What Are the Six Stages of Moral Reasoning?

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Lawrence Kohlberg, a cognitive-developmental psychologist and a close follower of Jean Piaget, proposed a three-level, six-stage theory of moral reasoning development. Piaget's theory on moral reasoning development had only two stages. According to Dr. Thomas Lickona, Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning development begin at preschool age and continue into adulthood.

Piaget's Levels of Moral Reasoning

  • Piaget's theory on moral reasoning categorized development into two levels. The first level, says W.C. Crain in "Theories of Development," is found in children younger than 10 or 11 years of age. These children view rules as fixed. They believe that the rules are handed down by an authority figure and cannot be changed. In level two, the older children view rules as changeable. Older children begin to see moral reasoning as interactions between people.

Kohlberg's First Level: Pre-Conventional Moral Reasoning

  • The first stage in Kohlberg's level one is the obedience and punishment stage. This first level of moral development often is seen in preschool, most elementary and some junior high school students, say T.M. McDevitt and J.E. Ormrod, authors of "Kohlberg's Three Levels and Six Stages of Moral Reasoning." In this stage, McDevitt and Ormrod say children "obey rules only if established by more powerful individuals."

    In the second stage of pre-conventional moral reasoning development, identified as individualism and exchange, individuals realize that people have differing viewpoints. People in this stage of moral reasoning development see actions as an exchange for favors.

Kohlberg's Second Level: Conventional Moral Reasoning

  • McDevitt and Ormond identify the second level of moral reasoning, or conventional morality, as occurring in some elementary children, some junior high school students and many high school students. In stage three, called good interpersonal relationships, people behave in a way to live up to the expectations of others, says Crain. The completion of Kohlberg's stage three is similar to Piaget's transition to his second level of moral reasoning development.

    In stage four, maintaining the social order, people look to society for making decisions on right and wrong. Rules are necessary to keep order in society.

Kohlberg's Third Level: Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning

  • The third level of moral reasoning development, according to McDevitt and Ormrod, is seldom seen before individuals reach college age. In stage five of moral reasoning development, labeled social contract and individual rights, individuals seek to keep society running smoothly, yet people also recognize that rules can and will be changed.

    The sixth and final stage of moral reasoning development, called universal principles, is rarely seen, even in adults. According to McDevitt and Ormrod, people in this stage of development, "answer to a strong inner conscience and willingly disobey laws that violate their own ethical principals." In this stage, according to Crain, justice is defined. Kohlberg's idea of justice utilized ideas from great philosophers such as Kant and Rawls. In stage six, when a person makes a moral decision, it is important to look at the situation from another's viewpoint.

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