Moral Development: What the Experts are Saying

For more than two thousand years, psychologists and philosophers alike have been probing the question, “What does it mean to be moral?” It’s only been a few decades, however, that the former have been using advanced theoretical frameworks and clinical evidence to establish a more robust approach to this question.

One noteworthy person whose ideas have been influential is Lawrence Kohlberg.

Several decades ago, Kohlberg, an American psychologist, developed his theory of moral development, a series of moral reasoning stages that, he argued, humans move through. At the bottom is the pre-conventional, “obedience and punishment orientation,” and at the top is the post-conventional, “universal ethical principles” stage. In between are stages such as “self-interest orientation” to “social contract orientation,” which move from simple to complex until one reaches the height of his or her moral reasoning powers.

How Does Moral Reasoning Work?

At a glance, Kohlberg’s proposal that humans move through “moral stages” may seem unintuitive. After all, when deciding between the so-called “right” decision and the “wrong” decision, individuals hardly appear to move through reasoning stages that increase with complexity, but that is exactly what is happening. Kohlberg’s sequence follows:

The Pre-conventional Stage

• Punishment and Obedience Stage

• The Instrumental Purpose Orientation

The Conventional Stage

• The “Good Boy-Good Girl” Orientation

• The Social-Order-Maintaining Orientation .

The Post-conventional Stage

• The Social Contract Orientation

• Universal Ethical Principal Orientation

As we move from the Pre-conventional Stage to The Post-conventional Stage, our moral reasoning, too, becomes more complex, focusing less on simple punishment and obedience and centering more on abstract ethical principles. Moreover, according to researchers, “Kohlberg’s original research and other longitudinal studies provide the most convincing evidence for [the moral reasoning] stage sequence.” In other words, researchers have discovered evidence that individuals do, in fact, reason in the way Kohlberg suggests.

Consider the “Heinz Dilemma.”

In this scenario, Kohlberg asks us to consider whether it would be moral for a man to steal a life-saving medicine to administer to his dying wife, which may indeed save her life. The drug maker knows this, and so (quite unethically) inflates the cost of the much needed medicine. Or, to put it another way, what is the greater good: stealing the medicine to save the life of his wife, or obeying the law? In this situation, according to Kohlberg, stealing the medicine to save a life remains the higher moral choice because respecting private property is of less concern.

Writes Laura Burke: “With few exceptions, individuals move through the first four stages in the predicted order. Moral development is slow and gradual: Reasoning at Stages 1 and 2 decreases in early adolescence, while Stage 3 increases through midadolescence and then declines. Stage 4 reasoning rises over the teenage years until, by early adulthood, it is the typical response.”

As noted above, evidence remains strong that few individuals make it to the highest stages of moral reasoning, but most do move through the moral reasoning process nevertheless.

Relevance Today

Kohlberg’s moral development theories remain more relevant than ever. His ideas have been applied to everything from child rearing to schooling to legal situations. Undoubtedly, we all face moral decisions on an almost daily basis.

Examples abound.

“What remains the best approach to address global climate change?” “How should governments structure a fair tax system?” “How should criminals be treated?” “Should private business be compelled to offer services regardless of their customer’s orientation or behavior?”

These are all relevant moral questions. That said, however, in no way does Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development tell one what to do. Rather, his ideas focus less on outcomes and more on the moral reasoning process. Even in seemingly less consequential situations—like in romantic, interpersonal relationship contexts—Kohlberg’s moral reasoning stages apply. Suppose, for instance, one discovers his or her significant other is engaged in a romantic affair. Based on Kohlberg’s theory, what would be the appropriate course of action? How would a higher stage of moral reasoning manifest itself in this situation?

Finally, although Kohlberg’s moral reasoning stages do not tell us what to decide, knowing these stages may, however, help us to know how to decide.


Berk, L. (2007). Development through the lifespan (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

Leave a Comment