Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that a human’s moral development takes place in six distinct stages. These six stages can be categories in three levels.
Level 1 is called the pre-conventional level and includes stages 1 and 2. Children around ages 4-10 typically make up the individuals in this level.
Stage 1 is the period in which individuals act to avoid punishment. In this stage, if the individual knows that he will be punished for an action, he will avoid that action and begin to perceive that action as “wrong.” For example, consider different ways that parents discipline their children to get them to listen. Children typically do certain actions less if they know they will get a time out or a toy taken away.
Stage 2 occurs when individuals get a bit older and realize that they can benefit from certain actions. This stage is typically referred to as the self-interest stage. For example, consider different behaviors kids perform to please their parents in the hope of earning an allowance or a treat.
Level 2 is called the conventional level and includes stages 3 and 4. Pre-teenagers typically make up the individuals in this level. Kohlberg noted that some individuals never move past this level.
Stage 3 is associated with acting to gain the respect of others. In this stage, individuals begin to discern what actions to take based on the context and reactions of those around them. For example, consider how some students help their teachers in the hopes of gaining their approval. You could also consider the golden rule—treat others as you want to be treated—when discussing the concept of morality in this stage.
Stage 4 is when individuals begin to view acts as moral or immoral in terms of their impact on the social order. For example, consider how teenagers begin to learn about certain laws, such as laws against drunk driving, and alter their behavior accordingly. In this stage they begin to develop the view that if an action is against the law, it is morally wrong and should not be done.
Level 3 is called the post-conventional level and includes stages 5 and 6. Teenagers and adults typically make up the individuals in this level.
Stage 5 accounts for a more complex understanding of the law. Individuals in this stage begin to realize that not all laws provide the most good for society. For example, consider the contemporary debates on the right to bear arms and on abortion rights. Those who critique gun ownership and abortion may feel like the current laws on these issues are not the most moral solution. However, even though individuals in stage five occasionally disagree with laws, their concept of morality is still primarily aligned with social contracts.
Stage 6 goes beyond the law in its view of morality. Individuals in this stage have developed their own set of ethical principles and follow them, even if they disregard the law. For example, consider famous journalists who go to prison to expose governments’ human rights violations. In such cases, the journalists are disregarding the law in order to do what they believe is the right thing.