Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a stage-based model of moral maturity developed by Lawrence Kohlberg in 1958. Kohlberg continued to develop and edit the theory based upon new research throughout his life. The theory offers three levels of moral development, each of which contains two stages. Kohlberg asserts that moral development is neither the result of a genetic blueprint nor the result of conscious teaching of morality. Rather, it is a process of maturing that arises from thinking about moral issues.


Stages of Moral Development

  1. Preconventional Morality
    Level one is preconventional morality, wherein a person is motivated by obedience to authority. This level of moral development is commonly associated with young children and involves little thought about morality.

    1. Stage 1 – morality is motivated solely by punishment and anything which is punishable is deemed wrong.
    2. Stage 2 – focuses on individualism and different perspectives, and the goal is to avoid punishment.
  2. Conventional Morality
    In the second level of conventional morality, people focus on following social norms and customs.

    1. Stage 3 – emphasizes the maintenance of healthy, happy interpersonal relationships and pleasing others.
    2. Stage 4 – branches out from pleasing individuals to maintaining social order by following social norms, customs, and laws.
  3. Post-Conventional Morality
    In the post-conventional phase of moral development, people look beyond convention to determine moral norms and appropriate social interactions.

    1. Stage 5 – emphasis on the social contract and the maintenance of individual rights.
    2. Stage 6 – search for universal principles. People in this stage of moral development would be most likely to, for example, attempt to overthrow a totalitarian regime.

Criticism of Kohlberg

Most people never reach the post-conventional level of morality, raising an immediate question as to whether these stages can properly be termed levels of development at all. Most people in studies of Kohlberg’s theories are in the conventional morality level. Carol Gilligan found that more men are in advanced stages of morality than women, raising serious questions about whether Kohlberg’s stages are gender neutral or universal. Gilligan found, for example, that men tend to focus on principles of justice while women tend to focus on principles of fairness and caring. Gilligan, in turn, has been criticized for essentializing behavioral differences between men and women.



  1. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Kohlberg’s Moral Stages. (n.d.). Kohlberg’s moral stages. Retrieved from http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm

Last Updated: 11-14-2013

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