Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Deliberation

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

For many years, the mind was neglected in psychological studies, with behaviorists denying the existence of the mind. They believed that human psychology involves a set of stimuli and responses. But the landscape of psychology changed forever with Harry Harlow’s studies.

A stack of colorful wooden blocks, all turquoise apart from one red one which has the word ETHICS printed on it.
Moral deliberation has six stages corresponding to certain age ranges. (Image: stoatphoto/Shutterstock)

The work of Harry Harlow in the 1950s was a turning point in the history of psychology. He proved that human reality is more than the brain, and the mind is the inner world of personal experience, which has to be studied by psychology. Contrary to the behaviorists’ view of the world as a mix of observable external stimuli and responses, Harlow redefined the mind as the central element of our identity. He put the mind back on the map. Harlow’s work inspired many other studies of the mind. Lawrence Kohlberg conducted one of these studies at the University of Chicago. He was interested in how humans develop their internal means of moral deliberation.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Six Steps of Ethical Deliberation

Kohlberg put forth the idea that there are six stages of ethical deliberation. People start with the early stages and move up to higher ones. But some people can get stuck at any level, refusing to or being unable to progress to a higher stage. He regarded those stuck in the early stages to be morally retarded in dealing with the problems of living in human society. Certain ages and developmental stages necessitate moving up to a higher level, with most people naturally progressing through these stages and some failing to advance.

These six stages fall into three groups of two. He called the first two stages pre-conventional, where ethical situations are not part of a broader rule or convention and are isolated. In the first stage, decisions about what to do in situations concerning other people are completely a matter of obedience to authority in order to avoid external punishment. That is all behaviorism is about, that is, human behavior depends on reward and punishment. But according to Kohlberg, it is the lowest level of human development.

Mother and grandmother sitting either side of a young girl on a gray sofa, both pointing at her as if lecturing her about something.
At the first stage, people do the right thing to avoid punishment. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Stage two involves an internalized version of pre-conventional thought. While at step one, humans act based on external reward and punishment, human actions are motivated by internal desires at stage two. Everything is based on our own interests, focusing on the here and now and seeking pleasure and avoiding pain from personal wants.

The second level, which corresponds to the adolescent age, is conventional. It involves conventions and guiding principles in human moral deliberation. At the first stage of this level, we act in specific ways because we seek approval from others.

The second level represents serving an abstract duty. We simply do the right thing because of the obligation we have to the law, society, God, and even our country. We follow the law without questioning their reason.

The highest level of ethical deliberation is the post-conventional stage, where we want to know the reasons behind rules. In philosophy, this stage is called meta-ethics, which means understanding the reasons underlying the rules. This stage corresponds to adulthood, and we want to know the nature of morality as a whole, not individual rules.

In the fifth level of moral deliberation, we consider ethical commands in the context of the society where they are prescribed. The rules contribute to the creation of a well-ordered society that provides the means for humans to flourish.

Right vs wrong. Two street signs with arrow on metal pole with words.
The last stage of moral deliberation is the highest level involving meta-ethics (Image: Maria Vonotna/Shutterstock)

The last step involves considering meta-ethical thought beyond the cultural context and seeing the rules in terms of the universal structures. It is through abstract reasoning about the universal rules that true human wisdom is achieved. This final level is ultimately theoretical, abstract, and general and has nothing to do with the messy details of the world.

Learn more about evolutionary psychology.

Philosopher Kings as Ideal Rulers

Plato believed that philosopher kings have the vision to rule wisely, and they are the only people who should govern us.

Kohlberg agrees with this view, but he thinks these philosopher kings tend to be men. He contends that women do not go higher than the conventional level because they are concerned about nurturing the people who are physically close to them. So, they can never set out to move up from the concrete and the particular to the more advanced level of the abstract and the universal.

This view of women led psychologists to study the human mind through the study of the male mind. They believed that female mind did not open a window to the human mind. Men were the default human beings who were superior to women. Women were a separate species at best, an inferior species at worst.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

Common Questions about Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Deliberation

Q: What is moral development, according to Lawrence Kohlberg?

Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in discovering how humans develop their internal means of moral deliberation. He defined six stages of development, each corresponding to a specific age range. There are three levels of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional ethical development.

Q: What is the pre-conventional stage of moral deliberation?

At the pre-conventional stage, rules are isolated and not considered a part of a larger whole. People do the right thing only to avoid punishment.

Q: What is the conventional stage of moral deliberation?

The conventional stage is the internal version of the pre-conventional stage. At this stage, people do the right thing not to avoid external punishment but to fulfill an internal desire. We act only to satisfy our own interests.

Q: What is the post-conventional stage of moral deliberation?

This stage, which is the highest level of moral development, regards our desire to know why certain rules exist. In philosophy, it is called meta-ethics, which means setting out how we generate ethical rules.

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