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Lawrence Kohlberg on Morality - Dictionary of Arguments

Slater I 165
Morality/Kohlberg: Like Piaget (>Morality/Piaget), Kohlberg (1963/2008)(1)) asked children to reason about situation. E.g., the Heinz dilemma.
Def Heinz dilemma: Mr. Heinz, the husband of a woman with cancer, broke into a pharmacy to steal a drug after the pharmacist refused to give him the drug at a reduced price or on credit.
The children, (boys aged from 10 to 13 years) were then engaged in extended discussions about this problem.
Stages/Kohlberg: 6 stages of morality grouped into three levels:

First Level: the Pre-Moral Level, judgments are characterized by self-interest.

Stage 1 orientation focuses on avoiding punishment and demonstrating obedience for its own sake,
Stage 2 orientation focuses on what Kohlberg called “naive instrumental hedonism” which is often characterized as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Second Level: the Morality of Conventional Role-Conformity, in which judgments are characterized by an emphasis on social relationships and an appreciation of norms and conventions.

Stage 3 orientation focuses on maintaining positive relations with others by following expected societal standards for being good, and a
Stage 4 orientation focuses on respecting laws in order to maintain social order.

Third Level: Morality of Self-Accepted Moral Principles, with judgments characterized by a focus on the internally held moral principles.

Stage 5 orientation focuses on coordinating the interest of the group with important universal values such as the need to preserve life, and
Stage 6 focuses on acting according to conscience in relation to basic principles of fairness such as equality and human rights.

Kohlberg Thesis: it is necessary for individuals to pass through the stages in sequence, and the pattern of intercorrelations (…) supported the notion that the higher levels of moral reasoning replace the lower levels as children develop.

Prior to Kohlberg and Piaget, the dominant views of moral development were the behaviorist approach, which focuses on how behaviors are acquired through conditioning, the socialization approach, which emphasizes the internalization of social norms, and the psychodynamic approach, which emphasizes the role of unconscious motives in human behavior. Each of these approaches depicts children as passive recipients of values and norms that are imposed on them either externally, or internally via unconscious processes. In contrast, Kohlberg characterized children’s moral reasoning as evolving as they interact in complex social environments and gain experience with social roles (Turiel, 2008)(2). Kohlberg argued that even young children have the mental and emotional capacity to make sense of their social environment and reflect upon the moral implications of their behavior.



1. Kohlberg, L. (1963/2008). The development of children’s orientations toward a moral order. I: Sequence in the development of moral thought. Human Development, 51, 8—20.
2. Turiel, E. (2008). The development of children’s orientations toward moral, social, and personal orders: More than a sequence in development. Human Development, 51, 21—39.


Gail D. Heyman and Kang Lee, “Moral Development. Revisiting Kohlberg’s Stages“, in: Alan M. Slater and Paul C. Quinn (eds.) 2012. Developmental Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies. London: Sage Publications

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Upton I 124
Post-conventional Morality/Kohlberg/Upton: Kohlberg (1958(1) suggested that most adolescents reach level II [conventional morality] and most of us stay at this level of reasoning during adulthood. Only a few individuals reach the post-conventional level of reasoning; indeed, Kohlberg found stage 6 to be so rare that it has since been removed from the theory. >VsKohlberg.


1. Kohlberg, L (1958). The development of modes of moral thinking and choice in the years 10 to
16. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Chicago.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Concept/Author], [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] resp. "problem:"/"solution:", "old:"/"new:" and "thesis:" is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Kohlb I
Lawrence Kohlberg
The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice New York 1981

Slater I
Alan M. Slater
Paul C. Quinn
Developmental Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2012

Upton I
Penney Upton
Developmental Psychology 2011


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2022-06-30
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