Kohlberg’s 6 Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, was among the pioneers of moral development research. Building on from the original propositions of Jean Piaget, Kohlberg theorised that humans develop their moral judgements in 6 stages. To confirm his theory, Kohlberg interviewed boys between the ages of 10 and 16. He then analyzed how they would justify their decision when confronted with different hypothetical moral dilemmas. Superimposing the participants’ argumentation onto their cognitive development, Kohlberg postulated, that humans progress through the stages in a hierarchical order, as their cognitive abilities develop. To see how it works and try it yourself, read on!

The full story
Kohlberg morals

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory claims that our development of moral reasoning happens in six stages. The stages themselves are structured in three levels: Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional. To understand this better, imagine a conflict at school.

moral issues

There is a fight in the schoolyard. Two ninth-graders are beating up Tom. Those who watch the fight are at different stages of moral development. Let’s see what they do and how they justify their behavior.

Stage 1: Obedience and punishment
obedience and punishment

At stage one, we make moral judgments based on obedience and punishment. Finn’s sense of good and bad is directly linked to whether he gets punished or not. Finn sees what is happening to his friend and wants to help. He doesn’t, however, because he is afraid the teacher may punish him if he gets caught fighting. He asks himself, how can I avoid punishment?

Stage 2: Self-interest

At stage two, we are motivated by self-interest. Mary decides to intervene and help Tom. She knows that she might get punished, but she also knows that she could become a victim herself, someday. If she helps Tom now, he might help her in the future. She is asking herself: What’s in it for me?

Stage 3: Interpersonal accord and conformity

At stage three, interpersonal accord and conformity guide our moral judgments. Betty sees the fight and wants to intervene, but when she realizes that all the others are just watching, she decides not to get involved. She wants others to see that she is a good girl, who is conforming with the ethics of the community. She asks herself: What do others think of me?

Stage 4: Authority and maintaining social order
authority and order

At stage four, we value authority and want to maintain social-order. When the teacher sees the group fighting, he immediately steps in and shouts: “Stop, fighting at school is forbidden!”. He feels that, above all, it is important to follow the rules, otherwise chaos breaks out and that it is his duty to uphold the rules that sustain a functioning society. The teacher at that moment asks himself: How can I maintain law and order?

Stage 5: Social contract
social contract

At stage five, we understand rules as a social contract as opposed to a strict order. Jessy, who watches from afar, is not sure how she feels about this. To her, rules make sense only if they serve the right purpose. Obviously, the school rules prohibit fighting, but maybe Tom deserves to finally learn his lesson. Just yesterday he punched a young girl from grade one. She asks herself: Does a rule truly serve all members of the community? 

Stage 6: Universal ethical principles
ethical principles

At stage six, we are guided by universal ethical principles. All those involved now have to face the headmaster. He first explains the school rules, and why they exist. He then clarifies that rules are valid only if they are grounded in justice. The commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust rules. The headmaster’s highest moral principle is compassion. He believes that all people should learn to understand each other’s viewpoints and that they don’t feel alone with their feelings. He asks: What are the abstract ethical principles that serve my understandings of justice?

Pre-conventional level
preconventional level

At the pre-conventional level, Finn is driven by fear and Mary by self-interest. Both judge what is right or wrong by the direct consequences they expect for themselves, and not by social norms. This form of reasoning is common among children. 

Conventional level
conventional level

At the conventional level, Betty responds to peer pressure, and the teacher follows the rules. Their morality is centered around what society regards as right. At this level, the fairness of rules is seldom questioned. It is common to think like this during adolescence and adulthood.

Post-conventional level
postconventional level

At the post-conventional level, Jessy knows that things are complicated because individuals may disobey rules inconsistent with their own morality. The headmaster follows a universal ethical idea, at complete disconnect with what society thinks or the rules say. To him everything is solved through compassion. The right behavior in his opinion, is therefore never a means to an end, but always an end in itself. Not every person reaches this level.


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Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

We will now present to you the most famous moral dilemma Kohlberg presented to his students. Let’s see what you would do:

The Heinz dilemma
moral dilemma

A woman was on her deathbed. There was only one drug that the doctors thought might save her. The druggist that made that particular medicine sold it for ten times the price of the production costs. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, was poor and could not afford to buy the drug, not even with the financial help of his friends. Heinz then asked the pharmacist to sell it to him for half the price, but he refused.

heinz dilemma

To save the life of his wife, Heinz broke into the man’s laboratory and stole the medicine.


Now, tell us:

  • Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
  • Would it change anything if Heinz didn’t love his wife?
  • What if the person dying was not his wife, but a stranger?
  • Should the police arrest the druggist for murder if the wife had died?

Please write your answers and their justifications in the comments below! To see how the answers relate to each of Kohlberg’s stages, read more about the Heinz Dilemma on Wikipedia.

28 Replies to “Kohlberg’s 6 Stages of Moral Development”

  1. The medicine should not have been available for that price in the first place. The situation in itself begun on an immoral premise, which is selling drugs exclusively at a high cost. From my point of view, Heinz sought to aid his wife in her distress and his decision making process went from conventional to unconventional. Trying to buy the medicine but not being able to afford it, to getting the medicine by any means necessary.
    Based on our social structure and construct, the druggist would not be held accountable and in my opinion, should not be held accountable. The fact of the matter is that the druggist made an immoral decision at the pre-conventional stage, disregarding anyone else but himself.
    This is co-existing.

  2. The husband did what he thought was right to do for his sick wife. The doctor and the pharmacist should work together to make the drug more affordable to less fortunate people.

  3. The pharmacist is at pre-conventiinal level because he’s confused if whether to give the man his medicine because to him he’s having a two thoughts of which one is; “if he gives the medicine and it doesn’t work out for the woman and she dies” OR ” if his medicine actually saves her” therefore to be able to save himself from what other’s will think of him he needs to increase the price of the drugs to an amount the man can’t afford to buy.

    1) although the husband sort various means to attain the medicine for his wife, violence should never be the answer. In the future..his behavior could incite others to act likewise .
    2) Because of his love for his wife the husband compromised himself. Stealing the medicine may have cured his wife but She would then be in distress and without his support because he was now in prison. One cannot truly love another without love for oneself. His wife may eventually blame herself for his being in jail. Her love for him would not want him to put himself in harms way.
    3) It stated that the drug MIGHT help!

    Would it be different if he didn’t love his wife?

    Yes I think it would. Love is an emotion and sometimes it causes us to act out of our feelings rather than by using our reason….. Common sense. The husband tried all avenues that would help his wife …but without success. In his shoes I think that I would bring my problem to the media. If it is happening to me chances are that it is happening to others. Bringing it to the attention of the public might help.

    Should the police arrest the pharmacist?

    No. He acted out of greed… Which thankfully is not a punishable crime otherwise we would all be guilty. Capitalism has it’s faults….especially when it affects the well being and safety of others. Hopefully justice would demand that his raised income would be taxable and the money re-distributed to provide services to the poor. Sad, but this is not the case.

  5. HI, this is an excellent presentation of Kohlberg’s six stages. I would like to use it in a course I am developing on academic integrity. Is that possible? Full source and citation will be made available to the original post

    1. Hi Dr Mike,
      Thank you for feedback and your interest in our content. Our videos are licensed under the creative common BY-NC-SA. If you are a non-profit or public school, yes you can. If it is for pro-profit or commercial purposes, please let us know, we will send you the invoice for licensing.

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  7. Kohlberg’s theory suggests that not everyone progresses through all six stages of moral reasoning, and that individuals may regress to earlier stages under certain circumstances. However, the theory has been criticized for its focus on Western, individualistic cultures and its reliance on hypothetical moral dilemmas rather than real-life experiences.

  8. In the version of the Heinz Dilemma I was given in college, the medication was made from Radium and the pharmacist had gotten the Radium for the medication.

    I figured there was little to no way that the pharmacist had legitimately required that radium, nor was he using the proper safety procedures for it. And whether he had ANY approval from a health organization was beyond me, making taking the meds risky.

    I always assumed the Radium came from Libyan Terrorists, but lets assume that everything with the meds wasn’t suspicious and okay! (Don’t be suspicious, don’t be suspicious)

    He shouldn’t’ve taken the meds. He’s the number one suspect, he’d be caught fast. Wouldn’t it be smarter to steal something else to pay for the medicine?

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