Exploring Kohlberg’s Moral Theory of Development

by Jeanna Bilderback, Elizabeth Hall, and Yusheika Williams 

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development serves as both a standard and a source of debate in psychology (Olsen, (2011) & Tanner & Van Haaften, (2001)).  Research holds that there are both contributions to the field and limitations to this theory that pertain to the applicability in universal settings (Nucci, 2002).  Carol Gilligan openly refuted Kohlberg’s findings citing that his sample group only includes males and this makes the research biased according to Kyte (1996).  To better understand the theory, the research, and the importance of Kohlberg’s theory, we will report on our review of current research.  
Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development
Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Kohlberg’s Theory
Olsen (2011) reports that Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development which divided the moral development of people into six stages simply called stages one through six.  These stages were further organized into three categories of two stages each, pre-conventional, conventional, and post conventional.  During the pre-conventional category including stage one and two Kohlberg finds that morality generally comes from what others such as caregivers or parents dictate what is right and wrong.  This means that we take our moral cues from our world that is close around us in the first two stages of moral development.  These pre-conventional stages furthered Piaget’s early lifespan research which Kohlberg decided to develop in another direction (Olson, 2011).
The conventional category shows that as we age and enter the second set of stages, three and four, we branch out from our close rule abiding worlds into personal relationships in moral development notes Olsen (2011). It is the cues that we receive about moral behavior in this environment that influence our judgment of what is right and wrong in these stages and we mold our behavior accordingly.  This set of stages remains highly influential on the post conventional stage we enter next. Post conventional moral development is the last category that Kohlberg discovered during his longitudinal study. This occurs during stages five and six, and encompasses both our sense of what is generally moral and right along with our influences from our personal relationships and that recognized by society, holds Olsen (2011). 
Contributions to Moral Development
Kohlberg’s theory provided some contributions to the understanding of moral development.  His work provided the groundwork for stages in moral development according to Tellings & Van Haaften (2001).  His work also provided the ideas that moral development is universal even though there have been challenges to this tenet, he opened the door for these challenges.  His work has been transitioned into educational institutions paving the way for educators to address the subject of moral development in children.  Another contribution to moral development by Kohlberg is the entrance of moral dilemmas which measured give one a score on the moral development scale. While this is not the definitive method for understanding of moral development it provided a standard base to work from for future researchers to start. 
Limitations of Kohlberg’s Theory
            Kohlberg’s theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a difference between knowing what we should do over actual actions. His theories were based on research and interviews with children and he was not interested in whether they were wrong or right but their reasoning in their decisions (Aboutpsychology.com, 2013).  Kohlberg’s research indicates that adults as well as adolescents never progress beyond the conventional level of moral reasoning; he states that people are morally underdeveloped (Conger & Peterson, 1991).  The second limitation to Kohlberg’s theory is that he does not take into account the cultural or religious differences in moral values (Nucci, 2002, pp. 303-325). The considerations of justice are at the highest level of moral reasoning.
When it was discovered that monks placed a high moral value on lessening suffering and showing compassion it was noted that these notions did not have a place in Kohlberg’s structure of moral development (Morris & Maisto, 2005). Religion plays an important part in a person’s moral development and that religion was a factor in decision making. Kohlberg’s theory has been noted as sexist, he found that boys tested higher than girls on test of moral development (Morris & Maisto, 2005).  Boys are more inclined to base their judgments on the theoretical concept of justice while girls based their concepts on the caring aspect. Neither of these views should be seen as one being greater than the other (Morris & Maisto, 2005).
            He believed that people could only progress on the stages one at a time and not go from one to another and skipping the middle stage. Somewhere the good/bad stage had to be gone through in order to reach the next one. It is important that a moral dilemma had to occur so the person could encourage their reasonableness of a higher morality and move their development in that direction. Kohlberg believed that moral decisions were based on social interactions (Morris & Maisto, 2005).
Carol Gilligan and Challenges to the Theory
Carol Gilligan is an American feminist, ethicist and best known for her work on ethical community, ethical relationships, and certain subject- object problems in ethics. She interviewed women who were contemplating abortion and studied women’s psychology and girl’s development. Carol Gilligan became a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg.  Kohlberg is known for his research on moral development and his stage theory of moral development in justice and rights (Olsen, 2011).  Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s work.
She based it on two things, that he only studied privileged, white men and boys, she felt, that this caused a biased opinion against women, and secondly in his stage theory of moral development, the male view of individual rights and rules was considered a higher stage than women’s point of view of development, in the terms of its caring effect on human relationships. She listened to women and re think the meaning of self and selfishness. She asked four questions about women’s voices: who is speaking, in what body, telling what story, and in what cultural framework is the presented? (Gilligan, 1982) She outlines three stages of moral development progressing from selfish, to social or conventional morality. Gilligan asserted that women have differing moral and psychological tendencies than men.
Gilligan understands of moral reasoning as a kind of perception has its roots in the conception of moral experience and that the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive once we recognize the attention (Kyte, 1996).  The dispute over the validity and importance of Kohlberg’s research centers on the gender and cultural differences that did not reach consideration in the longitudinal study, as his sample consisted of a group of white privileged boys which he re-interviews many times over the course of their lives. As Dawson (2002) points out, there is applicable validity in terms of educational value and teaching moral development by educators because when applied research finds minimal differences in gender.  Culturally, differences in morality do exist and influence us.
This happens in the pre-cognitive and cognitive stages, as we learn to obey the rules of our close worlds then our society. This is the level that cultural differences in moral reasoning and behavior remain evident to have the greatest influence on us.   Points to ponder for future research is the effect of globalism, diversity, and multiculturalism on the applicability of Kohlberg’s original research, as cultures and genders blending together shrink the gap in differences caused by this globalization.  Will the differences in societal cultures still be as noticeable particularly in areas of moral development? As we change societal views on gender stereotyping will these differences matter, especially with research supporting that girls who were traditionally not supposed to play with boy toys, remain. Currently the main societal change in gender stereotyping arena concerns the rights to marry.  Some women in society look, act and dress like males, and the reverse is also present in males.  Bearing this in mind, it seems likely that gender stereotyping might be a learned behavior passed on for many generations. 


About Psychology, (2013). Developmental Psychology.  Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/kohlberg.htm
Conger, J.J., & Peterson, A.C. (1991). Adolescence and Youth (4th Ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins
Dawson, T.L., (2002).  New tools, new insights: Kohlberg’s moral judgment stages revisited.  International Journal of Behavioral Development.  Vol. 26 (2), pp 154-166.  DOI: 10.1080/01650250042000645
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press
Kyte, R. (1996).  Moral Reasoning as Perception. , Hypatia, Vol 11(3), p. 97-113.  Retrieved From: University of Phoenix Library
Morris, C. G., & Maisto, A. A. (2005). Psychology (12th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Nucci, L.P. (2002). The development of moral reasoning. In U. Goswami Blackwell handbook of childhood cognitive development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers
Olsen, C., (2011).  The Deep Roots of the Fairness Committee in Kohlberg’s Moral
            Development Theory.  Retrieved From: University of Phoenix Library
Telling, A., & Van Haaften, W., (2001).  Kohlberg and Freud: A Reconstruction of Emergent Moralities.  Theory & Psychology. Vol. 11(4), pp 548-568.  DOI: 10.1177/0959354301114007

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