Stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg questioned why children differed in their ethical judgements. They think more in terms of black and white, or egocentric, or rational.

In an experiment, Kohlberg gave children open-ended questions to explain their answers. From this, he identified three stages of moral development:

  • Pre-conventional stage. This ego-centric stage seeks pleasure and wants to avoid pain. "Good" is defined as whatever is beneficial to oneself, and "bad" is anything that will cause punishment.
  • Conventional stage. A sense of social belonging marks this stage. Approval is seen as a reward, and behaviour is adjusted to please others. The desire to fit in is motivating good behaviour.
  • Post-conventional stage. There is more self-reflection and moral reasoning. Principled behaviour is more important than blind obedience.



How morally developed are you?

Lawrence Kohlberg's three stages of developmental progression from early infancy to adulthood maps almost perfectly onto Jean Piaget's psychology of child development.

What is important to note is that these stages also describe adults. Some people never get mature and may have no real moral compass (sometimes associated with psychopathy.) Then we all know people who are bound to the conventional stage where their image is most important. Those who don't develop past this stage are rigid in following the rules or the law.


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