The Echoes of the Mind (160-1) Development of Morality

Development of Morality

Taking his cue from Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a model for the developmental stages of morality, from childhood into adulthood. Kohlberg expanded Piaget’s 2-stage model into one with 6 stages at 3 different levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

Kohlberg considered moral development as occurring throughout life, with individuals at different stages regardless of age. Some adults never progress to the highest level.

Preconventional morality is based upon obedience and punishment in the 1st stage. In the 2nd stage, children begin to account for how actions serve individual needs.

Conventional morality views the morality of a behavior by its effect on relationships. 1st-stage emphasis is on conformity and being “nice.” This stage is often referred to as a “good boy / good girl” orientation.

The next stage emphasizes social order: people consider society as a whole when making moral judgments. The focus is on maintaining order by following the rules, respecting authority, and doing one’s duty.

The 1st stage of postconventional morality involves individual rights and the social contract. There begins consideration of differing values and beliefs. Mores remain important, but there is the thought that they should be consensual.

Kohlberg’s final stage of moral reasoning is based upon abstraction of universal ethical precepts. At this stage people follow internalized principles of justice which may conflict with mores and laws.

Kohlberg’s final stage of human moral development most closely corresponds with the natural morality of other organisms, where morality is aligned with fairness and social conventions play no part. Our sociality imposes the artifice of conformity onto morality.

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Kohlberg’s work has been criticized on several accounts. His theory is about moral thinking. Discrepancies often arise between moral reasoning and behavior.

Whereas Kohlberg identified distinct stages of moral development, individuals commonly mix their moral reasoning, in having rationales found in different Kohlberg stages. Also, moral thinking appears to be both situational and heuristic, not as conceptually context dependent as Kohlberg imagined.

There is almost always a problem with theories that propose the existence of unvarying stages. They don’t seem to bear out in real life. People can be highly sophisticated morally about some issues (human rights, racial equality, etc.), yet completely comfortable committing small moral infractions of rules regarding property (keeping money when a cashier mistakenly gives them too much change, for example.) ~ American psychologist Nancy Melucci

Kohlberg’s theory has been accused of having a narrow worldview: being Western-centric, middle class, and with a gender bias. His research subjects were all male, and most under the age of 16.

Women’s perception of self is so much more tenaciously embedded in relationships with others, and their moral dilemmas hold them in a mode of judgment that is insistently contextual. ~ American psychologist Carol Gilligan

Whereas Western individualist cultures emphasize personal rights, Eastern collectivist cultures stress social harmony. Kohlberg did not account for different moral outlooks.

Finally, Kohlberg’s model relies upon the abstraction of justice, without mention of compassion, which often figures in moral sentiment.

In sum, though contributory, Kohlberg’s theory cannot be considered comprehensive, or even well-informed from a scholarly standpoint.


People overoptimistically predict their own future moral behavior but accurately predict the not-so-moral future behavior of others. ~ American psychologist Jesse Graham

Morality has a strange contagion. People who witness moral acts are more likely to perform a moral deed themselves but are also more likely to allow themselves to act immorally.