Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Brief Overview

Kolhberg’s theory of moral development states that we progress through three levels of moral thinking that build on our cognitive development.

Printable Summary (PDF)

Previous cohorts of FSU students have developed these printable summaries and used them to prepare for test and papers.  We hope they’ll be of help to you too.


Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory

Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory:  

  • Cognitive component of moral behavior
  • Representing “the transformations that occur in a person’s form or structure of thought” (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977, p. 54) with regard to what is viewed as right or necessary.
  • Three Levels; Six Stages
  • Preconventional
    • Students are not concerned about social norms, unaware of social norms, individuals’ personal interest that matter
    • Stage 1: Heteronomous Morality
      • Follows the rules and does not harm others
      • Actions based on avoidance of punishment and superior authority
    • Stage 2: Individualistic, Instrumental Morality
      • Self-interest determine whether they follow rules
      • Understand others needs and interest and willing to compromise or agree
      • Focused on the “me” mentality but works to minimize the negative consequences
  • Conventional
    • More interaction with peers
    • Identify with rules and expectations
    • Students become more socially aware, happen before they get to college but many of the students are struggling in the third and fourth stage
    • Stage 3: Interpersonally Normative Morality
      • Meeting expectations of appropriate social roles
      • Concern with making sure they maintain the “good person” view
      • Generalized social perspective does not exist
    • Stage 4: Social System Morality
      • Viewed consistent set of rules and procedures for all people
      • “Right is defined as upholding the laws established by society and carrying out the duties agreed on” (p. 104).
      • Behavior maintains the system and social obligations
  • Postconventional or Principled
    • Individuals make their own choices, understanding the views of other people but make their own decisions
    • Stage 5: Humans Rights and Social Welfare Morality
      • “Promote fundamental human rights and values” (Evans et al., p. 104).
      • “Freely entered social contract to protect members’ rights and ensure the welfare of all” (Evans et al., p.104).
      • Agreements determine the obligations of relationships of the individual
    • Stage 6: Morality of Universalizable, Reversible, and Prescriptive General Ethical Principles
      • Morality focuses on the equal consideration of others in all aspects in the situation
      • Actions and decisions are based on generally accepted principles of all situations (i.e. equality for mankind/human rights)
      • Typically not reached by students


Application of Theory to Practice

This section is designed to provide student affairs professionals, staff, and faculty members with tips and tools to apply theory to practice.

Annotations of Associated Literature

Annotations listed below are associated with the author’s original work to provided a more in-depth look at the theory.



Original Citation

Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development: Vol. 1. The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into practice16(2), 53-59.

Additional Resources

This page was written and created by Stephen Dominy. The webpage is maintained by Amanda Peerce and Jesse Ford.  For information on the page, please contact Amanda Peerce at apeerce@fsu.edu or Jesse Ford at jford3@fsu.edu.