Moral Development Theory


Kohlberg's Theory


One’s evolving sense of morality

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-influenced interpretations of prior construals
  • Learner is … a transforming individual
  • Learning is … construing and reconstruing
  • Teaching is … occasioning, prompting, triggering, listening




Proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg, Moral Development Theory is constructed on the foundation of Cognitive Developmentalisms, positing distinct stages in the emergence of one’s moral judgment. At lower levels, self is at the center and decisions are made on the basis of external considerations, such as threats of punishment or expectations of tit-for-tat. Social considerations arise at middle levels, which are guided by senses of good/bad and feelings of responsibility. Higher levels are oriented by societal, environmental, and other broad concerns, guided by moral principles that are widely applicable:
  • Preconventional Level (Preconventional Morality) – in Moral Development Theory, the first level of moral reasoning, subdivided into two stages: “Punishment and Obedience Orientation” (when moral action is equated with avoiding punishment), and “Naïve Hedonism” (or “Instrumental Relativist Orientation,” when moral action is equated with obtaining rewards and/or serving one’s needs)
  • Conventional Level (Conventional Morality) – in Moral Development Theory, the second level of moral reasoning, subdivided into two stages: “Interpersonal Concordance” (or “Good-Boy-Nice-Girl Orientation,” when moral action is equated with pleasing others and obtaining approval), and “Law-and-Order Orientation” (or “Authority and Social Order Maintaining Orientation,” when moral action is equated with respecting authority and fulfilling obligations)
  • Postconventional Level (Postconventional Morality) – in Moral Development Theory, the third level of moral reasoning, subdivided into two stages: “Social Contract Orientation” (when moral action is equated with an embrace of mutuality, social obligation, and democratic ideals), and “Ethical Principle Orientation” (when moral action is equated with abiding by ethical standards that one has consciously and deliberately selected)
Importantly, while Kohlberg's model is the one most often associated with the title of Moral Development Theory, others have been proposed that occupy similar conceptual space, including:
  • Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – a stage-based model of the emergence of one’s sense of morality, progressing from “Premoral Stage” (under age 5; difficulty distinguishing right from wrong), through “Heteronomous Stage” (ages 6 to 10; morality interpreted in terms of rules systems and the consequences associated with transgressing those rules), to “Autonomous Stage” (after age 10; aware that rules are flexible human creations; recognizes that motive, not rules or punishment, is the basis of moral action).
  • Adolescent Spiritual Development (Joseph Moore, 2010s) – a three-stage, psycho-educational model designed to support the spiritual development of teens. The model is based in Christian belief, but can be readily adapted other religions and conceptions of spirituality: Purgative Stage (exposing and overcoming false senses of self, self-esteem issues, defense mechanisms, etc.); Illuminative Stage (moving from self-preoccupation to an awareness of and attentiveness to higher power or order of being); Unitive Stage (developing and maintaining a sense of unity with a higher power or order of being)


Since Moral Development Theory is based on Cognitive Developmentalisms (specifically, Jean Piaget's Stage Theory of Cognitive Development), it is subject to the same sorts of criticisms. Moral Development Theory has been especially criticized for gendered and classist assumptions rooted in its original research population of undergraduate males at prominent universities. Perhaps most condemningly, individual persons can demonstrate remarkable diversity in the moral judgments – and so, while such theories might offer typographies of moral decisions, it may be inappropriate to leap from “types” of morality to “stages.”

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Lawrence Kohlberg; Carol Gilligan

Status as a Theory of Learning

As with most Developmental Discourses, Moral Developmental Theory can be construed as a theory of learning, insofar as it offers insight into the emergence of moral judgment.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Moral Developmental Theory is not a theory of teaching, but versions have been used to inform programs intended to support social development among learners. With the growing embrace of collective-based teaching structures over the past few decades, versions of the theory have risen to considerable prominence in some educational contexts.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Moral Development Theory is anchored to a significant evidence base, but subject to diverse – and, some argue, incompatible – interpretations. It also sits in a shadow of unresolved accusations around its research subjects (see “Commentary,” above).


  • Adolescent Spiritual Development
  • Conventional Level (Conventional Morality)
  • Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development
  • Postconventional Level (Postconventional Morality)
  • Preconventional Level (Preconventional Morality)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Moral Development Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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