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How the mind develops
From Embryo to Ethics

Help Link : Stages of Moral Development Link : Kohlberg Dilemmas Link : Examples of Kohlberg's ideas in U.S. Congressional Debates
Link : KOHLBERG'S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT Link : A SUMMARY OF LAWRENCE KOHLBERG'S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT Link : Moral Development Link : Moral Development and Reality- Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman
Research : Reconstructing Larry: Assessing the Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg

The story of “Heinz’s moral dilemma” is a classic example of the kinds of problems that Kohlberg posed to his subjects. Here is a brief version.

Heinz’s wife was very ill. Unless she could get a certain medicine, she could die at any time. But this medicine was very expensive, and Heinz could not afford it. He went to the druggist anyway and asked if he could have the medicine more cheaply, or even on credit. The druggist refused. What should Heinz do: let his wife die, or steal the drug?

What interested Kohlberg was not so much the response that each of his subjects provided as the reasoning behind it. Different subjects might choose the same solution to Heinz’s moral dilemma, but for different reasons that revealed the differing foundations of their moral thinking.

For example, one child might say that Heinz had to let his wife die so that he would not go to prison, while another might say that Heinz had to steal the drug, because otherwise God would punish him for having let his wife die. Or one adult might say that Heinz had to let his wife die because stealing is against the law, while another adult might say that Heinz had to steal the medicine because failing to help someone who is in danger is punishable by law. Despite their differing answers, both adults would be displaying conventional moral reasoning characteristic of Kohlberg’s stage 4.


Inspired by the work of Jean Piaget, developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was one of the first researchers to study the moral development of the individual. Kohlberg presented his experimental subjects with moral dilemmas in the form of little stories, then asked them to make moral judgments about the behaviour of the main character in each story. By analyzing the reasons that the subjects gave for their judgments (more than the judgments themselves), Kohlberg identified three major levels of moral judgment, each of which he divided into two stages, for a total of six successive stages in which each individual takes increasing account of other people in his or her decisions about how to behave.

The first two stages, at level 1, preconventional morality, occur before the individual has even become aware of social conventions.

At stage 1 (from about age 2 or 3 to about age 5 or 6), children seek mainly to avoid the punishment that authority figures such as their parents can mete them

At stage 2 (from age 5 to age 7, or up to age 9, in some cases), children learn that it is in their interest to behave well, because rewards are in store if they do.

The next two stages occur at level 2, conventional morality—so named because at these stages it is no longer individuals such as parents, but rather social groups, such as family and friends, that children perceive as the source of authority.

At stage 3 (from about age 7 to about age 12), children feel the need to satisfy the expectations of the other members of their group. In so doing, children seek to preserve rules that will lead to predictable behaviour.

At stage 4 (from age 10 to age 15, on average), the conventions that guide the individual’s behaviour expand to include those of the society in which he or she lives. In examining the justification for a given course of action, the individual considers whether it is consistent with the norms and laws of this society.

Level 3, postconventional morality, is so named because in the last two stages, which it comprises, the individual’s morality goes beyond the frame of reference of any one particular society.

At stage 5 (starting as early as age 12, in some cases), individuals feel as if they have freely entered into a contractual commitment with every person around them. This commitment is based on a desire for consensus and a rational assessment of the benefits that everyone can derive from the existence of these rules.

At stage 6, individuals’ judgments of good and bad become influenced by universal moral principles. People at stage 6 agree that laws and societal values have a certain validity, but if these laws conflict with their own principles of human dignity, they will follow these principles, which they regard as an internally imposed imperative.

According to Kohlberg, people go through these six stages in the above order: most children have a preconventional morality, and most adults have a conventional one. Kohlberg estimated that only 20 to 25% of the adult population attains the postconventional level of morality.

Somewhat later in his career, Kohlberg described stage 7, the “mystic stage”, which he regarded as meta-ethical: in this stage, individuals become capable of problematizing any action or intention by asking themselves why it might be moral.

Kohlberg’s model of moral development, though it can be criticized in many respects, is valuable in that it focuses on certain central issues that individuals must address in constructing their relationships with others.

A study was conducted of 183 political resisters in such areas as antinuclear politics and tax resistance. Compared with non-resisters, these individuals rejected social and political authority more strongly and believed that individual conscience was a better guide to conduct than the law was. These moral perspectives thus placed them at Kohlberg’s stages 5 and 6. In comparison, conservatives were mainly at stage 4, and liberals at stage 5.

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