Kohlberg's stages of moral development were developed by Lawrence Kohlberg to explain the development of moral reasoning. This theory holds that moral reasoning, which Kohlberg thought to be the basis for ethical behavior, has developmental stages. From the results of his studies at Harvard's Center for Moral Education with colleague Sandy Roney-Hays, Kohlberg concluded that there are six identifiable stages of moral development. These stages can be classified into three levels. Note that these stages are known by various names.

Stages - Level 1 (Pre-conventional):

  1. Obedience and punishment orientation
  2. Self-interest orientation

Level 2 (Conventional):

  1. Interpersonal accord and conformity (The good boy/good girl attitude)
  2. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-conventional):

  1. Social contract orientation
  2. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)

An explanation of the stages - Pre-Conventional

The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults can also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners in the pre-conventional level judge the morality of an action by its direct consequences. The pre-conventional level is divided into two stages: stage one (obedience and punishment orientation); stage two (self-interest orientation).

Stage One

Stage Two

Individuals focus on the direct consequences that their actions will have for themselves. For example, they think that an action is morally wrong if the person who commits it gets punished.

Espouses the what's in it for me position; right behavior being defined by what is in one's own best interest. Stage two reasoning shows a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might furthers one's own interests, such as "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." Concern for others is not based on loyalty or intrinsic respect in stage two.


The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. Persons who reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing these actions to social rules and expectations.

The conventional level consists of stages three and four of moral development.

Stage Three

Stage Four

Individuals whose moral reasoning is in stage three seek approval from other people. They try to be a good boy or good girl having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships.

It is important to obey the laws and social conventions because of its importance to maintaining society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for approval exhibited in stage three.

Post-Conventional - The post-conventional level consists of stages five and six of moral development.

Stage Five

Stage Six

Persons have certain principles to which they may attach more value than laws, such as human rights or social justice. In this reasoning, actions are wrong if they violate these ethical principles. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than dictums, and must be changed when necessary (provided there is agreement). By this reasoning laws that do not promote general social welfare, should be changed. Democratic governments are ostensibly based on Stage five reasoning.

Moral reasoning is based on the use of abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. One way to do this is by imagining oneself in everyone else's shoes, imagining what they would decide if they were doing the same. While Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he had difficulty finding participants who use it. It appears that people rarely if ever reach stage six of Kohlberg's model.


Kohlberg also observed that there is a stage 4½ or 4+ which is a transition from stage four to stage five. This stage is where people have become disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning and become moral relativists. This transition stage may result in either progress to stage five or in regression to stage four.

Kohlberg further speculated that a seventh stage may exist (Transcendental Morality) which would link religion with moral reasoning.