The Six Stages of Moral Development According to Kohlberg

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March 5, 2021
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Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development expands Jean Piaget’s interest in identifying the particularities of ethical evolution. The book The Moral Judgement of the Child summarizes Piaget’s research in rule understanding and social norms revealed through two distinct situations: the collective game governed by rules and the analysis of children’s stories regarding “bad deeds”, such as stealing or lying.   

Previous research on Moral Development

The main conclusion and contribution of the Piagetian explorations are identifying and describing the two forms of moral development seen in children: heteronomy and autonomy. Until the age of 7 or 8 years old, the child is the bearer of his entourage’s morality (hetero means other, others). Autonomy begins after this period and is present by the age of 9 or 10 and consolidated afterwards. The child begins to understand the necessity of and the reason behind moral rules, perceiving their utility in social interactions and their part in assuring everyone has an equal chance.

It is important to note that Jean Piaget did not discuss the entire moral conduct and only focused his attention on moral judgment, based on his primary interest: the logico-formal intelligence (read Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development).

The Methodology of Kohlberg's Experimentation

Kohlberg chose from the various techniques of collecting data the method of moral dilemmas and the interview. The moral “dilemmas” were 10 created situations where the problem was the opposition between the general requirement of the moral norm (e.g., “Thou shall not steal”) and a particular situation that could favour and explain the breaking of the said norm.

The Heinz Dilemma

Somewhere in Europe, a woman has a rare form of cancer and risks dying. There is only one medicine that can save her. It is a type of radium sold for ten times the price it costs to produce it by the pharmacist who discovered it.  The medicine is worth 200$, but he is asking for 2000$!

Heinz, the sick woman’s husband, has tried to collect the money by borrowing from his friends but could only add up to 1000$. He then asked the pharmacist to give him the medicine for half the price, arguing that time is crucial for his wife’s life and that he will pay the rest later. The pharmacist refused him.

Desperate, Heinz breaks into the pharmacy at night and steals the medicine.

← One of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas used in the interview designed for assessing children’s ethical reasoning.

Interview Questions

In the interview that followed, the children were asked questions designed to obtain a disclosure of the motivations backing their answers. Among these were:

  • Was Heinz right to steal the medicine?
  • What would have happened if Heinz did not care for his wife?
  • Would this fact have changed anything?
  • If the sick person was a stranger, did Heinz had to steal the medicine?

The response per see did not matter that much, as the research was more interested in the moral reasoning that backed the answer.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Judgement

According to Kohlberg (buy his books from Amazon), the ontogenesis of morality has a hierarchical structure with two dimensions: levels and stages. They form by restructuring, not by addition, as is the case of most stage theories. The development of moral reasoning is always ascendant; every new stage is an irreversible acquisition (only 5-7% regressed at re-testing). Within the pale of a single culture, all the stages are open to individual acquisition, but not all people go through them all. The order of the stages is the same, although the rhythm of progress differs from person to person, as we can see in the table below:

Stage presence

7 years

10 years

16 years

Stage 1




Stage 2




Stage 3




Stage 4




Stage 5




Stage 6




Is the methodology of moral dilemmas applicable to cultures that prioritize collectivism and sacrifice for the greater good, such as Asian cultures, in the same way as it is to individualistic Western cultures that emphasize independence, critical thinking, and personal responsibility? Studies conducted in Korea and China suggest that Kohlberg’s paradigm holds true, but research conducted in Kenya adds a new dimension: an individual’s moral reasoning is influenced by the prevailing social practices of their culture. While theoretically superior alternatives may exist, people tend to focus on what is familiar and accepted in their culture, disregarding other possibilities as ineffective. This cultural blocage, as described by Bril and Lehalle in 1988, serves as a cognitive regulator for moral reasoning.

Level 1: Preconventional morality

Common among children before ten and some adolescents and even adults.

The authority is external (heteronomous: other-directed). At this level, otherwise known as pre-morality, the child takes on the good and bad evaluation criteria from his external environment without internalizing them. The prominent landmarks are the physical or immediate social consequences (punishment, rewards or benefits).

Stage 1: Obedience and submissiveness

Main orientation: Punishment

The adults and their rules must be followed because they are stronger and they know better. The distinction between the good deed and the bad deed is based solely on the consequences of the action using punishment and rewards as guides.

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “He should have saved her to punish the pharmacist!”
  • “He shouldn’t have stolen the medicine because now he will be incarcerated (punished).”
  • “If he hadn’t saved her, his parents would have punished him!”
  • “God would have punished him if he had let her die.”

Stage 2: Naïve instrumental hedonism

Main orientation: Instrumental, Benefits

It is useful to behave in a certain way to avoid punishment. It is even pleasant to be rewarded. Thus, if the action is agreeable and leads to pleasant outcomes, it is considered a good one. An incipient orientation to others appears: “What’s in it for me?”

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “He had to save her life because funerals are costly. (Taiwan)”
  • “He had to save her because otherwise, he would have lived alone for the rest of his life. (Porto Rico)”
  • “He had to steal to save her because otherwise, he wouldn’t have had anybody to cook for him. (India)”

Level 2: Conventional Morality

Common to adolescents and frequently seen in adults.

The evaluation criteria move from the external consequences of the action to the norm system. What matters is what the social group of reference values (e.g., family, peers, school members) values matters the most. The beginning of internalization conducts to conformity to social norms considered important by the immediate authority. 

Stage 3: Good relationships morality
The nice girl/good boy stage

Main orientation: Honour and group status, Social-approval

The need for conformity with the group norms becomes the priority. The behaviours that others like and which makes you accepted become good (“good boy”/”good girl”). The judgements begin to take into account the intention behind the actions. Trust, loyalty and respect are valued.

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “How could he have faced his family if he hadn’t saved her?”
  • “He shouldn’t have stolen because now his friends won’t accept him.”
  • “He did what every normal husband should do.”

Stage 4: Moral order and duty

Main guide: Law, order and duty to respect the norm

The focused is placed on the norms of the authority, seen not as an expression of peer pressure but as a form of social regulation, an understood and accepted necessity. The values of the normative regulations are not taken into consideration, reinforcing the Latin saying: “Dura lex, sed lex!” (“The law [is] harsh, but [it is] the law!”). I respect the law, even if I don’t agree with it or I consider it to be unfair. Stereotypical attitude regarding the norm characterizes this stage.

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “He should have saved her, but he shouldn’t steal because it is wrong to do so.”
  • “What if we all stole when we are desperate?”
  • “The marriage institution obliged him to steal.”

Level 3: Postconventional Morality
Autonomous morality

An adult form of morality but not very frequent.

The judgement criteria are based on analysis and critic evaluations of the norm. personal convictions and individual value systems and the ones responsible for filtering the general norm system. The authority which guides the reasoning is internal – is oneself. 

Stage 5: Individual rights and the social contract

Main guide: Social contract seen as a civic commitment

The acceptance of the norm is made from a democratic standpoint. Reason comes first, which makes the norm to be seen and understood as a social contract. It is not perfect, it has contradictions, and people can change it through common agreement. The norm cannot oppose a fundamental value: life, liberty. There is a  rapport between the law and situational contextualization. 

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “They promised to be together all of their lives.”
  • “He did not do well he stole, but it was a matter of life and death.”
  • “For this kind of goal, the mean (stealing) is pardonable.”
  • “The law is crooked is it permits the pharmacist to sacrifice a life.”

Stage 6: Individual principles of conduct

Main guide: One’s own conscience, universal principles

Although it is based on general moral principles, that which is considered good or bad is the result of a personal endeavour based on personal convictions. These are more important than any form of pressure. Self-condemnation is considered to be much more difficult to cope with that any other punishment. About 6% of the general population reaches this stage, which made researchers name this stage the morality of heroes and saints.

Example answers to Heinz’s dilemma:

  • “If he didn’t try every possible solution to save her, Heins wouldn’t have been himself. For him, every life deeply matters.”

Moral reasoning and cognitive development

There is, of course, a relationship between cognitive development and moral development but the lag between them is not uncommon, especially for stages 5 and 6. In other words, a normal intelligence quotient can be a predictor for the correctness of moral reasoning, but this not necessarily means that a high IQ automatically equals a superior level of moral reasoning.

To further explain this relationship, cognitive maturation is a decisive factor for stages 1 to 4, whilst for the last stages, attitude becomes the major plan. The dimension of one’s character, along with its socio-cultural determinism and educational environment, begin to surpass aptitude. You begin to think, considering who you are and not just how much you can think. As governor of personality, characters can tip the scales of the goals in which you use your intelligence, be it benevolent or maleficent. 

Critical Evaluations

Those who evaluated Kohlberg’s theory have invoked, among others, that the idea only partially captured the phenomenon of moral reasoning, as the focus was primarily on rightness and justice.

The omission, in early research, of the sex variable. The hypothesis launched by Carol Gilligan (1982, 1987), a former collaborator of Kohlberg, in her book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, is that the six stages’ model primarily reflects the particularities of the masculine moral reasoning specific to boys. The author states that Kohlberg’s theory is excessively androcentric. Kohlberg’s theory was initially based on empirical research using only male participants; Gilligan argued that it did not adequately describe the concerns of women. Kohlberg stated that women tend to get stuck at level 3, primarily concerned with how to maintain relationships and promote the welfare of family and friends. 

Gilligan says there are two distinct moral orientations, justice and goodwill, each focusing on different aspects: justice – respect for equity, and friendship – not to let the other suffer. As ethical principles, both are social learning objects, but girls have an empathetic predisposition towards others, which makes them favour goodwill, whereas boys favour justice. Testing Gilligan’s theory, it has been demonstrated that it does not apply to children or adolescents but is valid for adults.

Another major critique of Kolberg’s theory is the absence of an attempt to research the link between moral reasoning (part of moral conscience) and moral behaviour (a reflection of ethical conduct). This omission was justified as follows:

  • Those in stages 4 and 5 are more inclined to conform to their own rules behaviourally compared with those at low levels of reasoning.
  • At the individual level, exist the possibility of a complete rupture between the level of moral reasoning and the moral behaviour of the person due to a) automatism – solving day-to-day problems with moral implications is based on verified solutions, commonly inferior to moral reasoning of the same person; b) the difference between the costs -high moral reasoning does not cost, but the engagement in a moral conduit that suits it, can! Think about the power you must muster to act equitably in a situation where the solution is not to your advantage; c) the importance of context and situation, bringing about many other determinants that researchers should consider.

William Damon's Contribution to Kohlberg's Moral Theory

The American psychologist William Damon has the merit of focusing on the behavioural aspects of moral reasoning. His theory is based on Kohlberg’s research, but he analyses the behavioural level, not just the idea of justice and rightness.

His experimental methodology used children aged between 3 and 9 who researchers asked to share toys. Damon uses the sharing resources technique to operationalise his measured dependent variable: equity and justice. 

The results demonstrated a prominent stage presentation of righteous, just behaviour.

According to William Damon’s theory, justice, transposed in action, has six successive levels:

Level 1 – nothing stops the egocentric tendency. The children want all the toys without needing to justify their preferences. The justice criterion is the final wish of the self.

Level 2 – the child wants almost all of the toys and justifies his choice in an arbitrary or egocentric manner (e.g., “I should play with them because I have a red dress”, “They are mine because I like them!”).

Level 3 – the equality criterion emerges (e.g., “We should all have the same number of toys”).

Level 4 – the merit criterion emerges (e.g., “Johnny should take more because he was such a good boy”).

Level 5 – necessity is seen as the most crucial selection criterion (e.g., “She should take the most because she was sick”, “Give more to Matt because he is poor”).

Level 6 – the dilemmas arise: can justice be achieved, considering only one criterion? The consequence is combining standards: equality + merit, equality + necessity, necessity + value, and equality = condition + distinction.

Level 6 in Damon’s mini theory is an exciting display of logical cognitive operationalisation in the social setting. This permits decentration and the combination of many points of view, favouring allocentrism – a collectivistic personality attribute whereby people centre their attention and actions on other people rather than themselves; it is a psychological dimension corresponding to the general cultural extent of collectivism.

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