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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Psychology (Year 12) - Developmental Psychology

Jessica Pratt

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development. The development of morality refers to the gradual onset of an individual’s concept of right or wrong. A moral dilemma assesses this concept, where they are a social issue met with more than two solutions. They are open to judgement of the individual. In this, Kohlberg focused on the individual’s reasoning instead of overt behaviours.

Similar to many theories in developmental psychology, Kohlberg’s theory is a stage theory, meaning that everyone progresses through a sequential set of stages without skipping. Movement between stages occurs when a person notices inadequacies in their current level of reasoning. An individual also cannot understand a level of reasoning greater than the reasoning they have at their current level.

Kohlberg’s Methodology

The most famous of Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas is often referred to as “Heinz Dilemma”, concerning a man called Heinz that lived in Europe. The dilemma was read as follows:

"In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?" (Kohlberg, 1963).

Heinz asked the participant several questions:

  • Should Heinz have stolen the drug?

  • Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?

  • What if a person dying was a stranger, would it make any difference?

  • Should the police arrest the chemist for murder if the woman died?

In his study, Kohlberg studied responses to the moral dilemma and these questions from children of varying ages. His sample was composed of 72 boys from Chicago that were between 10 and 16 years old. 58 participants completed follow up studies in three-year intervals for twelve years.

The stages that Kohlberg composed are as follows:


  • Shweder (1991) concluded that it did not provide reasoning for those with a sophisticated understanding of their own culture - Hindu dharma forbids stealing under all circumstances

  • Gilligan (1982) believed that it only reflected male morality, stating that females are raised to be responsible and nurturing, rather than being achievement oriented.

  • Santrock (1999) stated that Kohlberg’s study did not consider cultural variation - Santrock studied Buddhist monks living in Nepal who based their reasoning on compassion and limiting suffering, rather than gaining justice

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