Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Understanding

  • Moral understanding is identified by presenting a child with a moral dilemma and asking them what they would do in that situation.
  • Kohlberg’s Stage Theory:
    • Level 1- Own needs need to be met
      • Stage 1- Punishment and Obedience orientation-> Based on punishment, if punished, must be bad. If rewarded, must be good.
      • Stage 2– Individualism, Instrumental purpose and exchange- Based on how it feels i.e. feels good, it is right.
    • Level 2- Approval of others needed
      • Stage 3– Expectations, relationships and conformity-> Based on group norms i.e. family believe something is right so it must be.
      • Stage 4– Social systems and conscience-> Based on intent i.e. didn’t mean to do something so not as bad.
    • Level 3- Social expectations understood
      • Stage 5– Social Contact-> Become aware of the law and the fact that it can be bent or changed.
      • Stage 6– Universal Ethical Principles-> Conscience dictates whether to break the law or not.


  • Colby et al- 27 yearlong study on male PPs. Tested 6 times. All went through the same moral development stages.
  • UNIVERSAL- Meta analysis. People move through same stages in same order in different cultures.

> non westernised cultures scored differently on the scale, especially those from obedient families- Culturally Biased

  • Gender Bias- only focuses on male moral development. Women regard morality as ethics and care.
  • Not always possible to predict someone’s reaction from the level of moral development they are in.
  • GILLIGAN’S ANTI-KOHLBERG APPROACH– Boys develop moral justice, based on law and principles and girls develop moral care based on human well-being and compassion. Her study proved this with more men than women being in the justice only or justice focus categories.
  • Disequilibrium motivates children’s moral development.
  • Association between cognitive development and moral development.
  • Not many people develop beyond stage 4 suggesting that stages 5 and 6 are less important.
  • Artificial dilemmas were used in his experiments so it is not known if the PPs would react differently in real life circumstances.
  • Didn’t consider the emotional involvement with morality for example; guilt and shame.