Stages of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

The stages of moral development detailed by Lawrence Kohlberg were largely influenced by Jean Piaget’s psychological theory. Jean Piaget was known for his works on child development. Kohlberg started working on the topic in the mid-twentieth century while studying psychology at the University of Chicago. According to this theory, moral reasoning is an essential condition for ethical behavior. 

However, it also states that moral reasoning alone is not sufficient for ethical behaviour in an individual. Both Piaget and Kohlberg claimed that morality develops over time in constructive stages:

Obedience and punishment orientation

In this stage, individuals focus on their actions and the direct consequences of those actions on them. An action is perceived as morally wrong owing to the punishment that the perpetrator is subject to. An individual remembers how he or she was punished the last time a morally wrong deed was done. 

The individual in question then refrains from repeating it again. One of the examples of this is a situation where a child is dared by his or her classmate to skip school. The child decides not to skip school fearing that he or she will be punished for doing so.

Self-interest orientation

Stage two is driven by self-interest. Right behavior is defined by whatever is convenient to the individual. It is also defined by whatever he or she thinks and believes to be in his or her best interest. Reasoning in this stage doesn’t take into consideration the needs of others. 

The Latin term ‘quid pro quo’ aptly describes this. It means giving or doing something for getting something in return. All the actions at this stage are performed to serve the individual’s own interests or needs.

Interpersonal accord and conformity

This stage of moral development is concerned with adolescents and adults. In this stage, an individual tries to conform to social standards. He or she learns that being regarded as good is beneficial for him or her. He or she becomes receptive to approval or disapproval from society. 

Moral reasoning now takes into account the consequences that an action would have on his or her social relationships. The individual understands that people tend to like him or her when he or she is not naughty. This happens despite not fully understanding the rules for his or her social role.

Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

Moral reasoning at this stage is free from the need for individual approval. He or she understands the importance of obeying laws and social conventions to maintain a functioning society. There is an inner obligation to uphold laws and rules. 

This comes usually from an understanding that if one individual violates a law, everyone will do the same. At this stage, morality is determined by an outside force.

Social contract orientation

Most of the democratic governments are based on the moral reasoning of the fifth stage. Laws are not considered as rigid official orders, but are regarded as social contracts. It is based on the fact that the world is full of different values, opinions, and rights. 

The greater good for the greatest number of people is considered important. An opinion that certain laws must be changed to promote general welfare is formed.

Universal ethical principles

In this stage, moral reasoning is done using ethical principles that are universal in nature. An individual acts because he or she feels it is right. This is not done to avoid punishment. It is not taken into consideration whether the action is legal, expected, or has been agreed upon earlier. 

Kohlberg found it difficult to identify those who operated at this level of moral reasoning consistently. It is, therefore, difficult to recognize or define stage six as one of the stages in moral development.

Stages of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

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