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Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Judgment

Retrieved on May 1, 2008 from:
Ferris State University, Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Judgment: Lawrence Kohlberg (8) developed a theory describing the development or moral judgment based on concepts of objectivity, justice, and fairness. His research originally was focused on boys aged ten to sixteen, and was later refined and revised. His theory illustrates the development of moral judgment proceeding through three levels, each with two stages.

Preconventional Level
At the preconventional level, a child responds to cultural rules and labels of good or bad, right or wrong, based upon the consequences of the behavior such as reward or punishment, and the power of the person who expresses the rules.
Stage 1: Punishment Obedience Orientation.
Avoidance of punishment and deference to power are valued and the physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness.
Stage 2: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation.
Satisfaction of one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others determine actions. Elements of fairness, sharing and reciprocity are understood in the context of self-satisfaction rather than being based on concepts of loyalty or justice.
Conventional Level
At the conventional level, living up to the expectations of one’s family, group or nation is a primary value. The individual identifies with the group, conforms to its expectations, and actively supports and maintains the group’s expectations.
Stage 3: Interpersonal Concordance Orientation.
Behavior is shaped by what receives approval from others, and there is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is the majority behavior. Good intentions also earn favor.

Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation.
Good behavior is determined by an attitude of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the social order for its own sake.
Post conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level
This level is characterized by the definition of moral values based on acceptance of the values and principles as having justifiable social validity rather than because the individual identifies with the group or accepts authority.
Stage 5: Social Contract, Legalistic Orientation, Generally with Utilitarian Overtones.
Correct behavior is defined by views of individual rights and societal standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by society. The individual is aware that there are differences in personal values and opinions, and that the circumstances of a given situation can affect behavioral outcomes. The individual recognizes that laws represent a societal consensus of agreed-upon rules, but that laws may be changed based on rational argumentation.

Stage 6: Universal-Ethical-Principle Orientation.
Behavior is ruled by a decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles. These principles are based on universal concepts of justice, reciprocity, equality and respect for the dignity of all human beings.