Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development: Morality 6 Stages, Gilligan Theory

The Kohlberg Theory of moral development where focuses on how the children develop their morality and the reasons for their moral value. Kohlberg theory suggests to us that moral value will be developed in a series of six stages. This theory also suggests that moral decisions are primarily focused on seeking and maintaining justice.

Here in this article, we have discussed Kohlberg theory of moral development and all 6 stages explained in detail, at last, we have talked about the Criticism of Kohlberg theory and Carol Gilligan’s theory.

► Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development

According to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, there are three levels of moral development, and all 3 levels are split into two stages.

Kohlberg suggested that people go through these stages in a fixed order and this transition of moral understanding is linked to cognitive development.

The three levels of moral reasoning include,

  1. Pre-Conventional
  2. Conventional
  3. Post-Conventional

Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development

kohlberg theory of moral development

  1. Avoiding Punishment
  2. Aiming at reward
  3. Good Person attitude
  4. Law & Order
  5. Justice
  6. Ethics

There are 6 stages of moral development given by Lawerence Kohlberg. All these stages are covered under 3 levels that are as follows;

1. Pre Conventional Level Morality

  • Stage 1: Obedience Orientation and Avoiding Punishment
  • Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange (Aiming at reward)

2. Conventional Level Morality

  • Stage 3: Good Boy Image/ Good Person Attitude
  • Stage 4: Maintaining the Social & Law Order

3. Post-Conventional Level Morality

  • Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights & Justice
  • Stage 6. Universal Principles & Ethics

► 6 Stages of Moral Development

Now let’s discuss all these 6 stages in detail.


Preconventional morality is the first level of moral development and starts from birth to lasts until approximately age 9.

At the pre-conventional level of morality, children don’t have a personal code of morality. Instead, their moral decisions are based on the standards set by adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules.

For Example, if an action leads to punishment then it must be bad, and if it leads to a reward or prize then it must be good.

Authority is beyond the individual and most children make moral decisions based on the physical consequences of actions.

Stage 1: Obedience Orientation and Avoiding Punishment

This is the first stage where Children are good in order to avoid being punished.

  • And if a child is punished, then they must have done something wrong.
  • It creates morality among children but it is just only to become obedient and to avoid punishments.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange (Aiming at Reward)

At this stage, the Child recognizes that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities.

  • Here each child develops a sense of individual morality and Different individuals have different viewpoints.

Level 2 – CONVENTIONAL MORALITY Kohlberg Theory

Conventional morality is the second level of Kohlberg theory of moral development and it is characterized by an acceptance of social rules concerning what is right and wrong.

The age of a person falling into this category is 9 to 20 years.

At the conventional level (adolescents and adult people), Start internalizing the moral standards of valued role models.

  • Authority is internalized but does not impose by questions.
  • The reasoning is based on the beliefs of the group to which the person belongs.

Society pushes the responsibilities of relationships as well as social order is seen as desirable and must. Therefore it influences our view of what is right and wrong.

Stage 3: Good Boy/Good Person Attitude

  • The child/individual tries to be good in order to be seen as being a good person by others.
  • The sense of morality is to maintain a good person attitude  So they can get noticed as a good approval of others.

Stage 4: Maintaining the Social & Law Order.

  • The child/individual becomes aware of the wider rules of society, so judgments concern obeying the rules in order to uphold the law and avoid guilt.


Post-conventional morality is the third level of moral development and is characterized by an individual’s understanding of universal ethical principles.

The age of a person falling into this category is 20 years and above.

This morality builds the thinking of the preservation of life at all costs and also the importance of human dignity.

Individual judgment is based on virtues and self-chosen principles. Moral reasoning is known as Individual Ethics which is based on individual rights and justice.

According to Lawrence Kohlberg, this level of moral reasoning is as far as most people get. Only 10-15% are capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for stage 5, stage 6 (post-conventional morality).

Because most people take their moral views from people living in their surroundings. Only a few people can think through ethical principles for themselves.

Stage 5: Social Contract, Justice, and Individual Rights.

At this stage, a person becomes aware that while rules, regulations, and laws might exist for the good of the greatest number.

  • But sometimes they will work against the interest of particular individuals. This issue is known as an ethical dilemma.
  • For example, in the story of Heinz’s dilemma, The protection of his wife’s life is more important than breaking the law against stealing.

Stage 6: Universal Principles of Ethics.

At this stage, people have developed their own set of moral guidelines which may or may follow the law. The principles apply to everyone.

  • For example, Human rights, justice, and equality. But according to Kohlberg, a few people reached this stage.
  • Because the person will be prepared to act to defend these principles even if it means going against the rest of society. And in the process sometimes they have to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment.

► Criticism of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Carol Gilligan criticized Kohlberg theory of moral development because he only focused on boys. Gilligan believed that men have a more absolute perspective on morality while women act according to the situation and relationship of the people involved before making a decision.

Some other key criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory are as follows;

  1. Too much focuses on moral thinking and not enough on moral behavior.
  2. Kohlberg suggested morality in women is less fully developed than in men.
  3. Completely Underestimated the contribution of relationships and family.
  4. Kohlberg’s theory is culturally biased and not universal.
  5. Stage theories in general are not adequate to define moral development.

Must Read :Theory X and Theory Y

► Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development

This is an advancement of Kohlberg’s theory. It had been observed that Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was proposed based on the moral thinking of privileged white men and boys.

Therefore Gilligan’s theory was popularized by taking both male and female thinking capabilities into account.

Carol Gilligan, an American psychologist, and theorist were born on 28 Nov 1936 in New York City. She pursued her doctorate degree in Social Psychology from Harvard University.

Carol Gilligan started as a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg. But after some time she eventually became independent and criticized some of his theories.

Carol Gilligan propounds that Kohlberg’s theories are biased toward the male thinking process. According to Gilligan, Kohlberg has only taken privileged men and boys in his study.

According to Gilligan, women face a lot of psychological challenges and they are not moral widgets. She said the women’s point of view on moral development consists of caring which shows its effect on human relationships.

Therefore, Gilligan proposed a theory that has the same 3 stages as Kohlberg but with different stages of moral development.

Though the names of the level of the stage are the same, the stages differ in this method. Gilligan’s theory suggests that moral development is based on pro-social behaviors such as Altruism, caring, and helping and the traits such as honesty, fairness, and respect.

✔ Pre-conventional Level (Theory of Moral Development)

  • At this stage, a person cares for oneself to ensure survival.
  • A person’s attitude is selfish at the beginning level but this is the transition phase, where the person finds the connection between oneself and others.

✔ Conventional Level of Moral Development

  • In this stage, the person feels a sense of responsibility and starts showing care towards other people.
  • Carol Gilligan suggests that this moral thinking can be identified in the role of a mother and a wife. This tendency sometimes leads to ignorance of oneself.

✔ Post-conventional Level of Moral Development

  • In this stage, the principle of care for self as well as others is accepted.
  • But a section of people may never reach this level, especially most women.

According to Gilligan’s theory of moral development, changes take place due to the change of self rather than critical thinking. It was stated that the post-conventional level of Kohlberg’s theory is not attained by women.

But Carol Gilligan researched and suggest in her theory that the post-conventional level of thinking is not easy for women to go through because they care for the relationships.

Levels of Thinking

Carol Gilligan states that the post-conventional level of moral thinking can be dealt with based on the two types of thinking.

Gilligan’s theory is based on the two main aspects that are listed below;

  1. Care-based morality (usually found in women) and
  2. Justice-based morality (usually found in men).
1. Care-based Morality

Care-based morality is the type of thinking generally found in women. Care-centric Morality is based on the following principles;

  • More focuses on inter-connected relationships and universality.
  • Acting avoidance of violence.
  • Women with this morality are usually interested in helping others.
  • This morality is commonly found in girls because of their connections to their mothers.
  • Girls remain connected to their mothers, they are less inclined to worry about issues of Justice.
2. Justice-based Morality

Justice-based morality is the kind of thinking mostly found in men. Justice based morality is based on the following principles;

  • This morality views the world as being composed of autonomous individuals who interact with one another.
  • They avoid inequality.
  • Individuals with this morality are usually interested in protecting individuality.
  • Commonly found among boys because of their need to differentiate between themselves and their mothers.
  • Male are separated from their mothers, so boys become more concerned with the concept of inequality.

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