Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development
[ illustrated by Walter Sorochan ]
Stage 1 box stage 2 box Stage 3 box Stage 4 box Stage 4.5 box Stage 5 box Stage 6 box
Click Button stage 1 Click Button stage 2 Click Button stage 3 Click Button stage 4 Click Button stage 4.5 Click Button stage 5 Click Button stage 6

Legend: Black Face [bottom row] & color number= stage level. e.g. Yellow face & # 1 = stage 1; Orange face & #2 = stage 2 and so on.

Interpretation of Model:  High-light stage button for more information on stage.

Features of Moral Development:

1. THERE IS A CRITICAL TIME THAT IS BEST TO DEVELOP VALUES AND MORALS: The most important and best time to develop morals is in youth from ages birth to 14 years of age. These are the ages when all other growth processes, such as physical, mental, emotional and social growth, are also in full bloom. There are critical moments or times when children are most receptive to developing morals of life. When these opportunities for "picking up" morals are bypassed or missed, then learning morals is more difficult later on. In many instances, developing morals may not take place at all at an older age. The child then becomes a deprived person by functioning at a lower moral stage.

2. TRANSITION: One must progress through the stages in order, and one cannot get to a higher stage without passing through the stage immediately preceding it. For example, everyone begins life in stage one [ yellow block ] and, by interacting with others, grows into stage two [ orange block ]. Taking this transition one step further, a person in stage four [ block color green ] would have passed through previous stages three [ cyan color ], two and one.

Moral development is growth, and like all growth, takes place according to a pre-determined sequence. To expect someone to grow into high moral maturity overnight would be like expecting someone to walk before he crawls. The top block in each stage symbolizes the stage. The stack of colored blocks above each stage illustrate the idea of preceding stages.

3. SUBJECTS CANNOT COMPREHEND MORAL REASONING AT A STAGE MORE THAN ONE STAGE BEYOND THEIR OWN: For example: Children (age 5-10) tend to be self-serving. They lack respect for the rights of others but may give to others on the assumption that they will get as much or more in return. It is more a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," instead of loyalty, gratitude, or justice. Motto: "What's in it for me?"

A person cannot understand moral reasoning more than one stage beyond her/his own. But a person can understand moral reasoning in lower stages; except that he/she would consider such reasoning too elementary.

4. INDIVIDUALS ARE COGNITIVELY [ mentally ] ATTRACTED TO REASONING ONE LEVEL ABOVE THEIR OWN PRESENT PREDOMINANT LEVEL: For example: People at this stage (age 8-16) have shifted from pleasing themselves to pleasing important others, often parents, teachers, or friends. They seek approval and conform to someone else's expectations. When they are accused of doing something wrong, their behavior is likely to be justified by saying "everyone else is doing it" or "I didn't intend to hurt anyone." Motto: "I want to be nice."

Reasoning at a stage one higher than one's own is more more attractive than at one's present level. The higher level is more intellectually challenging and hence, more attractive. The higher stage is also more attractive and satisfying because it challenges one to resolve more difficult questions and problems.

For example, two brothers both want the last piece of pie. The bigger, stronger brother will probably get it. The little brother suggests they share it. He is thinking at level two, rather than at level one. The solution for him is more attractive: getting some rather than none. If both brothers have similar continuing experiences over time, then the bigger brother's ability to understand and reason will shift gradually to stage two level and he will catch up to his brother.

Level or stage of maturity is related to the level of education and the amount of interactions one has with others.

5. MOVEMENT THROUGH THE STAGES TAKES PLACE WHEN COGNITIVE DISEQUILIBRIUM IS CREATED [ old value system or behavior is no longer satisfied ]: Many adults may become stuck or arrested in stages three or four and may remain there the rest of their lives. They may be adult-parents who are physically and mentally mature but morally immature in comparison to high level reasoning and understanding! They need to experience social interactions with others in solving moral delimmas to be able to move to a higher stage of reasoning. Persons change their existing values and reasoning when they are challenged by others. Children, teens and adults must experience cognitive disequilibrium for them to transit morally to a higher level of thinking and reasoning.

The person who is growing, will look for more and more adequate ways of solving problems. If he has no problems, no dilemmas, he is not likely to look for solutions. He will not grow morally. In the apple pie example. The big brother, who can just take the pie and get away with it, is less likely to look for a better solution than the younger brother who will get none and probably a beating in the struggle.


Democracy is perceived as a social contract whereby everyone tries continually to create a set of laws that best serves the most people, while protecting the basic rights of everyone. There is respect for the law and a sense of obligation to live by the rules, as long as they were established in a fair manner and fulfill an ethical purpose. Only about 20-25% of today's adults ever reach this stage and most of those that do supposedly only get there after their mid-twenties. Motto: "I'll live by the rules or try to change them."

If a child is spoiled, never having to accommodate for others needs, if he is raised in an environment where level two thinking by others gets the job done, he may never generate enough questions to propel him to a higher level of moral reasoning.

Theorists believe it may take time (40-50 years), a lot of social interaction, experience with different cultures and values, emotional maturity, acquiring higher level of education, and moral development training to acquire moral reasoning at stages five or six.

7: PERSONS ACT BASICALLY ON PRINCIPLES AND NOT ON WHAT OTHERS THINK: These rather rare people have considered many values and have decided on a philosophy of life that truly guides their life. They do not automatically conform to tradition or others' beliefs or even to their own emotions, intuition, or impulsive notions about right and wrong. Stage 6 people carefully choose basic principles to follow, such as caring for and respecting every living thing, feeling that we are all equal and deserve equal opportunities, or, stated differently, the Golden Rule. They are strong enough to act on their values even if others may think they are odd or if their beliefs are against the law, such as refusing to fight in a war. Motto: "I'm true to my values."

8. THERE IS A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LEVEL OF EDUCATION AND MORAL REASONING: The more education one has the greater the potential to reason at a higher level. Intellectual development is critical to moral reasoning.

Quick Overview:

  • There are levels of moral development:

  • Level 1: Pre-Conventional

  • Level 2: Conventional level

  • Level 3: Transitional

  • Level 4: Post-transitional

  • Level 5: Post Conventional Transitional
Stages fall into one of these levels. The levels and stages are a retorical way of classifying moral growth in an effort to help us better understand moral development. In theory, stages appear to have a specific beginning and ending. But in real life, there are not visible and there may be no such observable distinction. You should be aware that there is no agreement among the experts on moral development as to how many levels or stages there are. We chose seven stages over six stages as a way of illustrating moral development. Remember that most of us are in transit! It is more important to realize that persons move from one stage to another and that many of us may be vacillating between two stages as children, teenagers, and adults. Persons develop moral reasoning at their own speed. Coaches and parents and you and your neighbor may be at different stages of moral development; hence differences in moral development is one way to explain differences of opinion and disagreements. There are no growth norms.

The first level [ stages one and two ] of moral thinking is that generally found at pre-elementary school level. In this first stage, children behave according to socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by some authority figure (e.g., parent or teacher). This obedience is compelled by the threat or application of punishment. The second stage is characterized by a view that right behavior means acting in one's own best interests.

The second level of moral thinking is that generally found in society, hence the name "conventional." The first stage of this level (stage 3) is characterized by an attitude which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others. The second stage is one oriented to abiding by the law and responding to the obligations of duty.

The third level of moral thinking is one that Kohlberg felt is not reached by the majority of adults. Its first stage (stage 5) is an understanding of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others. The last stage (stage 6) is based on respect for universal principle and the demands of individual conscience. While Kohlberg always believed in the existence of Stage 6 and had some nominees for it, he could never get enough subjects to define it, much less observe their longitudinal movement to it.

Kohlberg believed that individuals could only progress through these stages one stage at a time. That is, they could not "jump" stages. They could not, for example, move from an orientation of selfishness to the law and order stage without passing through the good boy/girl stage. They could only come to a comprehension of a moral rationale one stage above their own. Thus, according to Kohlberg, it was important to present them with moral dilemmas for discussion which would help them to see the reasonableness of a "higher stage" morality and encourage their development in that direction. Kohlberg saw moral development being promoted through formal education. Note that Kohlberg believed, as did Piaget, that most moral development occurs through social interaction. The discussion approach is based on the insight that individuals develop as a result of cognitive conflicts at their current stage.

Unfortunately, Kohlberg and his associates did not envision low-level minor games and sporting experiences in childhood as socially interacting experiences that have built-in moral dilemmas that, in turn, could help youngsters develop moral reasoning.

Kohlberg makes several claims about these stages of moral development:

"Under all conditions except extreme trauma, movement is always forward, never backward. Individuals never skip stages; movement is always to the next stage up. Their existence is empirically verifiable: The question of whether cognitive stages exist . . . is an empirically testable question. And they are found in all cultures: Over a period of almost twenty years of empirical research, my colleagues and I have rather firmly established a culturally universal invariant sequence of stages of moral judgment."

Kohlberg and his colleagues have conducted empirical research in Britain, Canada, Honduras, India, Israel, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey, as well as in Chicago.

How we function morally:

As you understand these stages better, you may understand more about why you have made certain moral decisions in the past. Also, you will realize that you and everyone else operate on several levels at the same time. For example, you may avoid shoplifting for the fear of punishment (stage 1), you may watch your little brother carefully to be sure he doesn't get more attention than you (stage 2), you may want to impress your parents or a teacher (stage 3), you may unthinkingly enforce school rules as a monitor (stage 4), and you may be active in the women's movement or help support a child in India through CARE (stage 5 or 6). Likewise, my value system says I should share most of my worldly possessions, but often I don't (partly because most people would think I was weird and stupid).

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1. Sorochan, Walter and Bender, Steve, TEACHING SECONDARY HEALTH SCIENCE, "Chapter 5: Development of Values," John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1978.

2. All the references in this section on morals.