The study of morality is something that is constantly generating dilemmas, doubts and theories.

Virtually everyone has wondered at some point about what is right and what is wrong, about how best to prioritize to become a good person, or even about the very meaning of the word “morality. However, far fewer have set out to study not what is good, evil, ethics and morality, but how we think about those ideas.

If the first is the task of philosophers, the second enters fully into the field of psychology, in which stands out the theory of moral development of Lawrence Kohlberg .

Who was Lawrence Kohlberg?

The creator of this theory of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg, was an American psychologist born in 1927 who in the second half of the twentieth century , from the University of Harvard, was largely dedicated to investigate the way in which people reason in problems of moral type.

In other words, instead of worrying about studying the appropriateness or inappropriateness of actions, as philosophers like Socrates did, he studied the norms and rules that could be observed in human thought with regard to morality.

The similarities between Kohlberg’s and Piaget’s theory

His research resulted in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, heavily influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of the 4 phases of cognitive development. Like Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg believed that in the evolution of typical modes of moral reasoning there are qualitatively different stages from each other, and that curiosity for learning is one of the main motors of mental development throughout the different phases of life.

Moreover, both Kohlberg’s and Piaget’s theories have a basic idea: the development of the way of thinking goes from mental processes very focused on the concrete and the directly observable to the abstract and more general.

In Piaget’s case, this meant that in our early childhood we tend to think only about what we can directly perceive in real time, and that we gradually learn to reason about abstract elements that we cannot experience in the first person.

In the case of Lawrence Kohlberg, it means that the group of people we can come to wish good to is growing larger and larger to include those we have not seen or know. The ethical circle is becoming larger and more inclusive, although what matters is not so much the gradual expansion of the circle, but the qualitative changes in a person’s moral development as he or she evolves. In fact, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is based on 6 levels .

The three levels of moral development

The categories Kohlberg used to indicate the level of moral development are a way of expressing the substantial differences in someone’s reasoning as they grow and learn.

These six stages fall into three broad categories: the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional phase .

1. pre-conventional phase

In the first phase of moral development, which according to Kohlberg usually lasts until the age of 9, the person judges events according to how they affect him or her .

1.1. First stage: orientation to obedience and punishment

In the first stage, the individual only thinks about the immediate consequences of his actions, avoiding unpleasant experiences linked to punishment and seeking to satisfy his own needs.

For example, in this phase there is a tendency to consider that the innocent victims of an event are guilty , for having suffered a “punishment”, while those who harm others without being punished do not do wrong. This is an extremely egocentric style of reasoning in which good and evil has to do with what each individual experiences separately.

1.2. Second stage: self-interest orientation

In the second stage one begins to think beyond the individual, but self-centeredness is still present . If in the previous stage it is not possible to conceive that there is a moral dilemma in itself because there is only one point of view, in this one the existence of clashes of interests begins to be recognized.

Faced with this problem, people who are in this phase opt for relativism and individualism, as they do not identify with collective values: each one defends his or her own and acts accordingly. It is believed that, if agreements are established, they must be respected so as not to create a context of insecurity that is detrimental to individuals.

2. Conventional phase

The conventional phase is often the one that defines the thinking of adolescents and many adults. In it, the existence of both a series of individual interests and a series of social conventions about what is good and what is bad is taken into account, which helps to create a collective ethical “umbrella”.

2.1. Third stage: orientation towards consensus

In the third stage, good actions are defined by how they affect one’s relationships with others. Therefore, people in the consensus-oriented stage try to be accepted by others and strive to make their actions fit very well into the set of collective rules that define what is good .

Good and bad actions are defined by the reasons behind them and how these decisions fit into a set of shared moral values. The focus is not on how good or bad certain proposals may sound, but on the objectives behind them.

2.2. Stage four: guidance to authority

At this stage of moral development, good and bad emanate from a series of norms that are perceived as separate from individuals . The good consists of complying with the norms, and the bad is not complying with them.

There is no possibility of acting beyond these rules, and the separation between good and bad is as definite as the rules are concrete. If in the previous stage the interest is rather in those people who know each other and who can show approval or rejection for what one does, here the ethical circle is wider and includes all those people who are subject to the law.

3. Post-convention phase

People in this phase have their own moral principles as a reference that, despite not having to coincide with the established norms, are based on both collective values and individual freedoms, not exclusively on self-interest.

3.1. Stage 5: orientation towards the social contract

The manner of moral reasoning proper to this stage arises from a reflection on whether laws and norms are right or wrong, that is, whether they shape a good society.

We think about the way in which society can affect the quality of life of people , and we also think about the way in which people can change the rules and laws when these are dysfunctional.

In other words, there is a very global vision of moral dilemmas, by going beyond the existing rules and adopting a distant theoretical position. The fact of considering, for example, that slavery was legal but illegitimate and that in spite of that it existed as if it was something totally normal would enter into this stage of moral development.

3.2. Step 6: orientation towards universal principles

The moral reasoning that characterizes this phase is very abstract , and is based on the creation of universal moral principles that are different from the laws themselves. For example, it is considered that when a law is unjust, changing it should be a priority. Moreover, decisions do not stem from assumptions about context, but from categorical considerations based on universal moral principles.