Lawrence Kohlberg

Theory of Moral Development

Background on Lawrence Kohlberg

Before his work became famous in the beginning of the 1970s, Lawrence Kohlberg was a professor at Harvard University. In his early days, he was a developmental psychologist; he later began to study moral education - from where his theory stems from. Stemmed from the minds of American philosopher John Dewey and Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Kohlberg made his theory popular through his research at Harvard's Center for Moral Education.

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Theory: Explained

Kohlberg's theory is created on the foundation that people progressed in their moral reasoning through a series of six stages that can be further classified into three levels.

Level One: Pre-Conventional - Found mostly in the elementary school levels

  1. Stage One - Obedience and Punishment: The first stage entails people behaving according to what social norms have been taught to them.
  2. Stage Two - Individualism: In this stage, a child believes that 'right behavior' is behavior that appeals to their best interests. Thus justifying why a young child might steal another's ball or piece of candy.

Level Two: Conventional - Found mostly in society

  1. Stage Three - Good Boy: Here, a person will chose their actions by what things will gain the approval of others.
  2. Stage Four - Law and Order: When in the fourth stage, a person will be swayed to abide by the law and responsibilities that they might have.

Level Three: Post-Conventional - Not reached by even the majority of adults

  1. Stage Five - Social Contract: A person will pick up a genuine interest in the welfare of others and an understanding of social mutuality.
  2. Stage Six - Principled Conscience: Here, people will begin to respect the universal principles of others and the demands of their conscience.

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  • One can be presented with moral problems in discussion to help them see reason in a 'higher stage', thus pushing their development in that direction, also known as Kohlberg's Moral Discussion Approach.
  • Moral development can be prompted through formal education in direct result of Kohlberg's Moral Discussion Approach.
  • The more social interaction one is involved in, the more development can occur.


  • One can not skip stages. They can only morally understand one stage above them at the time.
  • The theory is androcentric, or male biased. Kohlberg reported that most women were only at stage three while most men were at stage four. During current studies, female subjects are being judged using a male standard because Kohlberg's original research was based solely on men.
  • The study does not account that women approach moral problems from an 'ethics of care' rather than an 'ethics of justice'.

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Application to the Classroom

Kohlberg's theory can be used in the classroom and still is today. Teachers are constantly posing questions to their students that force them to think one stage above them morally, whether it has to do with the secret rules and understandings of social classes or a comprehension of the trades and traditions of another culture. A student should be constantly posed questions that force them to reason, discuss, and understand one level above themselves.


"Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development." Kohlberg’s Theory Of Moral Development. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

"Kohlberg." - Moral Development. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

"Kohlberg's Moral Stages." Kohlberg's Moral Stages. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.