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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize the key contributions of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan to the understanding of moral development.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Images from

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on Kohlberg's theory of moral development. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

Some people are good. And some people are bad. But most people are good, and learn to be good. Today's lesson is on moral development and how people come to judge situations as right or wrong.

Lawrence Kohlberg was really the first one to look at moral development. He saw the work of Piaget, studying how people develop into adults. But Piaget don't really talk much about morals. So Lawrence Kohlberg decided to look into morals.

And he studied only boys. And he looked at how boys came to judge what is right and wrong. He ended up finding three different stages of moral development.

The first stage, he called preconventional. In this stage, an individual sees right as whatever is right for them. So there's no consideration of what society wants or anything else. Whatever is good for them has to be right.

So the quote on the screen there is an example of that. "That candy on the ground looks yummy. I'm going to eat it." So there's no consideration for where the candy has been, whose candy it might be. It's all about whatever is good for the individual is right. It's the right thing to do.

Kohlberg said that next they preceded on to stage two, which is conventional. And here right is whatever society and parents tell them is right. So "Lying is wrong because my parents told me so," is the quote you see on the screen there. And that's an example of that conventional stage.

Lastly, came stage three, postconventional. And here right isn't a simple equation. Here, in stage three, individuals really consider abstract ideas. And they look at what is good for them and look at what's good for society. So there's not a simple way to categorize what that is, except for that they're thinking abstractly and really looking at different ideas.

And there's another quote on the screen there, which helps illustrate this point. "The law may say it's wrong for poor people to steal. But if they're starving and stealing food, I don't think it's wrong." So that illustrates that gray zone, the thinking that goes beyond just whatever is good for them or whatever is good for society.

Now, there are some critiques of Kohlberg's theory. The first critique is that it's really set in three different stages. And not everyone goes through these stages. And not everyone stays in these stages. There are some individuals who sometimes will be, for some situations, considering themselves to be thinking conventional. Other times, they will act selfishly and still be thinking in stage one, even though they're a grown adult.

Another critique of Kohlberg's theory is that he only studied boys. And we're going to see in the next slide about Carol Gilligan's theory. And she really studied the difference between boys and girls in their development.

The last critique is that not everyone reaches the postconventional stage. Someone can have a full life and pass away in old age, and never consider that anything as against the law could be right.

So Carol Gilligan really was critical of Kohlberg only studying boys. So she actually studied the difference between boys and girls. Here's what she found.

She found that boys were rules-based. Boys morals were-- she called this the justice perspective. So they saw right and wrong as what the law and what rules tell them. So stealing is wrong because it's against the law.

On the other hand, she saw girls in a different way. Girls, she found, used caring and responsibility to determine whether something is wrong or right. And another way of thinking about this is relationship-based. So they are much more likely to consider why some would steal, and empathize with tough situations, and really think about that maybe that's right or maybe that's wrong.

So the take-away message. First off, Kohlberg's theory of moral development, there's three stages, the preconventional stage, where only my views matter; the conventional stage, where only the rules matter; and the postconventional stage, where everything matters and everything is subjective.

Then today we also learned about Carol Gilligan's gender and moral development. And she found that boys and girls are different. Boys are more rules-based. And girls are more relationship-based.

That's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Carol Gilligan's Theory of Gender and Moral Development

Gilligan expanded on Kohlberg's work and argued that boys and girls develop different standards of morality. Boys emphasize a justice perspective, relying on formal rules to define right and wrong, and girls emphasize a care and responsibility perspective, judging situations based on interpersonal dynamics.

Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Theory of how people develop moral reasoning, or the ability to decipher right and wrong, that has three levels: 1) Preconventional level; 2) Conventional level; 3) Post-Conventional level.