One of the things that make humans different than other species on Earth is that we are driven by not just our instincts, but our emotions as well.

And not a small part of those emotions is our sense of morality.

But, morality is not given to us, it’s developed along the way.

It is a very interesting topic for psychology, to answer all the questions about how do we even develop morality.

What is it that has the biggest role in it and do we all go the same way when it comes to developing our morality or does it depend on different factors, such as the family or the environment.

Moral Development


In today’s article, we are going to talk about the theory from Lawrence Kohlberg, who worked on this topic. We will explain his theory and analyze some of the results he found.

In the end, we are going to see what are the six stages of morality according to Kohlberg and go over some potential problems with Kohlberg’s theory.

Without any further due, let’s get down to business!


Kohlberg based his theory of the work of Jean Piaget and his theory of moral development.

He decided to use Piaget’s storytelling method to present the moral dilemmas each of us is facing every day.

For example, is it ok to arrest someone from stealing bread, or sentence the people who committed crime defending themselves?


One of the most famous stories Kohlberg was using to present his theory is the story of Heinz.

Somewhere in Europe, there was a man, called Heinz.

His wife had some type of cancer and she was dying.

Most doctors claimed that she could be saved by a new type of drug, which has been made only by one chemist in town.

Since Heinz desperately wanted to save his wife from certain death, he wanted to buy that drug. However, the chemist was asking too much money for it, and Heinz didn’t have enough.

He tried asking for the money from his family and other sources, but eventually, he only managed to gather half the money needed for it

He tried to tell the chemist that his wife is dying and he asked him if he could pay half in advance and a half in installments, so he could save his wife.

The chemist didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to make as much money as possible by selling the drug he had discovered.

This made Heinz very sad and desperate, so he decided to sneak into the chemist’s lab and steal the drug later that night.


Some of the main questions Kohlberg was asking in this experiment are the following:

  1. Did Heinz do the right thing by stealing the drug?
  2. Would anything be different if Heinz didn’t love his wife?
  3. Would anything be different if the person who was dying was a complete stranger, rather than Heinz’s wife?
  4. Should the chemist be arrested if the woman died?

In order to answer these questions, Kohlberg was analyzing answers from the group of children.

More specifically, there were 72 boys from Chicago aged between 10 and 16 years. 58 of them were monitored at three-years intervals for around 20 years.

Every subject was interviewed for 2 hours, where they were given to decide on ten dilemmas. Kohlberg wasn’t interested as much in whether the answers were right or wrong, but instead what drew the boys to give those answers.

What he found out is that their reasons had a tendency to change over time, once they’ve gotten older. Therefore, he identified and categorized moral reasoning in six stages, all put on three different levels.


Kohlberg identified six stages of moral development while conducting his experience.

He categorized them into three different groups, depending on the age range of the individuals:

  • Pre-conventional morality
  • Conventional morality
  • Post-conventional morality

Level One: Pre-Conventional Morality

When it comes to the first level of morality, it’s called the pre-conventional level. We are in this state of mind mostly up to the ninth or tenth year of our life.

At this time, we don’t yet have a personal morality code, meaning that we still have to shape it, learn from people around us and face the consequences of breaking the rules set by the world.

During this time, it is very important to have a chance to develop the right morality code. For that to happen, you need to live in an environment that is fitting for it.

Everything, from neighborhood, family, friends, social and economic situation in the country, can have a positive or negative influence.

Stage One – Obedience and Punishment Orientation

In stage one children want to learn about the rules, follow them and to avoid being punished when those rules are broken.

This is when we learn about what is perceived to be right and wrong by the society we live in.

Those rules might not be the same in each society, so there are different interpretations of what is morally right, depending on the social factors, the environment and other human factors that can affect our behavior and the way we make decisions.

Stage Two – Instrumental Orientation

In stage two, children started to show a bit different behavior, where they are no longer blindly following the rules, but instead, trying to think would certain action bring something useful to them or not. In other words, they started to ask the “What’s in there for me?” question.

At this point, the right thing to do is defined by individual beliefs.

You will do something because you believe it could be beneficial to you, not just because someone else says it’s the right thing to do.

This could lead to doing something for selfish reasons, rather because it is a good thing to do.

That could bring you to situations like “you help me, and I will help you”.

Sometimes this kind of thinking is not that bad, but when we talk about children, this type of behavior can have counter-productive effects, making children to be less obedient and sometimes even act bad and not listen to their parents.

Level Two: Conventional Morality

When it comes to level two, which is called conventional morality, it is when we start to accept general rules and moral standards of society and adults.

This is when we stop to question every action and authority and internalize it as our own.

What this means is that on this level we are more inclined to accept authority, not because someone else told us it is the right thing to do, but because now we truly believe in this moral code and we embrace it without any doubts.

Stage Three – Good Boy, Nice Girl Orientation

In stage three, we tend to ask and with for our actions to be approved by others.

Therefore, we act in a way that we’re trying to avoid disapproval.

This is when we do things we might not be comfortable with, but we still do it to please others in order to get their approval.

This includes being nice to everyone else, even when it is not in our best interest.

This, per se, is not a bad thing, but there are other actions that could be.

Stage Four – Law and Order Orientation

When it comes to staging four, we finally start to see the bigger picture and accept the moral code of our society, as well as some rules.

We do that not because someone ordered us to do it, but because we start to believe in those rules.

We feel like it is necessary to do it, in order for our society to continue to function without any problems.

So, we begin to believe that if at least one person didn’t follow the rules, our society would collapse and changed drastically.

In that case, we want to avoid that and ask for approval from the people who are close to us and from society in general.

We start to believe that the actions and rules set up by the community are supposed to be followed in order to preserve the natural way of doing things.

Level Three: Post-Conventional Morality

At the post-conventional level, people start to question certain rules and laws.

They come to think that some of them and other actions in society are wrong and that there is a need for change.

At this point, people are starting to realize that every individual is an entity that is separated from all others, with its own free will and moral code.

This is when we start to live by our own moral code and ethical principles, such as the desire for liberty and justice.

We begin to see rules set by the society to be as necessary, but also a changeable tool for ensuring the stability and welfare of the people.

This is when we stop to blindly follow the rules, simply because someone else said they must be followed.

In this case, since we are trying to impose our own opinion and beliefs, this level of morality is often confused with the pre-conventional level, especially if we consider stage six.

There are theories that suggest that this level of morality is very hard to reach and that not many people reach it during their lives.

Stage Five – Social Contract Orientation

Stage five of morality represents the time when we start to develop different opinions about the moral code and rules set by society.

We start to question certain laws, institutions and their work for the society.

Rules and laws are no longer an absolute, that should be followed without questions.

Laws that don’t contribute to the welfare of people in the society are subjected to change and are replaced with those suited for that purpose.

In order for this to happen, there should be a majority of votes in the community, meaning that there should be a compromise for which the majority of people will vote.

We can say that democracy per se is based on this very principle.

Stage Six – Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

In the last stage of morality, stage six, we can say that moral reasoning is defined by using certain universally accepted ethical principles.

These principles are there to serve the people and the society in general, so they are changeable if the need for that arises.

And you will certainly need these ethical principles further in life, especially if you want to be some kind of a big and good leader.

They are based on social ideas such as respect, individual dignity, and equality amongst everyone. Laws and rules are considered to be valid as long as they fulfill their main task, to preserve these ideas we had listed.

Rules that don’t contribute in that way are considered to be unjust and are often subjected to change and if that is not possible, they are rarely obeyed by people, which leads to social unrest.

All this means that people will do something because it is the ethically right thing to do, and if they don’t do that, they might feel guilty.

However, it is very hard to reach this stage of moral reasoning, even though Kohlberg insisted that this stage even exists.


Now that we covered the Kohlberg’s theory of six stages of morality, let’s consider all the facts and look at different reasons for why this theory is being criticized by other scientists and researchers.

We’ll cover the criticism part in two different areas (and let us say how important it is to know how to accept it): the problems with the methodology of Kohlberg’s experiment and the problems with the theory per se.

Problems With Methodology

First, let’s dive into the criticism about methodological tools Kohlberg had used to test his theory and whether it is a good criticism or not.

1. Artificial Dilemmas

When it comes to dilemmas Kohlberg’s was asking, they could be interpreted right or wrong, depending on the situation and the subject’s status.

So, when asking whether Heinz was right to steal the drug or not is a perfectly good thing to ask.

However, the subjects Kohlberg used were boys between 10-16 years old. They were still not married and were not put in the situation from the story.

So it brings us to the question of whether those dilemmas he presented and asked his subjects were even dilemmas suited to their age because only people who had experienced something like that and who’ve had more life experience could have answered to that question.

2. Biased Sample

Another very valid criticism is about the sample Kohlberg was using. He used the sample based on male participants, which, according to Gilligan, could only show how would a male act in that kind of situation.

Men’s morality is a bit different than women’s morality code. It is based on justice and principles designed by the law, while female moral principles are mostly based on emotions such as compassion and care.

That means, women might have acted different if they found themselves in the same situation, so Kohlberg shouldn’t have had to write a conclusion for both female and male population based only on a sample consisting only of male individuals.

Along with that comes the all going debate about gender equality, which is present in the field of psychology and which was completely ignored here. And when it gets ignored, it could have a significant impact on the data and every potential result that is obtained through the research.

3. Hypothetical Dilemmas

Another thing with the Kohlberg’s dilemmas that are often criticized is that they are not very real, but more of hypothetical nature.

Yes, it is ok to imagine a situation like Heinz’s dilemma, but critics often state that there is no reason to believe that everyone would act the same way.

There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to our reaction. Social rules, ethics, moral code. Before we do something, we need to know what are the consequences of our action.

And since we know there are people who are afraid to take risks and those who are willing to risk it, we can say that not everyone would do the same as Heinz in the story.

Because of that fact that every individual is different and that their actions could be different in the same situations, there is a question whether are the results Kohlberg obtained valid enough.

With that comes the fact that people know they are being experimented on, so they can choose to perhaps provide different answers or do different things that it would be the case in real situations.

4. Poor Research Design

Kohlberg conducted cross-sectional research, which means that he questioned a group of children that are of different age, which might not have been the best way of tracking moral development.

Critics claim that it would’ve been better if he constructed the experiment so that all subjects could go through the same stages of moral development.

That way, he could’ve seen if they all showed some pattern of behavior.

That was done later by Colby (1983) though. She decided to test 58 male subjects that were the part of the Kohlberg’s original study and track their psychosocial development.

It was done six times over 27 years. She discovered that they indeed developed their morality in the same order, through different stages, which supported what Kohlberg had found.

Another big name of psychologal developement is Erik Erikson, and you can read more on his work here.


Now that we had analyzed some problems related to the methodological tools Kohlberg had used to conduct his research, let’s focus on the theoretical part of his research and see what could be the potential problems with it.

1. Are there different stages of moral development?

Even though Kohlberg said there are different stages of moral development, there are cases that sometimes contradict this statement.

For instance, we can imagine someone who would base their decision on general rules of the society but would change their mind in some different situation.

The conclusion is, that in real life, people define what is right or wrong separately, depending on the situation they found themselves in.

Another thing is, that some people don’t always advance through the stages of development, but rather go backward.

According to Rest (1979), 1 in 14 people will go backward, rather than advance to the next stage of development.

2. Does moral judgment match moral behavior?

One of Kohlberg’s suggestions is that there is a link between thinking and acting.

In other words, the connection between the things we say we’ll do and the actions we take to do it.

However, there is more moral behavior than that, as suggested by Bee (1994), such as:

  1. Personal habits people have,
  2. Whether people see and think that their participation is required in certain situations,
  3. Whether it would be beneficial for them to act a certain way,
  4. And certain motives that are always conflicted, such as self-interest or pressure from the others.

In general, what Bee claimed, is that our moral decision and action we take depend not only on the moral reasoning but also on some outside and social factors.

3. Is justice the most fundamental moral principle?

Closely related to one of the methodological problems we had discussed, is this point, which asks whether justice is considered to be the most important moral principle out there?

Do we have to follow the law at all cost and base our decisions on the moral code forced by law and justice system?

In this matter, Gilligan (1977) says that one more thing that is as equally important as justice is the ability to care for others.

Here comes statement Kohlberg made, that males have more advanced moral reasoning than women do, simply because they base their moral code on principle of justice, while women base it on the principle of caring for other people.

This means that Kohlberg’s theory contains a sex bias, which, to be fair, can’t be denied. There is a lot of evidence supporting this critic.


That would be everything we wanted to tell you about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

We have explained the origins of the theory, defined all six stages of moral reasoning, according to Kohlberg and discussed some of the potential problems in both methodological and theoretical part of this theory.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

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