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Moral Development

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Moral Development

Is it okay to lie? Can a good person do bad things? If a person does something bad, does that make them a bad person? How do we determine what is good and bad or right and wrong? All of these are great questions about morality and moral development!

  • What is moral development?
  • What is Kohlberg's theory of moral development?
  • What are the levels and stages of Kohlberg's theory?
  • What are some other theories of moral development?
  • What factors influence moral development?

Definition of Moral Development

It can feel like nothing brings people together or divides them like moral or ethical values. Our personal sense of ethics and morality is part of the core of who we are as individuals and serves as a compass for our behavior. We come together with friends and family based on shared values and beliefs. Sadly, we are often driven apart by these same beliefs. How does this moral part of being human develop over time?

Moral Development, what is moral development, StudySmarterMorality, pixabay.com

Moral development deals with the way we identify right and wrong as we grow up and go through adulthood. It encompasses our religious and ethical values, and it influences our behavior and sense of social responsibility.

Before we dive into moral development, it is important to remember that morals are different from religious values and ethics. Religious values are the principles we live by that are based on our religious tradition. Our ethical values are the principles we live by in taking action on behalf of ourselves or others. Ethics are the practical side of morality. In other words, ethics determine what we do with our moral beliefs and religious values.

Ahimsa is a religious value of several religions native to India. It means to do no harm to any living thing (an ethical value) based on the moral value of non-cruelty in guiding our actions. It even encompasses things like not eating meat, since animals must be killed before they are eaten, which requires harm.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Moral development begins in childhood and continues throughout your entire life. In the 1930s, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concluded that a child's moral understanding grows as their cognitive abilities mature. Later in the 1950s, Lawrence Kohlberg developed a stage theory of moral development, including six stages that a person passes through as they mature. Kohlberg's theory is incredibly influential in the field of developmental psychology.

Kohlberg studied a group of 72 children from lower- and middle-class families, recording their reactions to moral questions. Based on this research, he put together his six stages and divided them up again into three levels. Remember, Kohlberg's theory is not just about childhood; his stages span all the way through adulthood. Interestingly, Kohlberg believed that most people do not reach the last stages! As we go through Kohlberg's stages, we will try to answer the question below:

Let's borrow from Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) and ask an age-old moral question: Should you steal bread to feed your starving family? Hugo's main character Jean Valjean faced this exact situation. Your understanding of right and wrong determine your answer to this question. Those who believe it is always wrong to steal no matter the circumstances will say that it is wrong to take the bread. However, others may have a different view. They might believe that letting your family starve is the greater wrong, so it is right to take the bread to feed your family.

 Moral Development, a person's hands holding up a loaf of artisan bread, StudySmarterFresh baked bread, pixabay.com

Kohlberg's Stages and Levels of Moral Development

There are 3 levels in Kohlberg's theory: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional morality. Things get tricky when you add in the 2 stages within each level.

Kohlberg's Levels Stages and AgesDescription
Level 1: Preconventional MoralityReached around ages 8-9Focused on the self and self-interest.
Stage 1: Obedience and PunishmentRules are obeyed in order to avoid punishment.
Stage 2: IndividualismRules are obeyed in order to gain rewards.
Level 2: Conventional MoralityReached by early adolescenceFocused on how we are perceived by others.
Stage 3: Interpersonal RelationshipsMorality is determined by the opinions of others.
Stage 4: Maintaining Social OrderMorality is determined by following the rules of society.
Level 3: Postconventional MoralityReached by late adolescence, early adulthood, or later.Focused on higher levels of reasoning and viewing situations from multiple perspectives.
Stage 5: Social ContractMorality is determined by a democratic process of decision-making based on individual situations.
Stage 6: Universal PrinciplesMorality is determined by a nuanced, critical understanding of justice, equity, and duty.

Level 1 of Kohlberg's Theory: Preconventional Morality

Level 1 of Kohlberg's levels is reached by around 8 or 9 years of age. Preconventional morality is focused on the self and self-interest. The primary focus is on obedience. The main concern is to follow the rules to avoid punishment and gain rewards. Stage 1 of preconventional morality is called

obedience and punishment: Rules are obeyed in order to avoid punishment. Stage 2 is called individualism: Rules are obeyed in order to gain rewards. At this level, children have an underdeveloped understanding of the needs of others and society.

8-year-old Jean Valjean decides that stealing the loaf of bread is wrong because it goes against the rules. He doesn't want to get scolded or punished, so he does not steal the bread.

10-year-old Jean knows that if he doesn't get into trouble his parents will take him for ice cream on Saturday. He doesn't steal the bread, because he doesn't want to ruin his chances for ice cream. He isn't able to understand the reality of the starving people he could help by stealing the bread.

Level 2 of Kohlberg's Theory: Conventional Morality

The second level of Kohlberg's theory is reached by early adolescence. Conventional Morality is focused on maintaining the social structure. There is an increased focus on membership within society and earning the approval of others. The primary focus is on how we are perceived by others.

Stage 3 of conventional morality is called interpersonal relationships: Answers to moral questions are influenced primarily by the approval of others. The "good child" identity is central to this stage.

Stage 4 is called maintaining social order: Decisions are based on respecting authority and doing right by society, not just the individual. Feelings of guilt about decisions play a central role at this stage.

12-year-old Jean knows that his parents will be upset with him if he steals the bread. They will disapprove of his actions and think of him as a "bad boy." Their approval matters most to him, so he does not steal the bread.

14-year-old Jean still cares about what his parents think, but he's also concerned about other people's opinions. What if everyone thinks of him as a thief? Society's approval means the most to him, so he decides not to steal the bread.

Level 3 of Kohlberg's Theory: Postconventional Morality

This is the final level in Kohlberg's theory, and it is reached around late adolescence, early adulthood, or later in life. In the postconventional morality stage, we draw our moral reasoning from broad principles that extend beyond the scope of societal rules. This stage involves a higher level of reasoning and considering multiple perspectives on the issue.

Stage 5 is called the social contract: Morality is determined by a democratic process that ways individual needs and beliefs against the needs of society. Laws or rules are viewed as changeable in order to support the greatest number of people. Justice, the fair conclusion of differences or conflicts, becomes important at this level. Stage 6 is called universal principles: Morality is determined by a nuanced, critical understanding of justice, equity, and duty. Decision-making extends beyond a single moral act to consider the implications and personal responsibility.

19-year-old Jean decides to steal the bread. Sure, stealing is wrong, but letting a family starve is surely much worse. Many people will benefit from this one loaf of bread, and their lives are more valuable than the bread or the potential consequences of stealing it.

30-year-old Jean steals the bread. The next day, he approaches the bakery owner and proposes a system that will allow all of the old bread to go directly to families in need instead of in the garbage bin. He also wrote to his community leaders to address the issue of poverty in the community. Jean recognizes that the issue of stealing bread to feed the hungry has implications beyond a single action, and he feels personally responsible to do whatever he can to make the world a more just place.

While the goal is to rise through all of the stages of this model, Kohlberg believed that many people stay in the second level of conventional morality. Morality in action is the hard work of moral development.

Are you wondering what Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean decided to do? Well, the 26-year-old Jean decided to steal the bread, and he was sentenced to many years in prison for it. His sentence was incredibly severe given the nature of his crime and his motivation. His sentence was unjust. Eventually, once he was released from prison at age 46, he began helping others who were victims of injustice.

Other Theories of Moral Development

Kohlberg's theory is built on a Westernized, individualist moral value system and does not apply the same way in all other cultures. Societies with a collectivistic moral value system may develop moral reasoning much differently than Americans. Additionally, men and women are socialized differently to foster adopting certain values more strongly than others. Kohlberg's research sample was primarily male!

An individualistic moral value system centers on the individual as the moral decision-maker and the basis for moral decisions. This is more prevalent in Western, industrialized countries.

A collectivistic moral value system centers on the family, community, and country as the moral decision-makers and bases for moral decisions.

Ron is a high school senior from Ohio. He received two full scholarships for college: One to his local university and another to a school in California. Ron's mom is a single parent, so he decides to stay in Ohio to help her out at home. Ron's mom thinks this is a bad decision. She wants her son to have new experiences and enjoy this unique opportunity, even if things are harder for her.

Yuna is a high school senior in Ulsan, South Korea. She received two scholarships as well: One to her local university and another to a school in Seoul, an exciting capital city. Yuna's mom is a single parent, so Yuna also decides to stay local for college so she can help out her mom. Yuna's mom is proud of her daughter's decision and approves of her decision to stay closer to home.

Behavior happens in a social context. Society plays a large role in what we think is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. There are two theories of social moral development: Carol Gilligan's theory and the moral intuition theory.

Gender and Moral Development Theory

Psychologist Carol Gilligan (1996) believed there is a significant difference between the moral values of men and women due to socialization. She asserted that men favor a morality of justice and understand morality more in terms of sweeping concepts like law, fairness, and justice. Women have a more interpersonal understanding of morality, focusing on the good of an individual within a group or relationship. This is sometimes called a morality of caring since it fosters a strong sense of compassion. Gilligan said that because Kohlberg's theory focused mostly on broad concepts like justice, it does not adequately represent moral development in women.

Mia and John are married. Their neighbors, the O'Brians, are struggling financially and might lose their house. Mia uses an interpersonal approach to help her neighbors and starts a community fundraiser for the O'Brians. She wants to help the family directly. John contacts his local representatives. He hopes to address the structure of financial inequity in the community as a whole rather than only one individual case.

Moral Intuition Theory

Other researchers describe a moral intuition theory of morality, believing that our moral behavior is largely based on automatic, gut reactions. This model suggests that our moral actions are directed by emotion because our moral reactions and decisions do not always line up with our stated moral beliefs or values. Moral intuition theory states that people often override their moral reasoning and react from emotion or gut reactions. Gut reactions are automatic physiological reactions to a situation or action that happen before we have a chance to use reasoning.

There is a famous scenario in moral philosophy called The Trolley Problem created by Philippa Foot (1967). A trolley is speeding toward five people who are working on the track. You could flip a switch and redirect the trolley onto a second track where only one person is working. There is no way to stop the trolley; either one person will be killed or five. Most people reason that five lives lost is worse than one, so they decide to flip the switch and send the trolley down the second track.

What if instead of flipping a switch you had to push someone in front of the trolley to save the five people? The decision is still between five lives or one, but you now have to take more direct action. Most people immediately respond that pushing the person onto the track is wrong. They react from emotion rather than reasoning. Pushing someone onto a track to be killed by a train causes a gut reaction of horror, which overrides the reasoning of the decision in the first scenario.

Moral Development, a red and yellow electric tram bus, StudySmarterTrolley, Wikimedia Commons

Factors that Influence Moral Development

Many factors influence and shape our moral development. Gender socialization can play a significant role in shaping our moral beliefs. Carol Gilligan believed that socialization leads men and women to develop different pathways of moral reasoning. Our families play an important part in our moral development as well. Studies show that children who grow up in families that hold prejudicial beliefs about people from other backgrounds are more likely to hold prejudiced beliefs later in life. Families who believe in gender equality are more likely to have kids who grow up valuing fairness across genders.

Culture also influences moral development. Culture dictates societal opinions about what is acceptable to wear or do. It also shapes the way we view the consequences of our behavior and decisions. In some cultures, doing something immoral brings shame to an entire family. In more individualistic societies, one person's decision reflects more on the individual than the family as a whole. Religious or spiritual beliefs also influence our notions of right and wrong. Things that are forbidden in our religious traditions show up in our personal and societal philosophies. The things that are sacred or celebrated in our religious beliefs become parts of our moral compass or reasoning.

Moral Development - Key takeaways

  • Moral development deals with the way we identify right and wrong as we grow up and go through adulthood. It encompasses our religious and ethical values, and it influences our behavior and sense of social responsibility.
  • Moral development begins in childhood and continues throughout your entire life.
  • There are 3 levels in Kohlberg's theory, with 2 stages in each level: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional morality.
  • Psychologist Carol Gilligan (1996) believed there is a significant difference between the moral values of men and women due to socialization.
  • Other researchers describe a moral intuition theory of morality, believing that our moral behavior is largely based on automatic, gut reactions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Moral Development

Most moral development happens during late childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Moral development is the way our understanding of right and wrong changes over time as our reasoning abilities mature.

Parents influence moral development through their own moral beliefs and actions, their religious or spiritual tradition, and their parenting style.

An example of moral development is how moral reasoning changes from late childhood to adolescence, becoming less focused on self and more focused on the opinions of others.

The stages of moral development in Kohlberg's theory are obedience and punishment, individualism, interpersonal relationships, maintaining social order, social contract, and universal principles.

Final Moral Development Quiz

Question

Moral development can be defined as: 

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Moral development deals with the way we identify right from wrong as we grow up and progress into adulthood. It encompasses our religious and ethical values, and it influences our behavior and social philosophy. 

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What are Kohlberg's 3 levels of moral development? 

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Preconventional, conventional, and postconventional morality.

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This level of Kohlberg's theory of moral development focuses on the self and self-interest:

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Preconventional Morality

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This level of Kohlberg's theory of moral development focuses on maintaining the social structure: 


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Conventional Morality

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This level of Kohlberg's theory of moral development focuses on broad principles that reach beyond societal rules: 


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Postconventional Morality

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True or False: Socialization does not influence moral development.

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False

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True or False: Men and women are socialized to have different moral values.

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True

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This moral theory believes that society plays a large role in what we deem to be acceptable or unacceptable moral behavior for a group of people. 

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Social Moral Development

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True or False: Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development is applicable to different cultures. 

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False

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This theory is sometimes called a Morality of Caring: 

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Social Moral Development

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This moral theory believes that moral behavior is an automatic, gut reaction:

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Moral Intuition. 

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The "good child" identity is central to this level of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development: 

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Conventional Morality

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A more democratic perspective of morality is central to this level of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development: 

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Postconventional Development

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Reward and punishment are central to this level of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development: 

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Preconventional Development

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The work of which psychologist inspired Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development:

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Jean Piaget

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

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1. Cognitive 

2. Affective 

3. Behavioral

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

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True

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

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1. Pre-conventional 

2. Conventional 

3. Post-conventional

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Pre-conventional morality commonly occurs at what age?

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6-10 years

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

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punished

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

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11-adolescents

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

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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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Stage 4: Law and Social Order

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

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Stage 5:  Social Contract

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

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True

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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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Stage 1:  Obedience Orientation


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


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False

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

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Solely using adults as subjects

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

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All of these are true

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


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False.

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

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caring for others

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True or False: Religious values are the principles we live by that are based on our religious tradition.  

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True 

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True or False: Our ethical values are the principles we live by in taking action on behalf of ourselves or others. 

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True 

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Fill in the blank: Moral development begins in _________ and continues throughout your entire life. 

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childhood 

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Which psychologist concluded that a child's moral understanding grows as their cognitive abilities mature? 

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Jean Piaget 

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How many stages are there in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"? 

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Six 

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"Rules are obeyed in order to avoid punishment."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment

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Rules are obeyed in order to gain rewards."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 2: Individualism

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"Morality is determined by the opinions of others."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 3: Interpersonal Relationships

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"Morality is determined by following the rules of society."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order

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"Morality is determined by a democratic process of decision-making based on individual situations."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 5: Social Contract

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"Morality is determined by a nuanced, critical understanding of justice, equity, and duty."

The statement above describes which stage in Kohlberg's "Stage Theory of Moral Development"?

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Stage 6: Universal Principles

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Fill in the blank: Level 1 of Kohlberg's levels is reached by around ___ or ___ years of age. 

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8 or 9 

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Fill in the blank: _______ morality is focused on the self and self-interest.

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Preconventional

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Fill in the blank: _______ morality is focused on how we are perceived by others.

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Conventional

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Fill in the blank: _______ morality is focused on higher levels of reasoning and viewing situations from multiple perspectives. 

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Postconventional

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