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Stages of Moral Development. Lawrence Kohlberg 1927-1987. Kohlberg’s Pyramid of Stages. Level III Post-Conventional. Level II Conventional. Level I Pre-Conventional. Stage 1: Reward/Punishment. Right or wrong are determined by the reward or punishment that accompanies the action.

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stages of moral development

Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg



Kohlberg’s Pyramid of Stages

Level III


Level II


Level I


stage 1 reward punishment
Stage 1: Reward/Punishment
  • Right or wrong are determined by the reward or punishment that accompanies the action.
  • Children associate right with “yes” actions (hug, kiss, treat, smile) and wrong with “no” actions (scowl, sent to room, taking something away).
  • Good therefore, means earning a reward and avoiding punishment (“It’s good as long as I don’t get caught”).
  • Basic criminal mentality.
  • Examples:
    • Cheating on a test as long as there is no risk of getting caught
    • Not reporting hitting a parked car if no one saw it
    • Having sex as long as protection is used

** Many teenagers and adults operate at this

level of moral development.

stage 2 self interest
Stage 2: Self-Interest
  • “Me First” attitude
  • Right is based on what makes “me” feel good (satisfied, gratified, pleasure); wrong is based on what makes “me” feel bad (discomfort, hurt, dissatisfied).
  • Basis for moral decisions is essentially selfish  the needs of others are considered only insofar as they affect the individual (“If I do this for you, what will I get in return?”).
  • Reverse Golden Rule
  • Examples:
    • Not “picking on” others so as not to be picked on

** Many adults will operate at this level of moral

development for the rest of their lives.

stage 3 pleasing others
Stage 3: Pleasing Others
  • Right or wrong depends mainly on what pleases or displeases others.
  • “Good boy” / “Good girl” mentality
  • When a decision receives approval, it is right; when a decision is disapproved, it is wrong.
  • “Everybody does it” / peer pressure
  • Highly pronounced level of morality for teenagers (acceptance).
  • Examples:
    • Skipping school because friends are
    • Partying to be part of the “in” crowd
    • Having sex with boyfriend/girlfriend to “keep” them

** According to Kohlberg’s research, many adults never even reach this stage!

stage 4 law and order
Stage 4: Law and Order
  • Right is based on obedience to the law and legitimate authority.
  • Something that is legally right must be morally right.
  • The law mentality translates into any group or society to which the individual belongs (ie. religion, community, government).
  • Limited room for individual thought process or judgment.
  • Examples:
    • Ok to drink if parents approve
    • Ok to have sexual intercourse if parents do not mind
stage 5 social contract
Stage 5: Social Contract
  • “What society stands for”
  • Looks to those generally agreed upon norms and rights upon which society is based.
  • If the laws support these standards, then laws are to be obeyed; but if laws contradict these standards, then grounds for civil disobedience.
  • Laws are not norms in and of themselves; they are capable of being changed for the sake of the greater, common purpose.
      • Many do not reach this stage...examples:
        • Vandalism at school – social concern or against school rules?
        • Not speeding – right to life or fear of being caught?
stage 6 principle
Stage 6: Principle
  • Highest level of moral development.
  • People operate morally based on universal ethical principles.
  • Not concrete rules or commandments, but rather the basis of laws and commandments – they are good in and of themselves.
  • Right is viewed as following one’s informed conscience which follows guidelines that go beyond the good of the individual or the good of society – rooted in love and compassion (agape).
  • Complete respect and understanding for the dignity of all humanity and creation.
  • Willing to risk punishment when seeking the greater good; set aside self-interest.
  • Golden Rule
think about it
Think About It:
  • People move from stage to stage of moral growth as they mature.
  • No one skips stages; people move from one to another. A person may slip back a stage or two in certain areas of decision making or when under stress.
  • Some people never move beyond Stage 1 or 2.
  • Learning to make good choices now and growing in Christ will help a person reach Stage 6, which is a level of deep, personal maturity and freedom.