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Study Of The Stages Of Moral Development According To Kohlberg

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Moral decision-making, similarly to other types of decision-making, is a complex process. In order to decide how to act in a particular situation, an individual must first recognise that the situation has a set of moral rules attached to it, retrieve related moral schemas from their memory, encode and interpret features of the situation and generate and assess their moral response options (Garrigan, Adlam & Langdon, 2018). In order to understand how morality develops it is important to define what morality is. Morality can be defined as principles concerning the distinction between what is seen as right and wrong and the capacity to act on this distinction.

The concept of morality and how it develops has been widely explored and many different theories have been proposed. One of the first and well-known theorists of moral development was Piaget (1932), who proposed that there were two stages of moral development known as heteronomous and autonomous morality. He suggested that there was a pre-moral period in which children before the age of 5 show very little concern or awareness of rules. He then proposed that heteronomous morality develops between the ages of 5 and 10, in which children display a strong respect for rules and believe that rules are set by strong authority figures and must be obliged by. The second stage, known as autonomous morality, emerges at age 10 or 11 in which children come to understand that social rules can be challenged and are more based on mutual respect rather than being moral absolutes. Piaget’s work on childhood moral development inspired many other theorists that adapted and created their own theories regarding moral development.

Motivated by Piaget’s theory, Kohlberg (1969; 1984) expanded and developed his own ideas, looking beyond childhood and encompassing adolescence and adulthood into his theory. He proposed that there were six stages of moral judgement that were grouped into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. The pre-conventional level occurs for most children between the ages of four to ten and in this stage, similarly to Piaget’s theory, children display heteronomous morality. The second stage of the pre-conventional level suggests that children are concerned about what others can do for them, therefore they make equal exchanges with others in order to satisfy both people but ultimately their main concern is themselves. After this stage children move into the conventional morality level between the ages of ten to thirteen. At the first stage of this level the main concern is maintaining mutual interpersonal relations and they feel obligated to live up to the expectations of those closest to them. At the second stage of this level the social system defines appropriate rules, roles and relationships therefore moral decisions are made based on this. After this, individuals move into the final level: the post-conventional level. At the first stage of this level individuals are concerned about the social contract and believe that it is better to obey the law. In the final stage individuals become capable of making moral decisions that are truly their own- unconstrained by self-interest, fear of punishment or the need for another’s approval. However, the final level is only reached by a minority of adults. Kohlberg’s theory has been faced with criticisms as well as support from other theorists, which will be addressed and evaluated in this essay.

Kohlberg proposed that morality develops through a series of qualitatively distinct stages with each stage presenting a higher level of moral rationality (Arnold, 2000). He came to this conclusion from his study investigating boys age 10 to 16 years old who had to resolve a series of moral dilemmas. Each dilemma challenged the respondent by requiring them to choose between obeying a rule/authority figure or taking action that disobeyed these rules/authority figures but it served a human need instead. Kohlberg was less interested in their decisions and more interested in the rationale they used to justify their choice. From this study, Kohlberg concluded that moral development progresses through an invariant sequence from stage 1 of the pre-conventional level to the final stage of the post-conventional level. He argued that the order of these stages are invariant due to the fact that they depend on the development of particular cognitive abilities that emerge in an invariant order. He also argued that each succeeding stage evolves from and replaces the stage before and once an individual has moved onto the next stage they never regress to the stage before (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007). Since the 1950’s many other researchers have tested his theory of moral development through studies carried out on thousands of children, adolescents and adults (Moshman, 2011).

The evidence from these studies has shown that males and females of all ages from differing cultures and backgrounds can be classified into the stages proposed by Kohlberg and also showed that they do develop through the stages in the order suggested by Kohlberg, therefore providing support for his theory. (Boom, Wouters & Keller, 2007; Dawson, 2002). Snarey (1985) and Walker (1982) also found evidence from their studies that supports Kohlberg’s claim of an invariant stage sequence as they found a positive correlation between increasing age and more advanced stages of reasoning. However, this does not necessarily prove that moral development does occur in an invariant sequence as the participants at each age stage level were only measured at a particular point in their life therefore it cannot be certain that a 16 year old at stage 4 has progressed through each of the stages and in the particular order proposed in Kohlberg’s models unless they have been consistently throughout their life and development.

Longitudinal studies can be looked at to provide the most compelling evidence in evaluating Kohlberg’s theory and addressing the previous criticism regarding a lack of consistent testing. Support for Kohlberg’s stages theory comes from his 20-year follow-up assessment of his original participants. Participants were re-interviewed five times at 3 to 4-year intervals and given 9 moral dilemmas. The results from this study found that the majority of the respondents scored at only one stage or at most 2 adjacent stages over the 9 dilemmas that were given to them. Only 9% showed evidence of a third stage of reasoning from their responses (Colby et al, 1983). This study also showed evidence that supports Kohlberg’s notion of an invariant stage sequence as the participants did not skip stages and they did proceed in the order proposed by Kohlberg. Similar results have also been found from a 9-year study in Israel and a 12-year study in Turkey (Colby & Kohlberg, 1987), furthering support his claim. However, this study did also show that 4% (6) of the adjacent testing times showed a downward stage change. This contradicts Kohlberg’s argument that once an individual has moved onto the next stage they never revert back the stage before. Although, this is only a very small percentage therefore it is fair to say that the vast majority did show results that help support his theory.

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Kohlberg’s longitudinal work also showed that only about 15% of adults at the age of 26 appeared to be functionally at the post-conventional level. Also, the highest stage within this was removed from the analysis in the 20-year follow-up as none of the respondents displayed the use of this type of moral reasoning (Colby et al, 1983). This therefore questions the validity and the importance of these last two stages within moral development as by the age of 36 only a limited number of the participants actually reached the post-conventional level. It especially questions the final stage within this level proposed by Kohlberg as no one reached it, therefore there isn’t evidence that supports that this is a stage within moral development. However, there were only 58 subjects involved in his follow-up study therefore this could explain why there was no evidence of any participants reaching this level as the sample size was very limited. It was also only males involved in the study therefore it would have been interesting to see if females were included if this would have made a difference. Also, Kohlberg did acknowledge that the final stage within the post-conventional level was very rare and virtually no one functioned at this level, therefore he suggested that it was a hypothetical construct that was put forward in case someone did manage to surpass the 5th stage and was more his vision of an ideal moral reasoning rather than a stage that everyone would reach.

Although there has been research that indicates that children in many other cultures do progress in order through the first three or four stages proposed by Kohlberg, it has also been seen that the post-conventional level of morality simply does not exist within some cultures. Kohlberg’s highest stages can be seen to reflect more of a Western ideal of justice therefore showing cultural bias against those not living in a Western culture or who do not live in an individualistic society (Gibbs & Schnell, 1985). Those who live in a collectivist society often emphasise social harmony and are more concerned about making decisions that will benefit the group as a whole rather than those that will benefit a certain individual. Using Kohlberg’s model of moral development those within a collectivist society may be seen as conventional thinkers when in reality they actually have much more advanced concepts of justice but when using Kohlberg’s analysis they are seen as lower in their moral development than they actually are. Shweder, Mahapatra & Miller (1987) carried out research on children and adults in India and the United States where they found that Hindu children and adults rated son’s having a haircut as one of the most morally offensive acts out of 39 acts they had to rate and they rated husband’s beating a disobedient wife as not morally wrong. Whereas, American children and adults rated wife beating as something that was morally wrong. This illustrates that the culture you live does often have a significant impact on your moral beliefs and Kohlberg’s model of moral development was designed in favour of a Western culture, therefore it is not fully representative of many other cultures and would place them lower in moral development than they actually are.

Bias within Kohlberg’s model has been further criticised regarding bias towards males in his theory and research. As mentioned previously, Kohlberg’s original and 20-year follow-up studies were conducted using all male participants therefore it is suggested that his theory, which was developed from male-dominated data, does not adequately represent females moral development. Carol Gilligan heavily criticised Kohlberg for being exclusive of females moral reasoning in his theory. She argued that males and females differ in their moral reasoning as females demonstrate moral reasoning based on care whereas males demonstrate moral reasoning based on justice. She claimed that Kohlberg’s theory focused heavily on justice therefore reflected a theory of moral development that was aimed towards the male ideology. However, there is very little support for this claim on differing male and female moralities within literature that focuses on gender differences in moral development (Dawson, 2002; Walker, 1984). Literature has instead found that both males and females moral reasoning contains elements of both care and justice.

The actual moral reasoning in any situation has more to do with the nature of the dilemma presented to them rather than what the gender of the individual is (Helwig, 1997). Research has also found that women reason just as complexly as men do when scored using Kohlberg’s criteria and there were no reliable sex differences in moral ratings (Jaffee & Hyde, 2000). Most psychologists are therefore dubious of any notion that moral orientations as associated with different genders. However, Kohlberg’s theory can be seen to be more focused on justice moral reasoning rather than care reasoning. Kohlberg’s dilemmas were more focused on the assumption that moral reasoning has to do with notions of fairness and equity. Therefore, Gilligan did highlight the issue that Kohlberg’s theory and dilemmas could include more care orientations in order to give a more well-rounded and fair analysis of individuals moral reasoning, especially since it has been found that moral reasoning contains elements of care and justice reasoning. Most developmentalists view care and compassion as complementary to concern for justice therefore acknowledging the value of Kohlberg’s theory as a theory of justice development but favouring a broader conception of morality (Carlo et al 1996, Eisenberg, 1996).

A further criticism of Kohlberg’s theory is that the dilemmas he gave to participants were often not realistic situations that people would be faced with in everyday life, therefore it is difficult to accurately predict what you would do if that situation happened in real life. One of the most well-known dilemmas presented to participants is the Heinz dilemma. This is where Heinz’s wife is dying from cancer and a drug that could save her has been discovered but it is too expensive for Heinz to buy. The participants are asked a series of questions such as should Heinz have stolen the drug, would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife and would it make a difference if the person dying was a stranger. This situation is clearly unrealistic and the vast majority of people would not be faced with this in real life therefore the answers they gave may not be accurate in regards to what they would actually do. Also their answers could have been swayed as a result of being analysed and viewed by others therefore they also may not have answered accurately due to this and may have been concerned about giving answers that may have been judged, such as saying they would not save the wife. A further criticism of his dilemmas is that they were also not culturally universal and were more based on more masculine situations and used a male character as the central agent of dilemmas testing female participants (Gilligan, 1982).

There are both strengths and weaknesses within Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. His theory does not fully encompass those living out-with a Western society therefore adaptations need to be made in order to make this a more representative theory of moral development. It also does not include care orientations of reasoning, therefore this is another area that needs to be explored within moral development in conjunction with justice orientations. However, there has been a lot of research that supports Kohlberg’s theory, especially longitudinal studies which provide the most compelling support and evidence for his theory and show that the vast majority of individuals do development in the way and order proposed by Kohlberg. Overall it can be said that Kohlberg’s theory does propose legitimate stages that have been proven across different cultures although there is a lack of cultural inclusivity. His model does not provide a fully comprehensive theory that explains moral development but it does provide a good basis for an understanding of moral development within individuals. However, the same can be said about many other theories therefore it is important to seek out and rely on other perspectives and combine certain aspects of theories in order to gain a more well-rounded and better understanding of how morality develops as there is not a definitive answer that has been found.

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Study Of The Stages Of Moral Development According To Kohlberg. (2021, August 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
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