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Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

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  1. 0:42 Moral Development Stages
  2. 1:06 Pre-Conventional Level
  3. 1:36 Conventional Level
  4. 2:25 Post-Conventional Level
  5. 3:28 Criticisms
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Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

How do people learn to make morally sound decisions? To illustrate Kohlberg's levels of moral development, we'll follow Lauren as she makes difficult decisions.

At some point in your life, you've probably been faced with a moral dilemma. Consider this example: a father tells his daughter, Lauren, that she can have a bike if she saves enough money from her weekly allowance to pay for half of it. Then, when Lauren tells her father she's saved up all the money, her father reverses his decision and tells Lauren to give him the money because he wants to use it to buy beer. On the one hand, Lauren wants to obey her father; on the other, she doesn't want to support his destructive drinking habits. Lauren is torn about giving her father the money.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was especially interested in how children develop their ability to make moral decisions like this one. He came up with several stages of moral development, which, though not without criticism from other psychologists, form a good starting point to think about these questions. It is important to remember that not everyone, even adults, necessarily make it into all of the higher stages.

People first pass through two stages known collectively as the pre-conventional level. In the first stage, people are motivated by trying to avoid punishment; their actions are bad if they get punished and good if they don't. In this stage, Lauren would give her father the money because she doesn't want him to punish her. At the second stage, people are motivated purely by self-interest. Lauren at this stage would likely keep the money, thinking that, even if she can't afford a bike, she can use it to buy something else good for herself.

The next level of moral development, the conventional, also contains two stages. Adolescents typically operate at this level, as do some adults. In Stage three, people make moral decisions based on getting people to like them. Lauren might decide to give her father the money because this will improve her relationship with him; but if her mother is upset by her father's drinking, she might decide to give the money to her mother in order to be a 'good girl' in her eyes. Her decision would be based on whichever social relationship seemed most important. In Stage four, moral reasoning centers around maintaining a functioning society by recognizing that laws are more important the individual needs. In this stage, Lauren probably wouldn't give her father the money, because his alcoholism is disruptive to the stability of their family and community.

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