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Study Notes

Kohlberg (1968)

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The Child as a Moral Philosopher. Area – Developmental Psychology.

Background and aim: Motivated by Piaget’s theory of moral development, Kohlberg gradually developed his own ideas and suggested that we have three levels of moral thinking and within each of these levels there are two related stages. The first level is Pre-conventional which is made up of 1. Punishment and obedience orientation (avoidance of punishment) and 2. Instrumental-relativist orientation (based on what is rewarding). The second level is Conventional and is made up of 3. Good boy-good girl orientation (pleasing others) and 4. Law and order orientation (following rules). Post-conventional is the final level and consists of 5. Social contract orientation (agreed by society) and 6. Universal principles orientation (own principles). The aim of the study was to see if there was evidence to support his theory of moral development.

Method: Kohlberg conducted a longitudinal study over a period of 12 years. During this time in order to test moral reasoning he gave 75 young American males a series of hypothetical and philosophical moral dilemmas in the form of short stories. The participants were aged 10-16 years old at the start of the study and were aged 22-28 by the end. Kohlberg compared the males from the USA to those from Canada, the UK, Mexico, Turkey and Taiwan. Examples of the moral dilemmas included – for 10 year olds: “Is it better to save the life of one important person or a lot of unimportant people?”and at ages 13, 16, 20 and 24: “Should the doctor ‘mercy kill’ a fatally ill woman requesting death because of her pain?”

Results: Participants progressed through the stages as they got older. Some participants had not reached the final stage of moral development by the end of the study. At around 50% of each of the six stages, a participant’s thinking was at a single stage, regardless of the moral dilemma involved. Stages were always passed through stage by stage and in the fixed order and the participants never went back to a previous stage. For example, no stage 4 adults had previously been through Stage 6, but all Stage 6 adults had passed through at least Stage 4. Kohlberg also found when children are confronted with the views of a child one stage further along, they seemed to prefer this next stage and to move forward.

The following cross-cultural findings were observed: Taiwanese boys aged 10-13 tended to give ‘classic’ Stage-2 responses. Middle-class urban boys aged 10 in the USA, Taiwan and Mexico showed the order of each stage to be the same as the order of its difficulty or maturity. 16 year old Americans had rarely advanced to stage 6 and at age 13 stage 3 had not been used. At the age of 16, Stage 5 thinking was more prevalent in the USA than either Mexico or Taiwan – this stage was reached by participants in these two countries at a later age.

Middle-class children were found to be more advanced in moral judgement than matched lower-class children. No significant differences were found in the development of moral thinking between Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or atheists.

Conclusions: Findings from this study agree with Kohlberg’s 6-stage theory. Moral development is invariant, individuals go through the stages one at a time and they are in a fixed order, but some Individuals may not reach the final stage. He also concluded that the order of stages is universal across all cultures. However, middle-class children move more quickly and further through the stages compared to working-class children. Finally, development through stages of moral development is not significantly influenced by social, cultural or religious differences, although the speed at which individuals progress through the stages is affected by these conditions.


Research Method: As Kohlberg carried out a longitudinal study, he could see clear changes in moral development over time. However, a problem with this type of study is attrition. This is where participants may drop out of the study for a number of reasons including losing touch with the researcher or losing interest in the study. This could result in a biased sample, as only a certain type of person may want to continue participating in a study for 12 years.

Validity: Kohlberg’s study lacks ecological validity as they had to say what they would do in a hypothetical moral dilemma. If faced with a real life situation their response may be different; therefore, there are issues with generalisability of the findings. Responses given may also lack validity as participants may want to appear as more moral to impress the researcher – social desirability bias - or respond in a way they think the researcher wants them to – demand characteristics.

Sampling Bias: This was a large sample of 75 Americans and their results were compared to different cultures. This is a strength as it gives the study high population validity. However, as only males were used the study is androcentric; we cannot assume that girls’ moral development is the same way as boys’.

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