Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory

Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory
Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory

A theory in contemporary psychology, Kohlberg’s model of moral development takes an aim at the idea that certain values are humanly universal. The theory suggests that there is a hierarchy of morality from the conformity level to levels of justice.

Unlike much traditional theories, it does not provide a single interpretation for moral development; rather, it can be seen as one step among many on the way towards maturity and conscientiousness.


While this was not the first theory to suggest that universal morals do not exist in humans (the dualism hypothesis), Kohlberg’s study has been widely influential and continues to shape discussions about ethical competence in religions, law enforcement agencies, international organizations and private companies. It includes the base of modern psychological research on morality and justice.


Kohlberg’s theory starts with the claim that moral reasoning rests on two stages: preconventional and conventional. The preconventional stage covers the first two stages of his six-stage model; conventional stage covers the last four.


Kohlberg’s theory is based principally on a follow-up to Piaget’s work on cognitive development, though it has been criticized as failing to account for some cognitive development in the realm of moral judgment.


Kohlberg believed that Piaget was right to suggest that children demonstrate an understanding of fairness, equality and universality very early in their development. However, he believed that Piaget’s research was limited to this understanding of social relations and not to morality in general.


Kohlberg’s theory was originally intended as a model of moral reasoning (or moral development). However, Kohlberg later expanded his work to encompass moral judgment. The classic study of “Moral Stages and Moral Dilemmas”, published in 1969, examined children from the 9-19 age range from a variety of different European countries.


Children were asked to solve dilemmas that would involve choosing between conflicting principles. This comparison indicated which stage they were at and how closely they adhered to the theories proposed by Kohlberg’s model.


Kohlberg’s model begins with the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Thus, young children should think of themselves as seeing only what is best for themselves, and rationalize their actions accordingly.


As one child’s moral reasoning progresses from this selfish stage to the later stages of moral reasoning, however, he or she moves away from selfishness and begins to see other people as individuals with their own wishes and needs, who deserve consideration and respect.


To Kohlberg, morality represents the modern name for a set of tribal customs developed at various times by people in different countries about respect for those who are older than oneself.


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