Kohlberg’s theory of Moral Development
Theory of Cognitive Moral Development
Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)
Ethical Behavior, moral reasoning
Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)
Punishment and reward, social factors
Concise description of theory
Kohlberg's theory of moral development, proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg (1971), is a comprehensive and influential framework that describes how individuals develop their moral reasoning abilities as they mature. The theory is based on the concept that moral reasoning progresses through distinct stages, with each stage building upon the previous one. Kohlberg identified three main levels (Pre-conventional, Conventional, and Post-conventional) of moral development, each consisting of two stages, resulting in a total of six stages. In the Pre-conventional stage of moral development, moral reasoning takes place in two stages. Stage 1 is characterized by “Punishment and Obedience orientation,” where the child focuses on avoiding punishment and negative consequences as a means to determine what is good and bad. Stage 2 of this level is characterized by “Instrumental relativist orientation,” where the moral reasoning is based on whether an action instrumentally satisfies their own need, and reciprocity, which is interpreted as a physical pragmatic one and not as loyalty, gratitude, or justice. The second level; Conventional level of moral development represents a higher level of advancement in moral thinking. At this stage, individuals begin to recognize the inherent value of upholding the expectations set by their family, social group, or nation, irrespective of the immediate and apparent consequences. (Kohlberg,1971). Stage 1 of this level is characterized by the interpersonal concordance, or “good boy-nice girl” orientation, where the individual now understands good behaviours as something that pleases others and hence adheres to stereotypical behaviours. In the second stage of this level, referred to as the "Law and Order orientation," individuals demonstrate an inclination toward authority, adherence to established laws, and the upholding of societal order. Here, the individual understands right behaviour as respecting authority and maintaining social order. As the individual progresses to the third level, which is Post-Conventional stage, the moral understanding shifts to a more autonomous level. The initial stage of this level is referred to as “Social Contract Orientation”. During this stage, individuals establish their understanding of morally correct behaviours based on universally recognized individual rights and norms that have undergone thorough critical examination and have been collectively agreed upon by society as a whole. However, these rules are seen as social agreements that can be changed by the individual when necessary. The second stage of this level is distinguished by its orientation toward the “Universal Ethical Principle”. In this stage, individuals perceive right and good actions and behaviours as choices made by their conscience, in alignment with self-selected ethical principles that are based on logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency (Kohlberg, 1971). Overall, Kohlberg's theory of moral development has significantly influenced the perspectives and methodologies employed by psychologists, researchers, educators, and policymakers in examining and exploring moral reasoning. The concept has established a fundamental basis for analyzing the development of individuals' ethical viewpoints, and its influence continues to resonate in discussions on morality and human behaviour.
Diagram/schematic of theory
- Figure 1: Kohlberg's stages of Moral Development
- Lawrence Kohlberg (1971)
- Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development. Moral education, 1(51), 23-92.
Level of analysis
Links from this theory to other theories
Gilligan’s theory of moral development (Gilligan, 1993).
IS articles that use the theory
- Kiser, A. I., Morrison, E. E., & Craven, A. (2009). The Application Of Kohlberg's Moral Development Model To College Students Technology Ethics Decisions. Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC), 6(5).
- Myyry, L., Siponen, M., Pahnila, S., Vartiainen, T., & Vance, A. (2009). What levels of moral reasoning and values explain adherence to information security rules? An empirical study. European Journal of Information Systems, 18(2), 126-139.
- Siponen, M., & Vartiainen, T. (2004). Unauthorized copying of software and levels of moral development: A literature analysis and its implications for research and practice. Information Systems Journal, 14(4), 387-407.
Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard university press.
Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development. Moral education, 1(51), 23-92.
HIBA VP, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India
Date last updated
23 August, 2023
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