Kohlberg’s theory on the stages of moral development was a modification of the work performed by Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist. While Piaget described moral development as a two-stage process, Kohlberg identified six stages within three levels. Kohlberg proposed that moral development was a process that continued throughout a person’s lifespan. In order to isolate and describe these stages, Kohlberg presented a series of difficult moral dilemmas to groups of young children of different ages. He then interviewed them to nd out the reasoning behind each of their decisions, and to see how moral reasoning changed as children grew older.
In this stage, children view rules as absolutes. Obeying the rules means avoiding punishment. This stage of moral development is particularly common in younger children, though adults can express this reasoning as well.
In this stage, children begin to take individual points of view into consideration and judge actions based on how the needs of the individual are served. In the case of the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the choice that best served Heinz’s needs was the best course of action.
In this stage, children focus on living up to expectations set by society or the people close to them. In other words, it is important to be good and nice. For this reason, this is also known as the “good boy–good girl” orientation.
At this stage, society as a whole is taken into consideration. This means there is a focus on following the rules to maintain law and order—even in extreme situations—respecting authority, and fulfilling a duty that one has agreed to do.
In this stage, it becomes understood that people have different beliefs, opinions, and values, and that in order to maintain society, rules of the law should be based on standards that are agreed upon.
The final stage is based on following internal principles of justice and ethics, even if this means going against what the rules and laws state.
It is important to note that Kohlberg believed that it was only possible to pass through these stages in this order and that not every person achieved all of these stages.
While extremely important and influential, Kohlberg’s model has faced criticism. It has been argued that Kohlberg’s work reflected a bias towards males (he claimed most men to be at stage 4 and most women to be at stage 3), that there is a notable difference between what a person says they ought to do and what they actually end up doing, and that Kohlberg focused solely on justice but did not take into consideration things like compassion and caring. The way Kohlberg performed his experiment has even been brought into question, due to the fact that he interviewed different children of different ages instead of interviewing the same children over a longer period of time. Regardless, Kohlberg’s work in morality remains incredibly influential, and the ideas he set forth are commonly applied to the eld of education and are used to understand the behavior of children.