Lawrence Kohlberg

Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York, October 25, 1927. He earned a degree from the University of Chicago in just one year and received a PhD in 1958. While studying the moral decisions of teenage boys, he became a professor at Yale University and later back at the University of Chicago.

Stages of Morality

Kohlberg's theory is an extended version of Piaget's. He breaks down moral development into six stages categorized into bigger levels. Preconventional is "seen in preschool children, most elementary school students, some junior high school students, and a few high school students" (McDevitt). Conventional typically occurs at the end of elementary school, into middle school, with Stage 4 not happening until high school. Postconventional is hardly ever seen before college and very few adults ever accomplish Stage 6.

The Research

Kohlberg conducted his research by telling people stories of moral dilemmas. After telling the stories he would then proceed to ask questions about the dilemma and "present the choice to be considered for example between the rights of some authority and the needs of some deserving individual who is being unfairly treated" (McLeod). By observing the responses of people from different age groups, "Kohlberg hoped to discover how moral reasoning changed as people grew" (McLeod).


STAGE I: Punishment Avoidance and Disobedience
  • Make decisions based on what is personally best, regardless of others' needs
  • Only obey rules by established adults
  • May disobey if there is no possibility of getting caught

Stage II: Exchange of Favors

  • Recognize others have needs
  • May satisfy others' needs if own needs are met
  • Define right and wrong by personal consequences


STAGE III: Good Boy/Girl

  • Make decisions based on what will please others
  • Concerned about keeping healthy relationships (sharing, trust, and loyalty)
  • Take other's perspective into account when making decisions

STAGE IV: Law and Order

  • Look at society as a whole for rules and guidelines
  • Know rules are necessary and believe they have the duty to follow them
  • Don't realize that as society's needs change, rules should change as well


STAGE V: Social Contract

  • See rules as agreements among individuals
  • Rules seen as useful tools in keeping social order
  • Recognize that rules are flexible

STAGE VI: Universal Ethical Principle

  • Ideal stage that few people ever reach
  • Stick to universal principles like equality for all, respect for human dignity, and commitment to justice
  • Answer to inner conscience
  • Willing to disobey laws that conflict with own ethical beliefs

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A man named Gilligan claims that Kohlberg's research was male bias since he had come to the conclusion that males were at stage 4 and females only at stage 3. Kohlberg didn't account for the fact that men and women have different perspectives on ethics. Kohlberg's whole research is based on a theoretical question which most people would answer to differently than to real-life examples. His research was so dependent of people's reactions to made-up scenarios that scientists question its validity.

In the Classroom Today

Students become natural teachers through their experiences in the classroom. Teachers can apply Kohlberg's theory to their classroom environments by...

  • Incorporate scenarios
  • Role-playing
  • Allow students to work in groups

Creating ways to promote moral development can be difficult for teachers. They often find turning objectives into discussion questions tricky, but it is well worth the effort.

Work Cited

"Lawrence Kohlberg Biography." Lawrence Kohlberg Biography., 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

McDevitt, T. M., and J. E. Ormrod. "Kohlberg's Three Levels and Six Stages of Moral Reasoning." Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall, 20 July 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

McLeod, Saul. "Kohlberg." Kohlberg-Moral Development. SimplyPsychology, 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

Psychology Notes HQ. "Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development." The Psychology Notes Headquarter RSS. N.p., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Schemrich, Colleen M. "Applying Principles of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development to Classroom Instruction, Classroom Discipline Procedures, School-Wide Discipline Procedures, District Programs and Community Programs." N.p., 2003. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.