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KOHLBERG’s Six Stages of Moral Reasoning

Lawrence Kohlberg found that the reasons people give for their moral choices change
systematically and consistently with age because of hypothetical moral dilemmas. He proposed
that moral reasoning develops in six stages. These stages are not tightly linked to a person’s
chronological age; there is a range of ages for reaching each stage, and not everyone reaches the
highest level. Here are the different levels and stages of Kohlberg’s Moral Reasoning:
♦ Level I: Pre-conventional: Emphasis is on external control; The standards are those of
others, and they are observed either to avoid punishment or to reap rewards
• Stage 1: Obedience, or reward orientation; Motivated by avoidance of punishment
and “conscience” is irrational; Fear of punishment
• Stage 2: Instrumental Exchange, or marketplace orientation; Motivated by desire
for reward or benefit; Guilt reactions are ignored and punishment is viewed
♦ Level 2: Morality of Conventional Role: Emphasis is to please other people; The standards
are still those of others but they have internalized these standards to some extent; They take
roles of authority figures well enough to decide whether an action is good by their standards
• Stage 3: Conformist, or “good boy, good girl” orientation; Motivated by
anticipation of disapproval of others; Actual or imagined
• Stage 4: “Law and Order” orientation; Motivated by anticipation of dishonor--- an
institutionalized blame for failure of duty--- and by guilt over harm done to others
♦ Level 3: Morality of Autonomous Moral Principle: This level marks the true attainment
of true morality; in this level, the person acknowledges the possibility of conflict between
two socially accepted standards and tries to decide between them; The control of conduct is
now internal, both in the standards observed and in the reasoning about right and wrong.
• Stage 5: Social-contract or legalistic orientation; Concern about maintaining
respect of equals and of community; Concern about own self-respect--- that is,
about avoiding judging self as irrational, inconsistent, non-purposive
• Stage 6: Universal ethical principle orientation; Concern about self-condemnation
for violating one’s own principles


Upon reading Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning, I have learned that each and very
one of us has different moral stages; some reach the highest level but most stay in the first two
levels. It depends on our moral understanding that will determine where stages are we in to.
Kohlberg well used hypothetical moral dilemmas to thoroughly explain these six stages. His
research work is not very easy to understand but if you focus our minds and hearts in this
research, you will truly see the beauty and essence of this work that beyond doubt can truly help
us develop our moral stands in life.