Theory of Moral Reasoning by Kohlberg

Subject: Psychology
Pages: 3
Words: 613
Reading time:
3 min
Study level: College


The theory by Lawrence Kohlberg of moral reasoning borrows from the concepts presented by Piaget on cognitive reasoning. It postulates that people go through 3 levels of moral reasoning with 6 stages of which cannot be skipped or reversed. According to him, these stages apply to all people of all cultures and few people reach the advanced 5th and 6th stages. Each stage is more capable of tackling moral dilemmas more adequately as one advance in age and, it is mostly motivated by justice (Daeg de Mott par.3).

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Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The levels are:

Pre-Conventional stage which comprises the stages of

  1. obedience and punishment orientation
  2. self-interest driven motivation
  • Stage one of obedience and punishment is based on the repercussions of actions. Will I be punished if I do this? It works on past experiences and the consequences that follow.
  • Stage two, self-interest is driven by geocentricism where one asks ” what is in it for me?”

It is mostly seen in adults although some adults exhibit this level of reasoning.

Conventional Level is composed of

  • Stage 3:Interpersonal Accord and conformity motivated actions that are under societal views of right and wrong. It is in regards to the social roles we play and perceptions people have of us.
  • Stage 4:Authority and social order have driven were people to conform due to the existence of laws and social conventions to maintain social order and normal functioning of society. It works on the principle of accountability.

It is observable in adults and adolescents.

The last level ( the post-conventional level also called the principled level) is comprised of

  • Stage 5: Impetus from social contracts where obsolete laws or those that do not promote general welfare for all peoples are disregarded on basis of personal principle. e.g. democracy which dictates that such laws be changed through compromise and majority.
  • Stage 6: Driven by universal ethical principles. It is based on abstract principles that apply universally such that unjust laws or rules can be broken. It involves empathy (Wikipedia par.19).

The above 5th and 6th stages are rare to find in most people and can be confused for the behaviors at the pre-conventional level.

Most people function in the second level of conformity and law &order. This is because of the internalization of social norms and values throughout childhood. A student in college, therefore, shows level 2 conventional reasoning except for a few activists in student organizations who advocate for social changes. It is however important to note that some of these groups may become radical and therefore borderline criminal.


In conclusion, this paper sought to identify Kohlberg’s 6 stages of moral development. i.e. obedience, self-interest, conformity, social order human rights, and universal human ethics and principles.

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Although Kohlberg was unable to justify the last stage with little empirical evidence and a further 7th stage transcendental morality which ties morality with religion remains speculative, he posits that in his philosophy humans possess the ability to reason and in making moral judgments the seek to reach a state of eudaimonia which translates into flourishing as a human being or being self-satisfied (Wikipedia par. 21)

This theory also talks of the universality of morals such that there can be no relativism and their prescriptive nature.

It evaluates moral reasoning and not moral judgments.

In accessing the stages I have found that the stages overlap calling for further distinction in the domains. Also, it focuses wholly on justice and ignores other moral virtues like caring. Lastly, it is an evaluation of intuitive and intrinsic decisions by decision-makers and psychologists after the decision has been made thus may be flawed in its assessment.

Works Cited

Daeg de Mott, Diane K. Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning. Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, 2001.Web.

Wikipedia Articles Web Page. Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Wikipedia, 2010. Web.