Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning





Moral reasoning is learned, according to Kohlberg, and must be understood within the broader context of cognitive developmental learning theory. He understands this larger context to be the following:


…the cognitive-developmental assumption is that basic mental structure is the result of an interaction between certain organismic structuring tendencies and the structure of the outside world, rather than reflecting either one directly.[2]


Moral Reasoning Exercised Within Mental Structures


            Kohlberg’s theory relates only to the “structure” of moral reasoning; to a developmentalist, structure is analogous to a building’s inner structure, the skeleton that supports the outer reality. He distinguishes structure from the content of learning in this way:


(structure) refers to the general characteristic of shape, pattern, or organization of response…rules for processing information or for connecting experienced events…connections are formed by selective and active processes of attention, information-gathering strategies, motivated thinking, etc.


…these structures…are a synthetic result of the dynamic process…between the human organism as a self-regulating system of cognitive and affective tendencies and the social environment in which it is found.


Moral Reasoning Progresses Through Stages


            Kohlberg argues that moral reasoning parallels cognitive development. While the first does not dictate the latter, capacity to reason and think is essential for increasingly more complex levels of moral reasoning.


            …advanced moral reasoning depends upon advanced logical reasoning: a person’s logical stage puts a certain ceiling on the moral stage he can attain.[3]


            Kohlberg has also drawn on Piaget’s concept of stage as a span of behaviors that share some rudimentary characteristic such as general perceptual scheme or a motor ability. Piaget uses the concept very cautiously:


These stages must of course be taken only for what they are worth. It is convenient for the purposes of exposition to divide the children up in age-classes or stages, but the facts present themselves as a continuum that cannot be cut up into sections. This continuum, moreover, is not linear in character, and its general direction can only be observed by schematizing the material and ignoring the minor oscillations that render it infinitely complicated in detail.


Moral Reasoning and Justice[4]


     Morality is at the center of Kohlberg’s theory. In his words:


            In the cognitive-developmental view, Morality is a natural product of a universal human tendency toward empathy or role taking, toward putting oneself in the shoes of other conscious beings. It is also a product of a universal human concern for justice.


            Kohlberg bases his understanding of morality on the previous definition formulated by Piaget.


All morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules.[5]


     Morality, for Kohlberg, is a matter of judgment based on justice. His concern is with the application of justice.


In the end, however, the core of justice is the distribution of rights and duties regulated by concepts of equality and reciprocity. Justice recognized as a balance or equilibrium described by Piaget on logic, the equilibration of social action and relations.


Definition of Moral Stages[6]


I.                    Preconventional level


Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness, regardless of human meaning or value. Avoidance of punishment valued in its own right.


Stage 2:  The instrumental-relativist orientation. Right action consists of that which instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, of reciprocity, etc. are present but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way.

II.                 Conventional level


Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy – good girl” orientation. Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. Conformity to stereotypical images.


Stage 4:  The ‘law and order” orientation. There is orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.


III.               Postconventional, autonomous or principled level.


Stage 5: Social Contract. Legalistic orientation, generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. Aware of the relativism of personal values and opinions. The result is an emphasis upon the “legal point of view.”


Stage 6: The universal-ethical-principles orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.


An Alternative Model:  Gilligan’s Stages of Women’s Moral Development





[1]              The idea of development and progress and stage sequence goes back to the 17th century, European social thought. Through the work of such philosophers and historians as J. Herder, intellectuals and others formulated models that emphasized change, growth and progress. Theories dependent on stages and sequence  were most often presented as continuums, which introduced the idea of higher and lower forms of social life.


[2] Kohlberg, Lawrence. “Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach” Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. David Goslin (ed.) New York: Rand McNally. 1969


[3] Kohlberg, L. “Moral Stages and Moralization. The Cognitive-Developmental Approach.” Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Thomas Lickona (ed) News York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1976.

[4] While Kohlberg does not write extensive about John Rawls’ theory of justice, he draws his primary definition of higher order moral reasoning from Rawls’ work.

[5] Piaget, Jean. The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: Free Press. 1965

[6] Kohlberg, 1975: 671.