenario 1

    A woman was near death from a unique kind of cancer. There is a drug that might save her. The drug costs $4,000 per dosage. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000. He asked the doctor scientist who discovered the drug for a discount or let him pay later. But the doctor scientist refused.

    Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

  2. Scenario 2

    Heinz broke into the laboratory and stole the drug. The next day, the newspapers reported the break-in and theft. Brown, a police officer and a friend of Heinz remembered seeing Heinz last evening, behaving suspiciously near the laboratory. Later that night, he saw Heinz running away from the laboratory.

    Should Brown report what he saw? Why or why not?

  3. Scenario 3

    Officer Brown reported what he saw. Heinz was arrested and brought to court. If convicted, he faces up to two years' jail. Heinz was found guilty.

    Should the judge sentence Heinz to prison? Why or why not?

Stages of Moral Reasoning

From his research, he identified six stages of reasoning at three levels.

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

Movement through the Stages

Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning is a stage theory. In other words, everyone goes through the stages sequentially without skipping any stage. However, movement through these stages are not natural, that is people do not automatically move from one stage to the next as they mature. In stage development, movement is effected when cognitive dissonance occurs ... that is when a person notices inadequacies in his or her present way of coping with a given moral dilemma.

But according to stage theory, people cannot understand moral reasoning more than one stage ahead of their own. For example, a person in Stage 1 can understand Stage 2 reasoning but nothing beyond that. Therefore, we should present moral arguments that are only one stage ahead of a person's present level of reasoning to stimulate movement to higher stages.

This article (in 4 parts) is an attempt to use illustrations to help explain the six stages and to show how cognitive dissonance can be created by throwing up the inadequacies of the different stages of reasoning.

Source: Descriptions (in quotations) of the six stages that follow are attributed to Lawrence Kohlberg and taken from Ronald Duska & Mariellen Whelen, Moral Development: A Guide to Piaget and Kohlberg (New York: Paulist), 1975.

It is an in-depth site that discusses different angles and answers questions so well you can't come up with any more; also it seems to be unbiased, objective.

Rhondeen Pitts
September 29, 2004

Your web page on Kohlberg is helping me immensely with my Human Growth & Development paper. Thank you for clarifying what my text book did not!

Lori Culberson
June 23, 2002

Thanks for the site. Beautifully laid out and very clearly articulated. Very helpful in my preparation for a term paper.

Adam Henderson
October 13, 2001

Kohlberg's Stages - Explained & Illustrated Sep 2000 Alan S.L. Wong