Kohlberg: Moral Development

Building on Piaget's theories and research, Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of moral reasoning by presenting children, adolescents, and adults with a set of hypothetical stories that pose ethical dilemmas. The most famous of these is the story of Heinz:

A woman was near death from cancer. One drug might save her, a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The druggist was charging $2,000.00, ten times what the drug cost him to make. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about half of what it cost. He 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." The husband got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that? .... Why do you think so?

Kohlberg examined the responses to such dilemmas and found three levels of moral reasoning: preconventional, conventional, and post conventional - with two stages at each level.

Preconventional: Emphasis on avoiding punishments and getting rewards.
Stage 1 Might makes right (punishment and obedience orientation).
At this stage the most important value is obedience to authority in order to avoid punishment.
Stage 2 Look out for number one - "Self-needs" (instrumental and relativist orientation).
Each person tries to take care of his or her own needs. The reason to be nice to other people is so they will be nice to you. In other words, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
Conventional: Emphasis on social rules
Stage 3 "Good girl" and "Nice boy" orientation.
Good behavior is considered behavior that pleases other people and wins their praise. Approval is more important than any specific reward.
Stage 4 "Law and order" orientation.
Right behavior means being a dutiful citizen and obeying the laws set down by those in power. It is ones duty to contribute to social order by abiding by the laws.
Postconventional: Emphasis on moral principles.
Stage 5 Social contractual orientation.
The rules of society exist for the benefit of all, and are established by mutual agreement. If the rules become destructive, or if one party doesn't live up to the agreement, the contract is no longer binding.
Stage 6 Universal ethical principles orientation.
General universal principles determine right and wrong. These values (such as "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," or "Life is sacred") are established by individual reflection and meditation, and may contradict the egocentric or legal principles of earlier reasoning.


According to Kohlberg's longitudinal research, people advance up this moral hierarchy as they become more mature. For example, 10-year-old Tommy argued that Heinz should not steal the medicine because he could be put in jail, a stage 1 answer. Three years later, Tommy reasoned at stage 2, saying that Heinz should steal the medicine because he needed his wife to help care for him (Kohlberg, 1971).
The issue here is not whether Heinz should steal the drug or not... the issue is how the person answers the question "Why do you think so?" The reasoning behind the answer reflects the type of moral orientation, and the level of moral reasoning.

Stage 3....
"Heinz should steal the drug. He wouldn't be a very nice husband if he let his wife die. A good husband would do all he could to save his wife."

or .... "Heinz should not steal the drug. It isn't his fault his wife has cancer. Stealing is still stealing and Heinz should not be stealing. He still loves his wife and did all he could do for her. It is that selfish druggist who is the bad person here. He sure isn't very nice."

In one first grade classroom (6-7 year-olds), virtually all of the children said that Heinz should not steal the drug. The reason they gave.... "Drugs are bad and you should not be using drugs." These children had been taught this social slogan and could not focus on other issues of the story. Once the word "drug" was changed to "medicine" another first grade class was able to discuss the issue of this dilemma without being distracted by the "drug" issue.

See Data chart on stage movement for USA... Click Here