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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Author: Zach Lamb

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

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to look at moral development and the development of morals as we become socialized and learn how to be functioning, adult members of society. So this is why sociologists are interested in morals.

Well, Lawrence Kohlberg theorized human development in terms of stages, just like Piaget did, but, rather than focusing on cognition, as Piaget does, Kohlberg is interested in the development of morality. And he had different levels of how we came to develop morality, as well. So let's get into Kohlberg's notion of moral development.

The first level of moral development that Kohlberg identified was what he called the preconventional level, which is the level at which our moral notions of right and wrong are grounded in physical feelings and sensations. This is similar to how Piaget theorized cognition, at this stage of life.

So when you're just a little kid, what's right is what feels right. We run around, testing everything with our bodies. If you've had children, you know this. Kids want to put everything in their mouth. If there's something that's shiny, they want to grab it.

So we don't know anything, really; we can only feel, and we can only use our senses to know. So what is right, then, is what feels right. If you're being held by the mother, and that's rocking you to sleep, this feels good, so that feels right to you, whereas neglect or abuse-- we don't know that it's wrong, inherently, because we have no conventions of abuse or right and wrong; we just know that it feels wrong. So this is all bodily knowledge, and a bodily way to understand right and wrong.

The second stage of moral development is the conventional stage, or the conventional level. At this level of moral development, we can begin to define right or wrong in terms of social and cultural norms and expectations. And this coincides with adolescence. Right and wrong, then, in adolescence, come to be seen as what society deems right and wrong and what other people are doing. And what they're doing-- they're obviously living by the rules of society, so we ape them. We can see that what our parents want and what society wants defines what's right and wrong.

We could also begin to step outside of ourselves and begin to contemplate our actions with respect to how others will perceive them, and how our actions jive with-- and dovetail with-- cultural standards of right and wrong. So you can put yourself in another's shoes and say, well, what are they going to think of my actions? And then you can use that to know what is right and wrong. So this is the conventional level.

Finally, Kohlberg maintained we reach the postconventional stage of moral development, where we can begin to contemplate abstract ethical principles like equality, justice, fairness. This enables us to see that what society defines as lawful might not always be what is right. So what's right and wrong comes to be defined, then, according to these overriding ethical principles.

So to give you an example of disharmony between what society deems lawful and what you think is right, you might look to changing notions of racial equality in this country and how what the people who did-- the black youths did when they sat in at the lunch counter at Woolworths. They were breaking "the law," but what they were doing then, we would later say is right; they should be able to sit there. Or Rosa Parks and the bus. So we see how what is right, and what we think is right, might not always correspond to the laws of society. And when we're doing this, we're reasoning, in the postconventional stage of moral development, where we're squaring ideas of right with larger, transcendent ethical principles.

But Kohlberg erred when he gave us this three-part scheme of morality, here, because he only really theorized the moral development in boys and didn't look at how girls develop morally. So not looking at how girls develop morality, and whether this might be different from boys, was to give us an incomplete picture.

Carol Gilligan comes along, then, and adds more depth to Kohlberg's analysis and argues that boys and girls come to adopt slightly different standards of moral judgment. These are what I have on the board, here. She argued that boys tend to develop morality-- or judge morality-- by the justice perspective, which divides notions of right and wrong according to law and rule-bound understandings of what is right and wrong. So stealing is wrong, because it breaks the law.

Boys like more just formal, laid out, law-bound, yes/no, black/white, right/wrong kind of standards, whereas Gilligan then argued that, in contrast to that, girls judge right and wrong by this ideal of care, personal relationships, and loyalty. She calls this the care and responsibility perspective.

Where Gilligan is valuable is pointing out how Kohlberg, then, overgeneralizes and applies the justice prospective to the moral development of both boys and girls, when, on the other hand, Gilligan finds girls subject to a different perspective of moral evaluation. Society has a tendency to view right and wrong overwhelmingly according to the justice perspective, at the expense of the care and responsibility perspective.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this introduction to moral development and the theories of Kohlberg and Gilligan. Have a great rest of your day.

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.