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Kohlberg's Stages
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 ~
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?
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?
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?

~ Just for Discussion & Feedback ~
  1. A Christian's Response to the Heinz Dilemma??

  2. Taiwan to ignore flu drug patent

    Should a country produce generic versions of anti-viral drugs without licence in order to save lives during a national health crisis?

  3. LOST » Season 1 » Episode 8 - Confidence Man

    Shannon has a severe attack of asthma and Boone believes that Sawyer has the refills for the inhaler. Jack storms out to confront to Sawyer again; earlier he had no success at reasoning or fighting with Sawyer. Sayid follows him and suggests that he knows a way to get what they want out of Sawyer torture.

    Should Jack and Sayid resort to torture to obtain the refills?


Stages of Moral Reasoning

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

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 GirlOrientation
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.


"Blessed to be a Blessing" - A Christian Parenting Newsletter
Copyright by Alan S.L. Wong

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If you have comments or suggestions, Email email me at vta_alan@hotmail.com
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
Copyright © Sep 2000 by Alan S.L. Wong
Updated Oct 2005
http://www.vtaide.com/png/Kohlberg.htm
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First four stages applied to parenting of young children
Controversial Issues in the Classroom
The use of discussions as a pedagogical technique to examine controversial issues
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