Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
Case Study: Atul was not prepared for his Physics Exam, so he wrote some important formulae on a slip of paper which he put in his pocket before the test. Just before the test began, the teacher informed the class that any student caught cheating would automatically fail the test. Even though Atul needed to use the information he wrote on the slip, he didn’t use it because the teacher stood too close to his desk during the entire exam.
What was the reason that stopped Atul from cheating in the examination? There are many such moral dilemmas systematized by Kohlberg under different stages in his theory of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) got inspired by Piaget’s work and particularly his method of observing and interviewing children.
Therefore, he also used a similar methodology of interviewing children and adolescents to collect his data on moral issues.
Kohlberg’s theory started from self-centeredness and moved towards others’ centeredness.
Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a detailed sequence of six stages of moral reasoning, classified into three levels. His three levels of moral development included:
(I)Pre-conventional Level- At this level, judgment is based solely on a person’s own needs and perceptions. Here, right and wrong is based primarily on external circumstances (punishments and rewards). The first two stages are included in this level:
Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation: At this stage (lowest) you try to avoid breaking rules for fear of punishment because a good or bad action is determined by its physical consequences. Here, the conscience .that works is ‘self-protection’.
Stage 2: Personal Reward Orientation: At this stage personal needs determine right and wrong and so, the conscience seems to be ‘cunning’. Your behaviour is determined primarily by what will earn you a reward.
(II) Conventional Level- At this level, the judgment is based on other’s approval, family expectations, traditional values, the laws of society, and loyalty to country. This level includes stages 3 and 4.
Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation: This stage is the stage of social approval. Your behaviour is determined by what pleases and is approved by others. Here, mutual relations of trust and respect should be maintained provided they conform to your expected social role. The conscience at this stage is loyalty.
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation: You are expected to respect the authority and maintain the social order. It is right to contribute to the society and fulfil social duties. Here, the conscience is good citizenship.
(III) Post-conventional Level- The last two stages (5 and 6) are at this post-conventional level. At this level, judgments are based on abstract, more personal principles that are not necessarily defined by society’s laws.
Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation: This stage is the stage of social utility and individual rights. Your loyalty is towards truth. At this stage, you are not only aware of the social contract between individuals, but also of the different moral perspectives of others. The conscience of this stage is reason.
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation: This is the highest stage of morality. At this stage you realize to follow self chosen ethical principles. Your choices are grounded in genuine moral interest in the well-being of others, regardless of who they are. Therefore, the conscience at this stage is personal integrity.