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Kohlberg, Lawrence: Moral Development Theory
Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. Ed. Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2010. p508-513.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 SAGE Publications, Inc.
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Kohlberg, Lawrence: Moral Development Theory

Lawrence Kohlberg’s interest in moral decision making began with strong questions about why the German citizenry did not protest Nazi atrocities committed against Jewish and other minority Page 509  |  Top of Articlepopulations during the 1930s and 1940s. With colleagues at Harvard University, this inquiry later expanded to a body of research and theory on the broader realm of moral decision making, or individual perceptions of justice, responsibility, fairness, and right courses of actions. This work is most noted for conceptualizing moral decision making according to a series of developmental stages that evolve to varying degrees over the course of a lifetime.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is consistent with both ego and cognitive psychology. With psychodynamic ego developmental psychologists (e.g., Jane Loevinger), Kohlberg shared the notion that the ego becomes more mature with age. With cognitive psychologists (e.g., Jean Piaget), his writings held that the structure of one’s reasoning or thought processes is fairly consistent across situations. Thus, if one type of moral decision (e.g., whether to steal) is viewed in self-serving, instrumental ways, other decisions will be justified in a similar manner. Piaget and Kohlberg also asserted that these cognitive templates (of sorts) changed with the evolution of one’s perspective-taking abilities. Piaget’s work, however, focused upon children, whereas Kohlberg’s developmental perspective extended across the life span. The development theorists mentioned above shared the following notions of stages of cognitive or ego development:

  1. Development involves changes in cognitive structures or qualitative patterns of cognition. Structures also have been referred to as stages, levels, types, and so on; and they range in complexity from concrete (good or bad; black or white) to very complex reasoning patterns, where the decision maker may “walk around a situation,” seeing it from the perspective of others, trying to resolve it for the good of most individuals involved, or trying to understand what the decision would be absent any self-interest.
  2. Development occurs through an invariant sequence of stages which is the same for all persons.
  3. Development occurs along a continuum in which the structures become increasingly more differentiated and complex.
  4. Stages are clustered wholes. The underlying logic used in forming perceptions and making choices, in other words, appears to be similar across situations. Although the subject of the actual choices may differ, the structure of the cognitive processes is the same across situations.
  5. Stages are hierarchical integrations. Individuals comprehend all stages below their functional level of moral judgment.
  6. Development can cease at any point along a continuum of stages. Therefore, individuals differ from one another according to the complexity of their reasoning, and theoretically, a cross-section of the population would show a distribution of persons at all stages.

Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development dealt with a narrow component of ego and cognitive development, the hierarchical sequence of structures relating to moral decision making. On this continuum, there are three levels of reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level comprises two stages. A brief overview of the stage characteristics follows.

I. Pre-Conventional Reasoning

Stage 1. Moral decision making involves blind obedience to authority in order to avoid punishment, defer to power or prestige, avoid trouble, or obtain rewards. The interests of other individuals are not recognized.

Stage 2. A “right” course of action at this stage is predicated upon such instrumental considerations as the avoidance of punishment and the furtherance of one’s own self-interests. The attainment of these objectives, however, engages one in exchanges and deals with other persons. Thus, others are important only in an instrumental sense, as parties to such a deal.

II. Conventional Reasoning

Stage 3. Moral reasoning is internally motivated by loyalty to other people and by a desire to live up to what is expected by significant others. Reasoning at this stage reflects an application of the Golden Rule philosophy.

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Stage 4. Decisions reflect a desire to maintain such social institutions as the family, the community, and the country as social systems. The roles and rules of these systems are important for their function in maintaining such systems.

III. Post-Conventional Reasoning

Stage 5. Moral reasoning adheres to the utilitarian notion of a social contract or the need to weigh certain rights, values, and legal principles against the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Sometimes these considerations may override respect for laws and social conventions.

Stage 6. Such ethical principles of justice as the right to life and respect for the dignity of other persons as ends rather than means are used to generate moral decisions. These principles are maintained to exist in a consistent and universal manner that is exclusive of laws or circumstances.

Followers have changed these stages somewhat. James Rest developed a four-component model. John Gibbs, Arnold Goldstein, and Barry Glick utilized more simplified versions to better accommodate use of the theory in correctional environments.

Research Evidence

A large body of research supporting the implications of the theory emerged during the late 1970s and 1980s. For example, the stages were found to be relevant to (1) one’s thought processes in deciding whether and under what circumstances police officers should use deadly force (Scharf et al., 1979); (2) disapproval of the Watergate conspirators (Candee, 1975); (3) justifications for capital punishment (Kohlberg & Elsenbein, 1981); (4) decisions regarding when to disobey the authority of a commanding officer (Candee, 1976). Theological scholars later explored the theory’s relevance to personal conceptualizations of faith and spirituality (Fowler, 1981; Marion, 2000). Most of these studies placed special focus on the higher stages of moral judgment, and found that individuals at the higher stages, usually stage 5, were more likely than those at lower stages to support actions which were more consistent with the rights and well-being of others. Moreover, individuals assessed at higher stages tended to support such principled stances, even in situations that provided no incentive or perhaps even punished one for doing so.

The relevance of moral development theory to the criminal acts of adult and juvenile offenders attended little to the behavior and cognitions of those at the higher stages of the moral development continuum. Across studies, offenders were typically found to be at least one stage lower in their moral reasoning than non-offenders. Juvenile delinquents were predominately found to be assessed at stage 2, or in a transition point between stages 2 and 3; as such their viewpoints were predominated by world views associated with egocentric perspective taking, exploitive relationships with others, and limited considerations for conventional norms.

Research on a group of adult offenders ordered by courts to pay financial restitution to their victims found that many were assessed to be at lower stages of moral judgment. Even so, it also reported that the demarcation between those classified at stage 3 and above and those at lower stages was meaningful. Thus, individuals at stage 3 and higher were significantly more likely to value restitution as a vehicle of reparation; for this higher-staged group, restitution assuaged guilt and restored the ethical imbalance between victim and offender. When asked to define what their restitution meant to them, offenders classified at stages 1 and 2 tended to see it as “a deal,” one which brought them a lesser sentence; victims were seldom mentioned. Patricia Van Voorhis found that offenders assessed at higher stages were significantly more likely to successfully reimburse their victims. Implications of such findings appear to be highly relevant to restorative justice programs, according to Lois Presser and Van Voorhis.

The relevance of stages 1 and 2 to long-standing definitions of psychopathy was observed by Joan McCord. As noted in the stage descriptions above, the pre-conventional level of moral judgment does not describe any internalized concern for others. Behaviors and thought processes reflect a very concrete and hedonistic perspective for rewards and punishments and a self-centered approach to “what’s in it for me.” These traits fit the psychopathic characteristics put forward by Hervey Cleckley, David Lykken, and others.

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Current Application of Moral Development Theory

Although the moral development perspective was supported by many empirical studies, the popularity of the theory was later supplanted by social learning, cognitive-behavioral, and neurological approaches to criminal behavior. Kohlberg and his associates maintained that development in moral reasoning occurred through exposure to environments that challenge existing ways of thinking, as when adherence to an ancient creed simply does not help us to cope with a new experience or when the well-reasoned challenge of another individual causes us to re-evaluate our definitions of events. This is not inconsistent with social learning theories that maintain that individuals learn by imitating and being reinforced or punished by others in social situations or being consistently parented by good role models with an understanding for role modeling, monitoring, and contingencies. Moreover, this learning process extends to the learning of cognitions and cognitive processes. Although more recent social learning and cognitive-behavioral theorists might see thinking patterns as more malleable than Kohlberg, neurological and brain sciences would surely go far toward formulating alternative explanations for cognitive stability.

The Kohlberg approach to moral reasoning was directly challenged by one of his associates, Carol Gilligan. In one of the earliest works of feminist psychology, Gilligan faulted Kohlberg and associates for a biased account of the moral development of females. Other works in psychology, medicine, sociology, and education have certainly been faulted for a similar shortcoming, but Gilligan most effectively called attention to the fact that Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, the stages of moral development, and all of the treatment implications that followed from it were based upon studies of boys and generalized to girls with little to no research support. She then showed in a study of university women that in contrast to men, women maintained a focus on relationships throughout the developmental continuum of three stages. The latter two, in particular, find women and girls very focused upon their relationships with others but in earlier stages caring and concern for others overshadows women’s sense of responsibility to themselves. By the final stage, the self and responsibility to the self is reintegrated with responsibility and caring for others. According to Gilligan, women in this final stage of development were acutely focused on their relationships, but also recognize that they cannot be responsible or caring toward others without taking care of themselves.

While one looks hard to find ongoing scholarship regarding moral development as a theory of crime causation, the same cannot be said for its use in correctional treatment. The Center for Moral Education at Harvard University formulated the Just Community approach during the early 1970s and applied it primarily to schoolchildren. Writings on moral development asserted that exposure to fair and participatory environments promoted moral development. For that reason, the Just Community interventions provided children exposure to the prosocial moral reasoning of others. Group discussions typically centered on a moral dilemma. The moral dilemmas may seem familiar. The lifeboat dilemma posed questions about what should be done when only a few passengers in an overcrowded lifeboat had any chance of surviving. The Heinz dilemma discussed the permissibility of stealing in order to save someone’s life. Facilitators carefully guided discussions so that individuals exchanged viewpoints with those at closely contiguous stages of moral reasoning. Dilemmas could also be structured to reflect actual dilemmas experienced by the group or descriptive of their school environment.

The Just Community interventions were also implemented in prisons, such as the Connecticut Reformatory and the Niantic Connecticut State Farm for Women and the Florida Department of Youth Services. Modest reductions in recidivism were observed along with more positive reactions to the correctional environment compared to those indicated by members of various comparison groups. Measured changes in moral judgment stage, however, seldom surpassed one-half stage, a finding that caused one of the authors to opine that it is very difficult to change entrenched structures of reasoning.

Far apart from the philosophical and psychological characteristics of how individuals at stage 5 might be superior to those at stage 4, the most important goal of the correctional Just Community interventions was to try to achieve growth from Page 512  |  Top of Articlestage 2, pre-conventional reasoning, to the conventional reasoning of at least stage 3. Stage 3 is important, because adherence to empathic orientations begin there, as does an internalized value system and a conscience (as opposed to an external locus of control).

This goal continues in more recent applications of moral development theory to correctional interventions. Current applications of moral education use the moral discussion groups and the Kohlberg developmental theory in multimodal approaches, combined with other cognitive-behavioral or social learning components. For example, vestiges of the Just Community approaches are also seen in popular anger management programs. In Arnold Goldstein’s Aggression Replacement Training (ART), for example, use of the moral dilemmas in discussion groups in conjunction with other approaches recognizes that the moral education groups add an important values-based component to the cognitive skills and cognitive restructuring programs. ART moves through a serious of exercises to develop social skills and skills for coping with anger-provoking stimuli, but relies on the moral development component to build prosocial values. Values are internalized and with individuals on a consistent basis. Learned behaviors and cognitions, on the other hand, are vulnerable to the competing rewards associated with criminal behavior. Goldstein and Glick contend that because crime is so rewarding, one might be more likely to use a new prosocial skill if it is supported by an internalized moral argument (or conscience).


Kohlberg’s theory of moral development put forward a series of six stages describing a developmental sequence of reasoning patterns for moral decision making. Subsequent research found empirical correspondence between assessed stages of moral development and attitudes toward a variety of moral decisions, including support for capital punishment, police officers’ use of deadly force, attitudes toward restitution, decisions to refuse to obey the orders of a commanding officer, and others.

Interest in offenders centered primarily on the juncture in the stage sequence that differentiates those with evidence of an internalized locus of control (stage 3 and above) from more self-centered perspectives associated with an externalized locus of control. This interest forms the foundation for a number of popular cognitive-behavioral offender therapies, including ART (an anger management program) and Moral Reconation Therapy. Both have shown treatment effects with the offender population.

Ongoing interest in the theory’s ability to explain offender behavior appears to be waning. The theory appears to have been supplanted by other cognitive-behavioral and neurological perspectives.

Patricia Van Voorhis

References and Further Readings

Akers, R. L. (1998). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2006). The psychology of criminal conduct (4th ed.). Newark, NJ: Anderson.

Bandura, A. (1979). The social learning perspective: Mechanisms of aggression. In H. Toch (Ed.), Psychology of crime and criminal justice (pp. 198–236). New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston.

Candee, D. (1975). The moral psychology of Watergate. Journal of Social Issues, 31, 183–192.

Candee, D. (1976). Structure and choice in moral reasoning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34,1294–1304.

Cleckley, H. (1976). The mask of sanity. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of faith. New York: HarperCollins.

Gilligan, C. (1986). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goldstein, A., & Glick, B. (1998). Aggression replacement training: A comprehensive intervention for aggressive youth (Rev. ed.). Champaign, IL: Research Press.

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Hickey, J., & Scharf, P. (1980). Toward a just correctional system. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jennings, W., Kilkenny, R., & Kohlberg, L. (1983). Moral development theory and practice for youthful and adult offenders. In W. Laufer & J. Day (Eds.), Personality theory, moral development (pp. 281–355). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Killen, M., & Smetana, J. (2006). Handbook of moral development. Hillsdale, NJ: Psychology Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive developmental approach to socialization. In D. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 347–480). Chicago: Rand McNally.

Kohlberg, L., & Elsenbein, D. (1981). Capital punishment, moral development, and the constitution. In L. Kohlberg (Ed.), The philosophy of moral development (pp. 243–293). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Kohlberg, L., Wasserman, E., & Richardson, N. (1975). The just community school: The theory and the Cambridge cluster school experiment. In L. Kohlberg (Ed.), Collected papers on moral development and moral education (Vol. 2, pp. 215–259). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Laufer, J., & Day, M. (1983). Personality theory, moral development and criminal behavior. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Loevinger, J. (1966). The meaning and measurement of ego development. American Psychologist, 21, 195–217.

Lykken, D. (1995). The antisocial personalities. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Marion, J. (2000). Putting on the mind of Christ. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

McCord, J. (1983). The psychopath and moral development. In W. Laufer & J. Day (Eds.), Personality theory, moral development and criminal behavior (pp. 357–371). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Meichenbaum, D. (1977). Cognitive-behavioral modification: An integrative approach. New York: Plenum Press.

Minzenberg, M., & Siever, L. (2006). Neurochemistry and pharmacology of psychopathy and related disorders. In C. Patrick (Ed.), Handbook of psychopathy (pp. 251–277). New York: Guilford.

Patterson, G. (1982). A social learning approach: Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.

Piaget, J. (1948). The moral judgment of the child. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Presser, L., & Van Voorhis, P. (2002). Values and evaluation: Assessing processes and outcomes of restorative justice programs. Crime and Delinquency, 48, 162–188.

Raine, A. (1993). The psychopathology of crime: Criminal behavior as a clinical disorder. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Scharf, P., Linninger, R., & Marrero, D. (1979). The use of deadly force by police officers in a democratic society. In F. Meyer & R. Baker (Eds.), Determinants of law enforcement policies (pp. 87–98). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Sullivan, C., Grant, M., & Grant, D. (1957). The development of interpersonal maturity: An application to delinquency. Psychiatry, 20, 373–385.

Van Voorhis, P. (1985). Restitution outcomes and probationers’ assessments of restitution: The effects of moral development. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 12, 259–287.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Voorhis, Patricia Van. "Kohlberg, Lawrence: Moral Development Theory." Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory, edited by Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox, vol. 1, SAGE Reference, 2010, pp. 508-513. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1923700151

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  • Aggression Replacement Training (ART)
    • 1: 512
  • Cleckley, Hervey
  • Cognitive development
  • Cultural deviance
  • Delinquency
    • social sources
      • 1: 513-516
  • Deviance
    • cultural factors
      • 1: 513
  • Gibbs, John
  • Gilligan, Carol
  • Glick, Barry
    • 1: 510
    • 1: 512
  • Goldstein, Arnold
    • 1: 510
    • 1: 512
  • Just Community
    • 1: 511
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence: moral development theory
    • current applications
      • 1: 511-512
    • research evidence
      • 1: 510
    • stages
      • 1: 509-510
  • Kornhauser, Ruth Rosner: Social Sources of Delinquency
    • overview
      • 1: 513-514
  • Loevinger, Jane
    • 1: 509
  • Lykken, David
  • McCord, Joan
  • Moral development
  • Moral Reconation Therapy
    • 1: 512
  • Piaget, Jean
  • Presser, Lois
  • Rehabilitation
    • applications of moral development theory
      • 1: 511-512
  • Rest, James
    • 1: 510
  • Van Voorhis, Patricia
  • Women