Friday, September 24, 2010

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development – Description by S. Khouanphet

Overview of Theory

Lawrence Kohlberg was one of the first to research the moral reasoning of adolescent boys and (later, college students) while at the University of Chicago in 1958 (Evans, 2010).  He based his theory on Jean Piaget’s three stages of moral development and identified three additional stages of development and revised Piaget’s stages.   To develop his theory he used a series of hypothetical dilemmas and focused on the process of how individuals make moral judgments and not the content of these decisions. 

The theory is a six-stage sequence grouped into three levels.  At level 1 (preconventional), individuals are judged by direct consequences and their perspective is on their own needs.  At level 2 (conventional), individuals recognize the rules and expectations of others by comparing it to society’s views.  Level 3 (postconventional) is where individuals separate themselves from society’s view and views rules as useful but interchangeable.  In the first stage of the preconventional level, (heteronomous morality stage) implies that the individual is obedient in order to avoid punishment.  The second stage (individualistic, instrumental morality) individuals follow rules in their own interest.  At stage 3 (interpersonally normative morality) in the conventional level is described as living up to what is expected by people and needing to be good in the eyes of others. At stage 4 (social system morality), individuals make moral decisions from the perspective of society as whole. In stage 5 (human rights and social welfare morality) of the postconventional level, principles and values that emphasize basic rights become familiar.  And at stage 6 (morality of unversalizable, reversible, and prescriptive general ethical principles) individuals believe ideals as a rational person and follows self-chosen ethical principles. 

There are three characteristics of Kohlberg’s Stages: 1) Structure, individuals in any particular stage will display similar reasoning patterns of that stage regardless of the situation, 2) Sequential, advancement through stages is specific and in sequence, no skipping of stages and 3) Hierarchical, each successive stage is more highly developed than the previous because it incorporates aspects of all earlier stages. Two factors facilitate moral development: exposure to others in higher stages of moral reasoning and disequilibrium, experiencing situations that cause internal moral conflict (Evans, 2010).
Use in Higher Education
Kohlberg’s Theory has been included in discussions of moral dilemma in academic courses to focus on personal development, self-reflection and increase perspective taking to further help individuals transition to more advanced reasoning.  More specifically, his Moral Judgment Interview (MJI) has been widely used to measure the moral development of professional school students, where the qualities of moral character are at a high expectation.   The MJI can be used to evaluate educational interventions such as the study described below that indicate further implications on changes of curriculum to further enhance students’ moral development.

Annotated Bibliography Entry
Patenaude, J., Niyonsenga, T., Fafard, D. (2003). Changes in student’s moral development during medical school: a cohort study. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(7), 840-844. Retrieved from Academic Premier database.

This article evaluates the research of a cohort of medical students enrolled at the University of Sherbrooke, Quebec to assess their progress in moral reasoning over the first 3 years of their education.  The authors invited 92 medical students to complete a questionnaire on moral reasoning at the start of their first year and again at the end of their third year.  The French version of Kohlberg’s Moral Judgment Interview was used and then responses were coded by stage of moral development, and weighted average score were assigned according to frequency of use of each stage.  Results did not show an increase in the development of moral reasoning that was expected with maturation and involvement in university studies.  There was a significant decrease in weighted average scores after 3 years of medical education.  The authors clearly suggest that this finding indicates a leveling to a lower threshold of development over time, which is expected from this age group.  Suggestions from the authors include more longitudinal studies as well as challenging faculty to create a curriculum that will enable medical students to at least maintain their stage of moral development rather than decrease through their medical education experience.  They note their limitations of the study, such as the overrepresentation of women in the study population, which they indicated it could have been because women are more interested than men in ethical issues.  The authors failed to recognize that Kohlberg’s MJI was used only with males and the MJI itself could have been a poor indicator for their study.

Evans, N.J., Forney, D.S., Guido, F., Patton, L.D., & Renn, K.A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kohlberg, L. (2005).  Moral stages and moralization:  The cognitive-developmental approach.  In M.E. Wilson & L.E. Wolf-Wendel (Eds.), ASHE reader on college student development theory (pp. 549-568).  Boston, MA:  Pearson Custom Publishing.

Patenaude, J., Niyonsenga, T., Fafard, D. (2003). Changes in student’s moral development during medical school: a cohort study. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(7), 840-844.


  1. I think it is interesting when we look at the context of these studies and see what types of individuals were looked at when developing these theories. While I definitely find that they can't be applied broadly to all students it is interesting how beneficial they can be when working with the a variety of students. - Kylee

  2. I have a hard time accepting anything that is in a hierarchy and suggests those at the bottom are less developed than those at the top especially when it comes to morals.

    This theory assumes a) that one develops only in one direction, toward the acceptance and consideration of others which seems like a very christian perspective, b) while people tend to see development as positive change some people see positives in becoming more self centered (like Gilligan's theory for women). Ultimately, it is representative of men but more specifically Americans.

    When my dad lived in Africa he described kids who protected themselves first and foremost through their lives. They went to the university where he worked, worked as post docs in his chemistry department, knew the white people expected them to feel moral about following their system but they always made comments to the effect that they were sell outs who entered the white mans world. One might say they were in level one attempting to avoid punishment but this way of thinking allowed them to function in society without hurting others so who is to say they are less moral.

  3. Also stage six feels like Neitzsche, to each his own and to this he should be responsible.

  4. Richel says...

    I cannot help but think that Kohlberg left out a big piece when considering moral development: spirituality. A person's faith, religious upbringing, and understanding of different religions can greatly shape a person's understanding or morals. And religion is just one possible piece that may determine moral judgment: culture, sexual orientation, and so many more. I am excited to delve into more recent and specific theories that examine these pieces.

  5. Although this people have pointed out that this theory is missing a few elements, I can still relate to this model. Especially the pre-conventional level of moral development. I would say that through jr. high and some of high school, I was mainly just trying to avoid punishment. I didn't like to do anything against my parents rules, not because I didn't want to, but I never wanted to get caught. Looking back on that now, I'm very grateful I have advanced pass this, because I now decide for myself what I want to do, because I want to do it. I had a certain compliance back then that isn't the best for development and exploration.

  6. I have found myself often enamored with Kohlberg, ever since my long lost days as a Psychology Student. I find that the sequential concept of moral development refreshing and logical. Though it clearly can't be seen as a catch all but rather as a stepping stone to understand the viewpoints and the variety of abilities of students. Though this is a founding theory and does not account for many identities that are focused on know I feel that it is an integral part of the consideration of development for all students and individuals. When I find my mind boggled by some of the decisions made by the students I work with it is my dear friend Kohlberg that I remember to think back to those golden days long ago when I was young and still developing morally. This is not to say that I am morally developed, but I like to think that I've come a long way.

  7. The aspect of this theory that stuck out most to me was the idea that conflict resulting from exposure to real-life issues, rather than hypothetical situations, was particularly effective in facilitating moral development. This reinforces the need for students to get involved, and though conflicts experienced in real-life situations are often challenging, personal and uncomfortable they provide a immense learning tool.