Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg formalised ideas about personal moral development, clustering ethical decisions into three meta areas: pre-conventional thinking, conventional thinking, and post-conventional, or principled, thinking (1976).

  • Pre-conventional thinking is where we follow rules to avoid being punished. We act in our own self-interest, and are blindly obedient to authority because authority exists. This first level of ethical thinking is ego-centric, and is where most children's thinking lies. Some adults never evolve past this stage.
  • Conventional thinking - level two - is where we conform to what others around us expect us to be. We fulfil the duties and the obligations that our social systems put upon us. We uphold laws because we can see that maintaining our social order has value. Most adults are at this stage.
  • Post-Conventional or principled thinking - level three - is where we impartially apply universal standards of behaviour to resolve moral conflicts. We seek to balance self-interest with a concern for others and for the common good. An internal locus of control is needed for this type of thinking, as people may break laws that are unjust, whistleblow, be philanthropic when they have nothing to give. Fewer than 20% of adults are in this space. These are people who encourage followers to think for themselves and to expand their understanding of moral issues, such as Emily Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King.

Kohlberg also divided each level into several sub-groups, which you can read more about here (1976).


  • Kenyon, R. (16 November 2009). Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved 7 June 2016 from
  • Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp.31-53). USA: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Daft, R. L. (2007). The Leadership Experience (4th ed). USA: Thomson South-Western.


  1. Your page looks weird, something is wrong

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