Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning
Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning
Theory featuring six stages of moral development advanced by American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), an American psychologist, pioneered the study of moral development in the late 1950s. Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning involved six stages through which each person passes in order, without skipping a stage or reversing their order. His theory states that not all people progress through all six stages.
In the 1950s, science as a whole held to the positivist belief that scientific study should be free of moral values, maintaining instead a purely "objective," value-free stance. Western psychology at that time was dominated
Kohlberg's theory of moral development expands upon Jean Piaget's work in the 1930s concerning cognitive reasoning. Piaget proposed three phases of cognitive development through which people pass in a loose order. In contrast, Kohlberg posited six stages (in three levels, with two stages each) of moral development, based on cognitive reasoning, through which each person passes in unvarying and irreversible order. According to Kohlberg, every person begins at Stage 1 moral reasoning and develops progressively to Stage 2, then Stage 3, etc. Not everyone makes it through all six stages; in fact, people who use Stage 5 or 6 moral reasoning are quite rare. Kohlberg claimed that his stages of moral development are universal, applying equally to all human beings across cultural divisions.
In brief, Kohlberg's theory of moral development presents three levels: the preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Each level contains two stages. Stages 1 and 2 in the preconventional level involve an "egocentric point of view" and a "concrete individualistic perspective" in which the person makes choices based on the fear of punishment and the desire for rewards. In Stages 3 and 4 of the conventional level, persons make choices from a "member-of-society" perspective, considering the good of others, the maintenance of positive relations, and the rules of society. Persons in the final stages of the postconventional level, Stages 5 and 6, reason from a "prior-to-society" perspective in which abstract ideals take precedence over particular societal laws.
To measure the level at which persons are operating morally, Kohlberg developed a highly refined interview process in which hypothetical situations are presented that involve a moral dilemma. The person's answers to questions surrounding that dilemma determine the stage at which he or she is reasoning. One of the best-known examples of hypothetical moral dilemmas presented in Kohlberg's interview is that of an impoverished man who needs a certain medicine for his wife who is ill: is the man justified in stealing the medicine from the pharmacy when he does not have enough money to pay for it? Why or why not? The details of the hypothetical situation can then be altered slightly to bring out the nuances of a person's moral reasoning (e.g., does it depend on how ill the wife is, how poor the husband is, whether it is a small, family-owned corner drugstore or a large, nationwide chain, etc.).
Kohlberg also developed a method of moral education based on an expanded form of the interview process. He believed that participation in moral discussions spurs growth in moral reasoning. The "just community" approach to education that Kohlberg helped create has three basic aims: 1) to encourage moral development through discussions of moral issues; 2) to develop a culture of moral norms through community-building and the democratic establishment of rules; and 3) to create a context where students and teachers can act on their moral decisions. Just Community programs were put into effect in a number of public schools, with a fair amount of success (see Power, Higgins, and Kohlberg 1989).
However, there have been many criticisms of Kohlberg's theory of moral development and his methods. Some critics claim that the use of hypothetical situations skews the results because it measures abstract rather than concrete reasoning. When children (and some adults) are presented with situations out of their immediate experience, they turn to rules they have learned from external authorities for answers, rather than to their own internal voice. Therefore, young children base their answers on rules of "right" and "wrong" they have learned from parents and teachers (Stages 1 and 2 according to Kohlberg's theory). If young children are presented with situations familiar to them, on the other hand, they often show care and concern for others, basing their moral choices on the desire to share the good and maintain harmonious relations, placing them in Stage 3 or 4 (which Kohlberg claimed was impossible at their age).
Kohlberg's emphasis on abstract reasoning also creates confusing results in which habitual juvenile delinquents can score at a higher stage of moral development than well-behaved children. Because behaviors are not considered and reasoning is determined through hypothetical situations, children who behave in immoral ways may be able to answer hypothetical moral dilemmas in a more advanced fashion than better-behaved children who think less abstractly. Early criticisms of Kohlberg's lack of attention to behaviors led Kohlberg to add an emphasis on moral action to his Just Community educational program. For those who are looking for concrete help in developing moral values in children, however, Kohlberg's theory is still of little practical use.
Another strong criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it devalues the morality of care and community. Carol Gilligan was the first to attack this aspect of Kohlberg's theory, relating it to gender differences between men and women (all of Kohlberg's original subjects were male, as was Kohlberg himself). Although Gilligan's critique has weaknesses of its own, her assessment of Kohlberg's theory
Kohlberg, as a member of the educated, elite, white, male, Western culture, viewed individual autonomy and justice as the premier moral values. He even went so far as to equate morality with justice (ignoring other moral values such as courage, self-control, empathy, etc.). Members of the working and rural classes, however, tend to have a more communitarian approach to life, viewing the common good as the highest value, promoting care and harmonious relationships over individual justice. (Women, having been relegated to "lower class" status for centuries, may have developed a more communitarian approach to life for that reason, rather than simply because they are female.) Non-Western and tribal societies also frequently see the community as more important than the individual.
According to Kohlberg's upper-class Western view of moral reasoning, communitarian morality is doomed to rest forever at a lower stage of development (Stages 3 and 4). This view disregards the possibility that communitarian morality may be as advanced as individualistic morality, if not more so. It also places Western culture at the top of the scale, with little room for cross-cultural inclusion. Although Kohlberg insisted that his theory was culturally inclusive, he found little empirical evidence to back this up. In all of his interviews, only a few people showed Stage 5 reasoning, and nearly all were well-educated Westerners. Stage 6 reasoning was never substantiated in interviews; Kohlberg created it as an "ideal" and pointed to examples such as Gandhi to support its existence. After a tremendous amount of criticism over the fact that Stage 6 was purely hypothetical, Kohlberg removed it from the empirical stages but retained it as a "theoretical construct in the realm of philosophical speculation." Despite equally heavy criticism, Kohlberg refused to remove Stage 5 from his system.
With all its possible flaws, however, Kohlberg's theory of moral development was the first of its kind and remains the springboard for all subsequent research into moral reasoning. Critiques of Kohlberg's theory have led, and continue to lead, to more expansive and inclusive understandings of the development of moral reasoning. Kohlberg's Just Community program also yielded significant results and led to the ongoing creation of other similar alternative education programs.
Crittenden, Paul. Learning to Be Moral: Philosophical Thoughts About Moral Development. New Jersey: Humanities Press Iniernational, 1990.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. Essays on Moral Development, I: The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
.——. Essays on Moral Development, II: The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
.——. Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View. New York: Longman, 1987.
Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz, eds. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
Power, F. C, Ann Higgins, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Lawrence Kohlberg 's Approach to Moral Education: A Study of Three Democratic High Schools. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Schulman, Michael, and Eva Mekler. Bringing Up a Moral Child: A New Approach for Teaching Your Child to Be Kind, Just, and Responsible, rev. ed. New York: Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1994.
—Dianne K. Daeg de Mott