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decorative star graphic  The School Years:
Stages of Moral Development

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Ψ  Kohlberg's levels & stages of moral development

•  Level 1. Preconventional  (Self-Interest)

    •  Stage 1 (from about age 2 or 3 to about age 5 or 6): The Stage of Punishment & Obedience "Might makes right"

    •  Stage 2 (from age 5 to age 7, or up to age 9, in some cases): The Stage of Individual Instrumental Purpose & Exchange "Look out for number one"

•  Level 2. Conventional   (Social Approval)

    •  Stage 3 (from about age 7 to about age 12): The Stage of Mutual Interpersonal Expectations, Relationships & Conformity"good girl" & "nice boy"

    •  Stage 4 (from age 10 to age 15, on average): The Stage of Social System & Conscience Maintenance "Law & Order"

•  Level 3. Postconventional   (Abstract Ideas)

    •  Stage 5 (starting as early as age 12, in some cases): The Stage of Prior Rights & "Social Contract" or Utility

    •  Stage 6: The Stage of Universal Ethical Principles "Principled Conscience"

In more detail:

Ψ  Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning is a stage theory. In other words, everyone goes through the stages sequentially without skipping any stage.

Ψ According to Kohlberg most children have a preconventional morality, & most adults have a conventional one.

Ψ  Kohlberg estimated that only 20 to 25% of the adult population attains the postconventional level of morality.

It's a Mickey Mouse World , isn't it?

Ψ  Movement through these stages are not natural, that is people do not automatically move from one stage to the next as they mature. In stage development, movement is effected when cognitive dissonance occurs ... that is when a person notices inadequacies in his or her present way of coping with a given moral dilemma.

Ψ  According to stage theory, people cannot understand moral reasoning more than one stage ahead of their own. For example, a person in Stage 1 can understand Stage 2 reasoning but nothing beyond that. Therefore, we should present moral arguments that are only one stage ahead of a person's present level of reasoning to stimulate movement to higher stages.

Ψ  The first level of moral thinking is that generally found at the elementary school level. In the first stage of this level, people behave according to socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by some authority figure (e.g., parent or teacher). This obedience is compelled by the threat or application of punishment. The second stage of this level is characterized by a view that right behavior means acting in one's own best interests.

Ψ  The second level of moral thinking is that generally found in society, hence the name "conventional." The first stage of this level (stage 3) is characterized by an attitude which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others. The second stage (stage 4) is one oriented to abiding by the law & responding to the obligations of duty.

Ψ  The third level (stages 5 & 6) of moral thinking is one that Kohlberg felt is not reached by the majority of adults. Its first stage (stage 5) is an understanding of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others. The last stage (stage 6) is based on respect for universal principles & the demands of individual conscience.

Criticism of Kohlberg's Stages

    •  The philosophical emphasis on justice & psychological emphasis on reasoning are too narrow & restrictive.
    •  Does moral reasoning necessarily lead to moral behavior?  Kohlberg's theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what we ought to do versus our actual actions.

It's a Mickey Mouse World , isn't it?

    •  Does Kohlberg's theory overemphasize Western philosophy?  Individualistic cultures emphasize personal rights while collectivistic cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern cultures may have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg's theory does not account for.
    •  Kohlberg's conception of moral development is based on thinking & logic, not on feelings for others. Surely feelings can not be neglected.
    •  Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg's theory overemphasizes the concept of justice when making moral choices. Other factors such as compassion, caring, & other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning. Gilligan feels that Kohlberg's theory has gender bias & does not consider the "morality of care" only the "morality of justice."

Growth & Development
Robert C. Gates
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