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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Description:

This lesson will list, define, and discuss the stages of Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development.

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Tutorial

What's Covered

This tutorial will cover the topic of moral development, through the definition and discussion of:

  1. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
  2. Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Gender and Moral Development

1. LAWRENCE KOHLBERG’S THEORY OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

The development of morals is of interest to sociologists as people become socialized and learn how to be functioning, adult members of society. Lawrence Kohlberg theorized human development in terms of stages, similar to Piaget, but rather than focusing on cognition like Piaget, Kohlberg was interested in the development of morality. He identified three different levels of how people develop morality.

Level 1: The preconventional level

This is the level at which your 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--when you're a small child, what's right is what ‘feels’ right. You test everything with your body.

IN CONTEXT

If you have children or have been around children, you may have noticed this. Kids want to put everything in their mouths. If something is shiny, they want to grab it. They don’t truly know anything, they can only feel, and use their senses to know.

What is right, then, is what feels right. If you're being held by your mother who is rocking you to sleep, this feels good and right to you, whereas neglect or abuse, feels wrong. You don't know that it's inherently wrong because you have no conventions of abuse or right and wrong, you just know that it feels wrong. This is an example of bodily knowledge--a bodily way to understand right and wrong.

Level 2: The conventional level

At this level of moral development, you begin to define right or wrong in terms of social and cultural norms and expectations, which coincides with adolescence. Right and wrong in adolescence is seen through the lens of what society deems right and wrong, and what other people are doing. Other people are typically living by the rules of society, so you mimic them. You see what your parents and society want, and this in turn defines what's right and wrong.

You also begin to step outside of yourself and contemplate your actions with respect to how others will perceive them, and how your actions dovetail with the cultural standards of right and wrong.

Think About It

Have you ever put yourself in another's shoes and said, “What are they going to think of my actions?”, and then used this information to determine what is right and wrong? This is a behavior of the conventional level.

Level 3: The postconventional level

In this level, you begin to contemplate abstract ethical principles like equality, justice, and fairness. This enables you to see that what society defines as lawful might not always be what is right. What's right and wrong becomes defined according to these overriding ethical principles.

IN CONTEXT

The changing notions of racial equality in this country provide an example of disharmony between what society deems lawful and what people think is right. During the Civil Rights Movement, when the black youths sat in at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s where they were not allowed, they were technically breaking the law. The same is true of Rosa Parks and the front of the bus.

Nowadays, however, people would say this is right; they should be able to sit there. You can see how what is right and what you think is right might not always correspond to the laws of society. This type of mental reconciliation and reasoning happens in the postconventional stage of moral development, in which you are squaring ideas of right with larger, transcendent ethical principles.

Term to Know

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.


2. CAROL GILLIGAN’S THEORY OF GENDER AND MORAL DEVELOPMENT

Kohlberg erred when he developed his three-part scheme of morality, however, because he only theorized the moral development in boys and didn't analyze the moral development of girls. By not investigating whether it may be different between boys and girls, he provided an incomplete picture.

Carol Gilligan added more depth to Kohlberg's analysis by arguing that boys and girls adopt slightly different standards of moral judgment.

Gilligan 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 understanding of what is right and wrong.

Boys gravitate to more formal, laid out, law-bound, yes/no, black/white, right/wrong standards, while girls, Gilligan argued, judge right and wrong by the ideal of care, personal relationships, and loyalty. She called this the ‘care and responsibility perspective.’

Gilligan’s theory is valuable in pointing out how Kohlberg overgeneralizes and applies the justice perspective to the moral development of both boys and girls, when the reality is that girls are 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.

Term 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.

Summary

Today you learned about an introduction to moral development and the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan.

Good luck!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • 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.

  • 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.