Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development

The study of morality is something that constantly generates dilemmas, doubts and theories.

Most everyone has wondered at some point what is right and what is wrong, what is the best way to prioritize how to become a good person, or even the meaning of the word “moral” itself. However, far fewer have set out to study not what is right, wrong, ethics and morality, but how we think about these ideas.

If the first is the task of the philosophers, the second enters fully into the field of psychology, in which highlights Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

Who was Lawrence Kohlberg?

The creator of this theory of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg, was an American psychologist born in 1927 who in the second half of the twentieth century, Harvard University, was largely devoted to investigating how people think about moral issues.

That is, instead of worrying about studying the desirability or inadequacy of actions, as philosophers like Socrates did, he studied the rules and regulations that could be observed in human thought in matters of morality.

Similarities between Kohlberg’s theory and Piaget’s theory

His research resulted in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of the 4 phases of cognitive development. Like Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg believed that in the evolution of typical modes of moral reasoning, there were qualitatively different stages from one another, and that the curiosity to learn is one of the main drivers of mental development through different phases of life.

Moreover, in the theory of Kohlberg and Piaget, there is a basic idea: the development of the way of thinking goes from certain mental processes very centered on the concrete and the directly observable in the abstract and more general.

In the case of Piaget, this meant that in our early childhood we tend to think only about what we can perceive directly in real time, and that little by little we learn to reason about abstract elements that we cannot. experimenting in the first person.

In the case of Lawrence Kohlberg, this means that the group of people to whom one can come and wish well grows to the point of including those whom one has not seen or known. The ethical circle is becoming more and more extensive and inclusive, although what matters is not so much its gradual expansion, but the qualitative changes that occur in a person’s moral development as they evolve. In reality, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is based on 6 levels.

The three levels of moral development

The categories used by Kohlberg to indicate the level of moral development are one way of expressing the substantial differences that occur in the way a person thinks as he grows and learns.

These 6 steps fall into three broader categories: the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional phase.

1.pre-conventional phase

In the first phase of moral development, which Kohlberg says typically lasts up to 9 years, the person judges events based on how they affect them.

1.1. First step: orientation towards obedience and punishment

At first, the individual thinks only of the immediate consequences of his actions, avoiding unpleasant experiences linked to the punishment and seeking the satisfaction of his own needs.

For example, at this stage, there is a tendency to regard the innocent victims of an event as guilty, For having suffered a “punishment”, while those who harm others without being punished do not open up badly. It is an extremely self-centered style of reasoning in which right and wrong have to do with what each individual experiences separately.

1.2. Second step: orientation towards self-interest

In the second step, we start to think beyond the individual, but egocentricity is still present.. If in the previous phase it is not possible to conceive that there is a moral dilemma in itself because there is only one point of view, in this one, the existence of conflicts of interest begins to be recognized.

Faced with this problem, people who find themselves in this phase opt for relativism and individualism, without identifying with collective values: each one defends what is his and works accordingly. It is believed that if agreements are made, they must be respected so as not to create a context of insecurity that harms individuals.

2. Conventional phase

The conventional phase is usually the one that defines the thinking of adolescents and many adults. In, the existence of both a series of individual interests and a series of social conventions about what is good is taken into account and what is bad is that it helps create a collective ethical “umbrella”.

2.1. Third step: orientation towards consensus

In the third step, good deeds are defined by how they affect the relationships one has with others. Therefore, people who are in the consensus orientation phase try to be accepted by the rest and strive to ensure that their actions fit very well into the set of collective rules that define what is good.

Good and bad actions are defined by the reasons behind them and how those decisions fit into a number of shared moral values. The emphasis is not on the quality or the poor quality of certain proposals, but on the objectives behind them.

2.2. Fourth step: orientation towards authority

At this stage of moral development, good and evil emanate from a series of norms perceived as something separate from individuals. The good is to obey the rules and the bad is to break them.

There is no possibility to act beyond these rules, and the separation between good and evil is as precise as the rules are concrete. If, in the previous step, the interest is better put on people who know each other and who can express their approval or their rejection with regard to one of them, here the ethical circle is wider and includes all persons subject to the law.

3. Post-conventional phase

People who are in this phase have their own moral principles as a benchmark that, although they do not necessarily have to coincide with established norms, they are based as much on collective values ​​as on individual freedoms, not exclusively for their own benefit.

3.1. Step 5: orientation towards the social contract

The path of moral reasoning peculiar to this stage stems from a reflection on whether laws and standards are fair or not, that is, whether they shape a good society.

He reflects on how society can affect the quality of people’s lives, And he also reflects on how people can change the rules and laws when they are dysfunctional.

In other words, there is a very global view of moral dilemmas, going beyond existing rules and taking a distant theoretical position. To pose, for example, that slavery was legal but illegitimate and that it still existed as if it were something quite normal would be part of this stage of moral development.

3.2. Step 6: Orientation to Universal Principles

The moral reasoning which characterizes this phase is very abstract., And is based on the creation of universal moral principles which are different from the laws themselves. For example, it is considered that when a law is unfair, its modification should be a priority. Moreover, decisions do not emanate from hypotheses about the context, but from categorical considerations based on universal moral principles.

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