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Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

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Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development conceptualizes the sequential cognitive and developmental process of moral reasoning in children.


Kohlberg’s theory was developed by presenting ethical and moral dilemmas to children in a short story format, followed by questions to elicit their feelings and decisions about the character’s actions. After studying the responses, he concluded there are three levels of moral development, each with two stages, as described below.

Level I: Preconventional Morality

In this initial level, children make decisions based on external consequences to their behavior, without consideration of the feelings of others. This level is typical of elementary school aged children.

  • Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation

    Decisions are rule based to avoid punishment. The physical consequences of an action determine if it is right or wrong.

  • Stage 2: Individualism, Instrumental Purpose, and Exchange

    Decisions are based on meeting one’s...

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  1. Kohlberg, L., & Kramer, R. (1969). Continuities and discontinuities in childhood and adult moral development. Human Development, 12, 83–120.

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  2. Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

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Correspondence to Robert Walrath PsyD .

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© 2011 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC

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Walrath, R. (2011). Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development. In: Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA.

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  • Publisher Name: Springer, Boston, MA

  • Print ISBN: 978-0-387-77579-1

  • Online ISBN: 978-0-387-79061-9

  • eBook Packages: Behavioral Science

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