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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning

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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning

If someone cuts you off while driving, would you say that what they did is wrong? Why or why not? Is it because they were speeding and broke the law, or is it because it could have caused harm to other people? Would it make a difference if that person was trying to get their pregnant wife to the hospital or driving intoxicated? According to Kohlberg, people will answer questions like these differently depending on their stage of moral reasoning.

  • What is Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning?
  • What are the stages of Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning?
  • What is a research example of Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning?
  • Why is Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning important?
  • What are some criticisms of Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning?

The Meaning of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning

Bouncing off of Piaget's ideas and developmental stages, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) developed a theory of moral reasoning. Kohlberg agreed with Piaget's idea that moral development is tied to cognitive development. However, unlike Piaget, he believed moral reasoning and thinking develop throughout your entire life rather than just in childhood and adolescence. In order to understand Kohlberg's theory, we need to define morality.

Morality is the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

According to Kohlberg, there are three basic parts of moral reasoning:

  1. Cognitive: thoughts about a topic or action.

  2. Affective: feelings about a topic or action.

  3. Behavioral: behaviors associated with a topic or action.

Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning is a stage theory. People progress through the stages in order and no one can jump ahead. Unlike most developmental theories, though, Kohlberg believed that most people won't reach the end of his stages. He thought that people typically stay stuck about halfway through. It takes effort to move through the stages; it does not automatically happen. Moving to the next stage requires facing and coping with a moral dilemma.

The Stages of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning has three stages: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each stage has two levels, making six levels total.

Pre-Conventional Morality

Pre-conventional morality usually occurs during middle childhood between the ages of 6 and 10. Moral thinking is based on adult expectations and potential consequences for rule-breaking at this age. A child's understanding of morality is based on what they are told and the consequences. Right and wrong are clear categories in a child's mind (black and white thinking). There are two levels in the pre-conventional stage:

At the obedience level, a child decides if their actions are moral based on whether or not they will be punished. A sense of right and wrong is not an internal decision but is completely influenced by the environment. Children at this stage will obey authority figures and follow the rules based on consequences. They may also follow rules that are bad for them or could hurt them.

Conventional Morality

The second stage of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning is called conventional morality and begins around age 11.

At this level, morality is mainly motivated by a desire to win the approval of others for being good. Older children at this stage will consider how their moral decisions affect their relationships. "Will my mom be proud of me if I do this? Will my teacher praise me for how well I did?" They are focused on winning the approval of those whose opinions matter most to them and conforming to the expectations of society.Additionally, children at this stage will start to consider the intentions of others in their moral reasoning.

At level 4, moral reasoning is still motivated by societal opinions, but it also becomes concerned with maintaining a functional society. "Will what I'm doing (or not doing) be good for society? Will it help other people?" Individuals in this level focus less on fulfilling their own needs and more on fulfilling the needs of society as a whole. Moral thinking focuses on conforming to social norms and obeying law and order without question. "Is it illegal and socially condemned? Don't do it!" Kohlberg believed that most people do not progress past this stage.

Notice that self-interest is less important in this stage, and important people and society heavily influence morals. Pleasing others becomes more important than simply following rules. Thinking is more developed and abstract at this stage.

Post-Conventional Morality

According to Kohlberg, many people won't move past the conventional stage of morality. If they do, it's because they have faced some kind of moral conflict in their lives and fought through it. When they reach this final stage, their sense of morality is based on an internal set of abstract ethical principles that supersede the laws and norms of society.

At this level, moral reasoning is highly influenced by the belief that the world is full of differing opinions and values. Individuals may choose to follow the rules, or they may not; they'll only follow rules that make sense, are useful, and set the standards for society. Laws are viewed as social contracts and should promote the greatest good for most people. They are not black-and-white, and following them isn't about receiving affirmation from others. Several democratic governments and policies are based on this type of moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning by level 6 is almost entirely rooted in a personal moral system that reflects abstract principles such as justice, life, liberty, and equality. Laws may be followed, but only if they are fair and just. If laws are not just, a person may suggest that there is a moral obligation not to obey the law. Moral reasoning becomes heavily motivated by following an internal personal set of ethical principles guided by your conscience.

Notice the realization that individuals are separate entities and should not be required to follow all rules at all times, especially if they conflict with their sense of morality. This stage requires placing personal moral conclusions above the conventions of society and potentially enduring personal hardship to stay true to your own ethical code.

Example of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg conducted several studies on morality by exposing participants to a moral dilemma and observing how the participants arrived at particular conclusions or decisions. He was interested in learning about the moral reasoning behind their choices. One of his most common research studies is called the Heinz dilemma.

The Heinz Dilemma

In this study, Kohlberg (1958) presented 72 boys between the ages of 10 and 16 with hypothetical moral dilemmas. In the Heinz dilemma, Kohlberg described a woman on her deathbed. Doctors said that only one drug could potentially save her life: a new drug only sold by one pharmacist. While the drug cost $200, the pharmacist charged $2,000 for just a tiny dose of the medicine.

Heinz, the sick woman's husband, borrowed as much money as he could but could only come up with $1,000. He explained to the pharmacist that his wife was on her death bed, begged him to sell it for less, and promised to pay the rest later. The pharmacist refused, proclaiming that he wanted to make money from his discovery. Desperate, Heinz broke into the laboratory and stole the drug for his wife.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning woman in hospital bed StudySmarterDying woman, pixabay.com

Kohlberg asked the participants several questions:

  1. Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
  2. If Heinz did not love his wife, would that change how you view his actions?
  3. Would it make a difference if the person dying was a stranger instead of his wife?

If a participant said that Heinz should not have stolen the drug because breaking the law is a crime and he could have been sent to prison, their moral reasoning represented stage one. If a participant said that Heinz should have found another way to get the drug, maybe by reporting the pharmacist or asking others for help paying for it, their moral reasoning reflected stage two. If a participant said that Heinz should have stolen the drug because his wife's life was more important than breaking the law and going to jail (and more important than creating a good society), that kind of moral reasoning represents the last stage.

The Importance of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory impacts several areas of society, such as community engagement and democratic governments. It has significantly impacted education. By using Kohlberg's theory of moral development, educators better understand the moral reasoning of their students. They can also identify ways to promote moral development in the classroom. Teachers can gently guide students to the next stage by challenging their thinking and leading moral discussions in class.

Elementary school teachers familiar with Kohlberg's theory know that many of their students are likely operating within stage 1. The teachers create clear rules and develop a reward system to help facilitate positive behaviors.

Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning

Even though Kohlberg's has been incredibly influential, it does have some shortcomings. Some psychologists criticize Kohlberg's theory for overemphasizing justice, using a biased sample and hypothetical scenarios.

Overemphasis on Justice

One primary critique of Kohlberg's theory is that it overemphasizes justice and focuses little on compassion and care for others. Carol Gilligan expanded on Kohlberg's research, suggesting that caring for others is just as important as justice in a person's moral reasoning.

Biased Sample

Another major critique of Kohlberg's theory is that the sample of his research study was primarily American male participants. Many psychologists believe that his stages only reflect male reasoning and drastically ignore differences in female reasoning. Kohlberg also did not investigate cultural differences in moral reasoning.

Based on Hypotheticals

Finally, Kohlberg is criticized for only using hypothetical dilemmas in his study. He did not consider that children may not be able to fully grasp the hypothetical scenarios. Even for adults, what someone might do in real life may be drastically different from what they say in response to a hypothetical situation.

Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Thinking - Key takeaways

  • Morality is simply the ability to distinguish right from wrong through reasoning.
  • According to Kohlberg (1984), the three components of morality are as follows:
    1. Cognitive

    2. Affective

    3. Behavioral

  • Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning has three stages: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each stage has two levels, making six levels total.

  • The pre-conventional stage

    • Level 1: Obedience

    • Level 2: Instrumental

  • The conventional stage
    • Level 3: "Good boy" or "Good girl"
    • Level 4: Law and social order
  • The post-conventional stage
    • Level 5: Social contract
    • Level 6: Universal ethical principles
  • Unlike most developmental theories, Kohlberg believed that most people won't reach the end of his stages.
  • Criticisms of Kohlberg's theory include an overemphasis on justice, a biased sample, and the use of hypotheticals.

Frequently Asked Questions about Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning is one way of describing moral development in cognitive stages.

The six stages of Kohlberg's theory of moral development are:

1. Obedience orientation

2. Instrumental orientation

3. "Good boy" or "Good girl"

4. Law and social order

5. Social contract

6. Universal ethical principles

Moral reasoning theory explains that moral development does not automatically occur as a person develops.

An example of moral reasoning is whether or not someone should go to jail for something they have done.

Kohlberg's theory can be applied in educational settings, parenting, and government policies.

Final Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning Quiz

Question

According to Kohlberg (1984), what are the three components of morality?

Show answer

Answer

1. Cognitive 

2. Affective 

3. Behavioral

Show question

Question

True or False. Everyone progresses through each stage of Kohlberg's Levels of Moral Thinking sequentially.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What are three levels of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning

Show answer

Answer

1. Pre-conventional 

2. Conventional 

3. Post-conventional

Show question

Question

Pre-conventional morality commonly occurs at what age?

Show answer

Answer

6-10 years

Show question

Question

At the obedience orientation stage, a person decides if their actions are moral based on whether or not they will be ________ .

Show answer

Answer

punished

Show question

Question

Around what age is a person usually at Level II of Kohlberg's Levels of Moral Thinking?

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Answer

11-adolescents

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Question

Kelly thinks it's important to get a good grade so the teachers think you're a good student. Which stage of moral reasoning is Kelly at?

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Answer

Stage 3: "Good Boy" or "Good Girl"

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Question

Jonathon thinks it's important for people to follow the rules at P.E. because rules should be followed without question. He thinks that if people stop following the rules, the game would become chaotic and would disrupt the order. 


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Answer

Stage 4: Law and Social Order

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Question

Many democratic governments and policies are based on the moral reasoning of which stage? 

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Answer

Stage 5:  Social Contract

Show question

Question

True or False? Kohlberg believed that most people (especially boys) do not progress past Stage 4. 

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

In Kohlberg's Heinz Dilemma example, a participant believes Heinz should NOT steal the drug because he would be breaking the law and could be punished by being sent to go to prison. Which stage of moral reasoning are they most likely operating at?

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Answer

Stage 1:  Obedience Orientation


Show question

Question

True or False? Kohlberg's levels of moral reasoning have had little to no impact on education. 


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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a common criticism of Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning?

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Answer

Solely using adults as subjects

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Question

Why was it problematic for Kohlberg to have primarily used hypotheticals to form his theory?

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Answer

All of these are true

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Question

True or False? Kohlberg primarily used American female participants to form his theory.


Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Carol Gilligan expanded on Kohlberg's research, suggesting that ________  was just as important as the principle of justice in a person's moral reasoning.

Show answer

Answer

caring for others

Show question

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