This is the most influential theory of
moral development and, unlike Piaget's, it has undergone a number of
revisions over the years. Kohlberg sees moral development as a more
gradual process than Piaget, but still one that progresses through set
stages. Also like Piaget, he believed that it was the thinking behind
moral judgements that was crucial in determining the child's level. For
example, most children believe that it is wrong to break the law, however,
the reasons they give are indicative of their reasoning, so 'because it is
wrong' would suggest a low level of moral development. As already
mentioned in the bit on Piaget, Kohlberg sees cognitive development as a
crucial precursor to moral development.
Kohlberg developed his theory by reading
stories to children. These he referred to as moral dilemmas.
classic is the story of Heinz.
'In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There
was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of
radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The
drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what
the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged
$2000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz,
went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get
together $1000 which is half what it cost.
told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it
cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said 'No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.'
Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the
drug for his wife.'
Following the story Kohlberg would ask
Should Heinz steal the drug?
Why or why not?
Does he have a duty or obligation to
Should he steal the drug if he does not
love his wife?
Should he steal for a stranger?
It is illegal, is it morally wrong?
The research was carried out on 72 boys
from Chicago, aged 10, 13 and 16. The longitudinal study began in 1955
and lasted for 26 years with the boys being tested at intervals in that
time. The final results were published by Colby et al 1n 1983.
Kohlberg concluded that there are three
levels of moral development; Preconventional, Conventional and
Postconventional. Each of thses consists of two stages, giving six stages
The table below outlines the 3 levels and
6 stages of Kohlberg’s theory. Realistically you are unlikely to remember
this in every detail however the three levels are not difficult;
conventional in the middle, ‘pre’ before it and ‘post’ after it. The last
column conatins lots of detail but try and memorise the overall pattern,
for example the first stage is basic, right and wrong depends upon what we
are punished for. Later the child tries to please others with its
behaviour and the last two stages consider much wider issues such as
personal values and moral principles.
Research in support of Kohlberg
Kohlberg himself folowed up his original
study every 2 to 5 years and found that progression in morality does
Kohlberg (1969) carried out similar
research in other countries, Britain, Mexico, Turkey, Yucatan and Taiwan
and again found similar patterns. It was also noted that moral
development was slower in non-industrialised nations.
There is widespread support for the first
five stages of development and in the order that Kohlberg suggested.
Snarey (1987) carried out a meta analysis
of 45 studies in 27 different cultures and found 'striking support for
Kohlberg's first four stages.'
Fodor (1972) found, just as Kohlberg
would have suggested, that juvenile delinquents operate on a lower stage
of moral development than non-delinquents of the same age.
Kohlberg's theory has proved to be more
influential than Piaget's and has had the benefit of revision over the
years. Later research, for example by Gilligan and Eisenberg, although
they have criticised aspects of Kohlberg's work, particularly his
androcentric tendencies, have broadly supported his stages.
Kohlberg's theory is absed on moral
dilemmas so suffers from the same criticisms as Piaget. The theory only
considers a child's beliefs, not its actual behaviour. In practice the
two may be very different!
On a similar point, the dilemmas are
often outside the child's everyday experience so may not fully understand
the questions. Compare this to Piaget’s work on cognitive development!
If you look at stages 5 and 6 there
appears to be little separating them. In practice it has proved difficult
to distinguish the two stages, (Colby 1983).
Shaver & Strong (1976) were not convinced
that many people ever progressed beyond stage 4.
Snarey (1985) and others have argued that
the theory suffers from cultural bias, particularly in stage 5. Studies
suggest that this does not apply to non-industrialised societies, for
example Guatamala, Kenya and New Guinea.
Stage 5 emphasises the moral reasoning of
individualistic, Western societies. What Kohlberg appears to be saying in
stage 5 is that if the laws of Society conflict with your own individually
held beliefs then you have the right to ignore or alter them. This is
clearly at odds with non-Western values, particularly those of some Asian
and African Societies, that are more collectivist, seeing the group, such
as the village or extended family, as being of greater worth than the
needs of the individual. This is illustrated by a quotation from a man
living in an Israeli Kibbutz. When asked the dilemma of Heinz and whether
or not he should have stolen the drug, he replied:
'Yes… I think the community should be
responsible for controlling this type of situation. The medicine should
be made available to all in need: the druggist should not have the right
to decide on his own…the whole community or society should have control of
Rather than saying that such cultures are
morally inferior to Western cultures all that can really be concluded is
that they are different and therefore Kohlberg’s later stages are not
universal or cross-culturally valid!
As mentioned above, the theory is
androcentric, both in its methodology and its findings. Kohlberg only
studied boys (72 aged between 10 and 16) and came to the conclusion that
boys have a greater level of moral development. Later research by Carol
Gilligan sought to redress the balance and concluded that Kohlberg had
only considered one aspect of morality, justice. She suggested that boys
may indeed develop further on this aspect, but this is compensated for in
girls by their greater understanding of the concept of care. (For a
fuller discussion, see later notes).
concentrates entirely on our thinking and reasoning and does not take into
consideration emotion in moral reasoning. Kagan (1984) reported that
children feel guilt for being naughty long before they are supposed to