What Are Kohlberg’s Stages of Adolescent Moral Development?

Building on Piaget’s theory of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg established three levels of moral development, including pre-conventional morality, conventional morality and post-conventional morality, explains SimplyPsychology.org. Each level has two stages, with obedience and punishment orientation at one end of the spectrum and universal principles at the other.

Pre-conventional morality applies to children around age 9 and younger and involves an obedience and punishment orientation as well as individualism and exchange, SimplyPsychology.org reports. At this point, morality follows the expectations of adults and the results of adhering to or disobeying adult rules. During the first stage, a child avoids negative repercussions by following rules, concluding that a punished person must have done something wrong. In the second stage, a child develops the understanding that different people hold different perspectives, and there is not merely one right way of doing things.

Conventional morality, marked by the stages of solid interpersonal relationships and maintenance of the social order, applies to the majority of adolescents and adults, notes SimplyPsychology.org. At this point, people begin internalizing the values of significant adults and follow the mores of the community to which they belong. During stage 3, adolescents behave a certain way to receive approval from others, and stage 4 involves a person recognizing larger social norms and following them in order to avoid guilt or legal consequences.

According to Kohlberg, only 10 to 15 percent of people achieve post-conventional morality. In stage 5, individuals recognize the contradiction of some rules and react accordingly, whereas stage 6 involves developing a moral code that may or may not adhere to the law, explains SimplyPsychology.org.