Kohlberg’s Moral Development
October 14, 2012
Is it morally acceptable to steal food from the wealthy to feed the poor? This was the type of question Lawrence Kohlberg, an American-born Harvard Professor, would ask of his research subjects. Dr. Kohlberg was fascinated by the cognitive development work proposed by Swiss theorist Jean Piaget (Long, n.d.). “Kohlberg’s work aids both our understanding of the ways in which individuals make moral decisions, and demands that we use a more discerning system to critique the systems of justice that are in place in our societies” states Long.
One of Kohlberg’s best-known dilemmas is the Heinz Dilemma (Berk, 2010). Mr. Heinz cared for his cancer-ridden wife by providing her with the proper medication needed. He discovered the one medicine that would greatly benefit his wife was outside of his financial capability. The druggist responsible for creating the medicine was not interested in helping Mr. Heinz obtain the medicine and was knowingly charging ten times the amount required to produce the medicine. After Mr. Heinz had borrowed all the money he could and exhausted all of his resources he broke into the pharmacy and stole the medicine needed to save the life of his wife (Berk, 2010).
Long states, “Using the Dilemma of Heniz, Kohlberg completes his doctoral dissertation research on the moral development of children, and proposes his six stages”. The following are basic examples of Kohlberg’s six stages (Long, n.d.): Level 1 – Pre-conventional Morality (ages 4-10)
Stage 1: I do not say bad words because if I do, mommy will get mad at me. Stage 2: For a cookie, I will pick up my toys.
Level 2 - Conventional Morality (ages 10-13)
Stage 3: I do not eat in class because my teacher does not like it. Stage 4: I do not talk during a fire drill because that is one of the rules. Level 3 – Post-conventional (adolescence to adulthood)
Stage 5: I pay taxes because it is the law.
Stage 6: I pay taxes not because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do. Long also goes onto share that; “Kohlberg based his theory on interviews that he conducted in Chicago with 72 Caucasian male youths, largely lower and middle class. He later added more diversity to his sample, including delinquents, females, younger children and youth raised in other cultures.” The three contributions that Kohlberg made in order to understanding of moral development are preconventional morality, conventional morality, and postconventional morality (DeHart, Sroufe, & Cooper, 2004, p. 481). Preconventional Morality is level one. Moral reasoning in young people has not started yet. Stage one obedience and punishment orientation, the young adult is concerned with what is right and wrong. A person’s motives do not matter. Young adults have no concept of any type of pro and anti-social behavior. Shaffer (2004) states the child is more concerned with the punishment they would receive. The worse the punishment for the act is, the more ‘bad’ the act is perceived to be. Stage two self –interest orientation with older children, which make judgments based on what gives the young child pleasure. If a reward is given they behave. They still focus mainly on the seriousness of the consequences but start to see moral issues. Kohlberg calls level one thinking “preconventional” as children do not yet have voices in society and morality is external to them.
Level two, stages three is the level of conventional morality. The child or adolescent start to judge the morality of his or her actions in relation to the approval of his or her family, and society. Kohlberg (1973) suggests they make decisions based on what will make them popular and try to live up to the good boy or good girl expectation. The next stage four is maintaining the social order, obeying the laws, and social conventions. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for individual approval exhibited in stage three;...
References: Berk, L. E. (2010). Development Through the Lifespan (5th ed.). Retrieved from
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Cherry, Kendra. (2012). Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development. Stages of Moral
DeHart, G.B., Sroufe, L.A., & Cooper, R.G. (2004). Child development: Its nature and
course (5th ed.)
Kretchmar, J. (2008). Moral Development. Moral Development-Reseach Starters
Education, (1), 12.
Santrock, J. W. (2008). Lifespan Development (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
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