Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development Research Paper Starter

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

(Research Starters)

Kohlberg expanded on the work of Jean Piaget to identify six stages of moral development by studying the logic and reasoning children use to decide if an action is right or wrong. He later grouped these stages according to three levels of moral development, which he described as pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. In the decades since Kohlberg developed his theory, it has received considerable criticism. Critics argue that Kohlberg overemphasized the roles of justice and rationality, and that his theory contains an implicit bias toward Western cultural values.


Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development


Lawrence Kohlberg studied psychology at the University of Chicago and wrote his dissertation in 1958. He was intrigued by the work of fellow theorist Jean Piaget, and sought to explore how children respond to moral issues (Crain, 1985). Piaget was a well-known psychologist who focused on human cognition, which is the manner in which people think and understand. He was interested in studying what people know and how they use their knowledge to understand and operate in the world. His four stages of cognitive development describe how biological maturation and social experiences help shape a person's understanding of the world. Believing that moral reasoning is as important as moral development, Kohlberg elected to build on the foundation of Piaget's work and explore how the moral development process correlates with the issues of justice and expands over a person's life (Kohlberg, 1958).

Some of the differences and similarities between the two theories are as follows:

Table 1: Piaget

Piaget Kohlberg Two stage theory - cognitive development of children. Six stage theory broken down into three levels A children's moral thinking changes when they are about 10 or 11 years of age. At this age children stop basing their moral decision on consequences and begin to consider motive a key factor in assessing morality. While younger children see rules as absolutes, older children see them in more relativistic terms. Kohlberg extended Piaget's theory to propose that moral development is a continual process that occurs throughout a person's lifespan, rather than a single shift that occurs during childhood.

Piaget Kohlberg Criticisms: (1)findings cannot be transferred to the larger population; (2) doesn't consider that not all children may move to the next stage of development as they mature; (3) ignores environmental and social factors that may influence moral development as well as biological factors; and (4) underestimates the ability of a child's mind.

Kohlberg's theory was based on his study of 72 boys of 10, 13, and 16 years of age who grew up in middle- and lower-class environments in the Chicago area. Kohlberg presented each boy with a series of moral dilemmas and asked him to state what the characters in each dilemma should do and why. Kohlberg (1963) provides an example of one of these scenarios:

Heinz Steals the Drug

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $2,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I am going to make money from it." So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz steal the drug? (p. 19).

Kohlberg was not interested in whether the children thought Heinz ought to steal the drug. Rather, he wanted to find out the reasoning the boys used to arrive at their decisions. From these studies, he identified six distinct stages of moral development, which he grouped according to the moral reasoning each employs. He later grouped theses six stages into three levels.

Table 2: Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development

Level Classification Stage Focus 1 Pre-Conventional * Obedience and punishment orientation * Self-interest orientation * Children think about how to avoid punishment (the consequences of a negative action). * Children think about what they will get out of the situation, and weigh the benefits and consequences of an action. 2 Conventional * Interpersonal accord and conformity * Authority and social order maintain orientation * Child thinks about the type of behavior that is expected in society either in relation to his peers, or his cultural norms 3 Post-Conventional * Social contract orientation * Universal ethical principles * Principled Conscience

Level 1 - Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Obedience & Punishment Orientation: Kohlberg believed that this is the earliest stage of moral development. At this stage, the child views rules to be absolute, without room for compromise. A person can avoid punishment if he or she follows the rules that have been established. The child is not concerned with whether the decision is morally right or wrong, but rather with whether it will be punished.

Stage 2: Individualism & Exchange: Kohlberg believed that individuals are able to rationalize at this stage. The child considers his or her individual needs or best interests to determine what type of action to take. Interpersonal relationships at this stage are based on the needs that others can fulfill for the child. In essence, there is a mentality of "you do for me and I will do for you." Children at this stage have some notion of fairness, in the sense that one ought to return favors, but they see themselves as individuals rather than as members of a larger community or society.

Level 2 - Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships: At this stage, emphasis is placed on what a person needs to do in order to live up to a group's standards. Children at this stage focus on meeting the expectations of their established roles in order to be seen as a good and nice people. They feel a strong desire to fit in and make choices that will maintain good relationships. Behavior is based on intention. For example, a person can gain approval from the...

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