Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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3 Stage Theories of Development #2

Stages of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg’s
Stages of Moral Development constitute an adaptation of a psychological model originally conceived of by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1932). Kohlberg, while a Psychology postgraduate student at the University of Chicago, expanded Piaget’s concepts and then developed them throughout the course of his life.

The theory holds that moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behaviour, has 6 identifiable developmental stages, the thinking at each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor. Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgement far beyond the ages studied earlier by Piaget who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages. Expanding on Piaget’s work, Kohlberg (1963) determined that the process of moral development was principally concerned with justice and that it continued throughout the individual’s lifetime – a notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of such research. Kohlberg also took the concept beyond Piaget’s model in that he allowed for moral development to be influenced by aspects of the social environment such as what other people might say. (Piaget limited moral development to the effects of the individual’s own active self-discovery.)

Kohlberg’s methodology used the Moral Judgement Interview he had first developed for his 1958 dissertation with 72 boys aged between 10 and 16, both working class and middle class, in Chicago. During the roughly 2-hour tape recorded semi-structured interview, the interviewer uses 10 moral dilemmas to determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The 10 universal moral issues or values Kohlberg used are property, law, roles and concerns of affection, roles and concerns of authority, life, liberty, distributive justice, truth and sex. The dilemmas are fictional short stories that describe situations in which a person has to make a moral decision, choosing between 2 (or more) moral principles. The participant is asked a systemic series of open-ended questions about what they think the right course of action is, as well as justifications as to why certain actions are right or wrong. The form and structure of these replies are scored, not the content; over a set of multiple moral dilemmas an overall score is derived. In differentiating the what sort of moral judgements (form and structure) we make from what moral judgements (content), Kohlberg very much reflects the difference between vMEMES and memes/schemas found in the Gravesian approach.

Graphic copyright © 2001 Psychology Press Ltd

Graphic copyright © 2001 Psychology Press Ltd

Kohlberg was interested in how individuals would justify their actions if placed in such moral dilemmas. He analysed the form of moral reasoning displayed and classified it as belonging to one of 6 distinct stages generally grouped into 3 levels of 2 stages each: Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional – see graphic above. An individual‘s reasoning on each dilemma might be at a different level but overall their reasoning tended to be at one discrete level. Kohlberg stated that stages cannot be skipped; each provides a new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them. It represents a more equilibriated form of moral reasoning, resulting in more logically consistent reasoning. Moral maturity is achieved through biological maturation, disequilibrium (noticing weaknesses in current thinking) and gains in perspective taking (understanding another’s viewpoint). Due to these factors, Kohlberg thought it extremely rare to regress backward in stages – to lose the use of higher stage abilities.

Progress through the stages happens as a result of the individual’s increasing competence, both psychologically and in balancing conflicting social-value claims. The process of resolving conflicting claims to reach an equilibrium is called ‘justice operation’. Kohlberg identifies 2 of these justice operations:-

  • equality which involves an impartial regard for persons
  • reciprocity which means a regard for the role of personal merit

For Kohlberg, the most adequate result of both operations is reversibility, in which a moral or dutiful act within a particular situation is evaluated in terms of whether or not the act would be satisfactory even if particular persons were to switch roles within that situation (also known colloquially as ‘moral musical chairs’).

Graphic courtesy of Lucidish

Graphic courtesy of Lucidish

Knowledge and learning contribute to moral development. Specifically important are the individual’s ‘view of persons’ and their ‘social perspective level’, each of which becomes more complex and mature with each advancing stage – see graphic left. The ‘view of persons can be understood as the individual’s grasp of the psychology of other persons; it may be pictured as a spectrum, with Stage 1 having no view of other persons at all and Stage 6 being entirely sociocentric. Similarly, the ‘social perspective level’ involves the understanding of the social universe, differing from the view of persons in that it involves an appreciation of social norms.

It is important to note that Kohlberg (1981; 1984; Lawrence Kohlberg & Clark Power, 1981) speculated there might be a seventh level of morality – Transcendental Morality (equivalent to TURQUOISE) – demonstrated by a few exceptional individuals such as Mother Teresa. However, Kohlberg withdrew the speculation in 1987 (Lawrence Kohlberg & Anne Colby) for lack of evidence – he couldn’t even find a statistically-significant sample to be confident of Stage 6!

2 Key criticisms of Kohlberg
Kohlberg’s model, as providing additional insight into the Gravesian approach, is evaluated in general in the pages on vMEMES.

However, there are 2 key discussion points which are more or less specific to Kohlberg’s work and so should be explored here.

The first key criticism of Kohlberg’s theory is that it emphasises justice to the exclusion of other values and so may not adequately address the arguments of those who value other moral aspects of actions. Carol Gilligan (1977), Kohlberg’s one-time assistant, has stated that his theory is overly androcentric. She argues that it does not adequately describe the concerns of women who have a morality of care while men have a morality of justice.

The participants in Kolberg’s original research were, of course, all male and he assumed that the model he developed from that research applied equally to females. Thus, when he (Lawrence Kohlberg & Richard Kramer) reported in 1969, from further research, that females were mostly at Stage 3 and males at Stage 4, he attributed this discrepancy to women living mainly in the home rather than any flaw in the model or his methodology. Other researchers, such as Constance Holstein (1976) found the same discrepancy – boys’ scores clustering around  Stage 4 while girls lagged at Stage 3.

Gilligan proposed that research should not only take female concerns into account but should also consider moral decisions in ‘real life’ – rather than simply asking about hypothetical decisions. The emphasis on real life decisions was for greater ecological validity.

Gilligan (1982) interviewed 29 women aged between 15 and 33 who were deciding whether or not to have an abortion, having been referred to the project through a counselling agency. She analysed the interviews and concluded that people rely on 2 different moral injunctions:-

  • justice – not to treat others unfairly
  • care – not to turn away from someone in need

From this research, Gilligan developed her own stage theory – see table below.


Gilligan claims that socialisation emphasises different characteristics for boys and girls, with boys being socialised towards independence and  achievement and girls towards nurturing and responsibility. Accordingly, Gilligan reasons, males tend to be classified at Stage 4 of Kohlberg’s model as they emphasise fairness and maintaining social order. However, girls, responding to the expectations, feelings and needs of those around them, are classified as Stage 3 when they are, in fact, showing a ‘care’ moral orientation.

In a second important piece of research Gilligan (Carol Gilligan & Jane Attanucci, 1988) undertook a study of 80 males and females from various walks of life, aged from 14 to 77.  They were individually asked a set of questions about moral conflict and choice. Their answers were categorised as ‘care only’, ‘care focus’, ‘care justice’, ‘justice focus’ or ‘justice only’. The results showed 3 times as many men gave ‘justice only’ answers and 12 times as many women ‘care only’.

Support for Gilligan comes from Lance Garmon et al (1996) who tested over 500 participants and found females more likely to refer to care issues. Eva Skoe et al (2002) found men scored higher on justice reasoning when faced with real-life dilemmas while women scored higher on care reasoning when faced with the same dilemmas.

Gilligan (Carol Gilligan, Nona Lyons & Trudy Hanmer, 1990) attributes the differences in moral orientation between the genders to boys separating relatively early from their mothers to develop a separate masculine identity. This heightens awareness of the gap in power between themselves and adults and thus they become concerned with fairness and equality. Girls, on the other hand, allowed to continue a strong attachment to their mother, are not so aware of such issues. Some support is provided for this viewpoint by Michael Pratt et al (1999) who report that a higher level of interconnectedness was found in children whose mother is more responsive to them.

However, research in this area far from supports Gilligan’s gender differentiation between morality of justice and morality of care.

Eg: Lawrence Walker (1984) reviewed 79 research studies (with 152 distinct samples and over 10,000 participants) that looked explicitly for gender differences in moral understanding, based on Kohlberg’s theory. In 31 studies of children only 6 found evidence for a significant difference between males and females, with females tending to score higher. In 35 studies of adolescents, 10 found evidence of a small but significant difference, with males tending to score higher. In 13 studies of adults, 4 found evidence of a small but significant gender difference, with males scoring higher. (However, the males were  better educated which might reduce the validity  of these findings.) Carrying out his own study (1989) over 2 years with 233 male and female participants aged from 5 to 63, assessing participants against both Kohlberg’s and Gilligan’s models, he found no significant difference in moral reasoning. Walker (1996) concluded that the nature of the dilemma was more likely to influence whether the response was to a ‘justice’ or ‘care’ orientation than was the gender of the responding person.

Sara Jaffee & Janet Hyde (2000) also conducted a meta-analysis, from which they found there was a small difference in orientation, with females being more concerned with care and males with justice. However, they concluded there was not enough empirical evidence to support the notion that the genders did have quite different approaches to moral responsibility.

An interesting twist in the gender differences debate Gilligan initiated comes from the work of Margaret Silberman & John Snarey (1993). From 190 American students aged 11.5 to 14 years and from a range of ethnic backgrounds, tested using Kolberg’s model, they, they found the majority were at Stages 2-3 but girls tended to score higher than boys. (The researchers argued that this might reflect girls in early adolescence being on average around 2 years ahead of boys in terms of physical and emotional maturity.)

Christina Hoff Sommers (2000) argues that Gilligan’s methodologies are too subjective and, therefore, subject to researcher bias. She requested that Gilligan’s 1982 data be made available to other researchers to review – though Gilligan has declined to do this on the grounds that the raw data was too sensitive to be seen by the public. Therefore, the studies would not be made available.

For all that the weight of evidence does not support Gilligan’s position sufficiently, Kevin Durkin (1995, p493) states that Gilligan’s “critical perspective did serve the purpose of  opening up the study of moral development  in important ways by broadening conceptions of what morality is and how it should be  measured.”

The second key discussion point is whether cognitive development must precede moral development, as originally postulated by Piaget.

Certainly Marvin Berkowitz & John Gibbs (1983) support Kohlberg’s attribution of the importance of cognitive operations, saying that the key to moral progression lies in such ‘transactive interactions’. Ken Wilber (2000; 2006) has asserted strongly in his All Quadrants/All Levels construct that the ‘cognitive line’ has to develop first for other ‘lines’, such as the ‘values line’ or the ‘morality line’, to develop.

However, the research in general is far from being uniformly supportive of this position. For example, both Gail Aimes & Frank Murray (1982) and Willem Doise et al (1981), in conservation experiments with young children, found that children under social and emotional pressure in relationship to their peers made the most progress in cognitive development.

Yet other psychologists have questioned the assumption that moral action is primarily a result of formal reasoning. Social intuitionists such as Jonathan Haidt (2001), for example, argue that individuals often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights or abstract ethical values. Thus, the arguments analysed by Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists could be considered post hoc rationalisations of intuitive decisions; moral reasoning may be less relevant to moral action than Kohlberg’s theory suggests. This argument could simply reflect the fact that each vMEME has its own natural sense of what is right and wrong – bearing in mind which memes it has been exposed to. Moreover, somebody high in the Psychoticism Dimension of Temperament would be far less likely to think about a situation – being far more likely to act impulsively. Mary Louise Arnold (2000)  has shown that the moral responses of participants are different if the situation presented involves helping someone else rather than meeting their own needs – yet this is to be expected if an individual’s vMEME stack is dominated more by self-expressive vMEMES rather than sacrifice-self/conformist vMEMES.



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2 Responses

  1. Keith E Rice says

    Well, if the idea of new vMEMES of increasing complexity emerging as you progress up the Spiral makes sense, Trey, then I guess we’re stuck with the hierarchy idea. To my knowledge, neither Graves nor Beck & Cowan allow for variations in the sequence of emergence – though Beck has allowed that some people ascend the Spiral with more of a preference for one side than the other. (In my book I theorise that this may be linked to one’s natural mooring on the Introvert/Extravert and Impulse-Control/Psychoticism Dimensions of Temperament.) However, Maslow did eventually admit (1970) that not everyone always went up the Hierarchy in exactly the same way.

    Certainly Evolutionary Psychology would allow that whatever strategy/capability would be adaptive would be the one which would develop. So while there might be a ‘standard’ way of ascending the Spiral/Hierarchy, theoretically, in extreme ‘Life Conditions’ it could be adaptive for vMEMES to emerge in a non-standard pattern.

    The search for Purpose/Meaning, I would suggest starts in a very basic way with humans in PURPLE – the attribution of characteristics to gods and/or supernatural beings – explodes complexity wise in BLUE and is also found in GREEN and, presumably, TURQUOISE. (All the ‘cool’ colours, it seems!) Maslow did look at this in his 1968 work on spirituality and religion but I don’t know enough of his work to know how much he applied that to the Hierarchy concept. Certainly it seems to be there in the Cognitive need to know and understand and is certainly there in his late (1971) acknowledged 8th level Transcendence.

    All the ‘warm’ colours seem capable of innovating – but especially one tends associate it with ORANGE. From what I know of Maslow, I would agree, innovation doesn’t seem to strongly attach as a concept to any one level.

    Charity, as a driver, seems to be an output primarily of GREEN – though it can also be enshrined as BLUE duty (the Christian giving of alms; the Muslim duty of Zakiah).

    The problem with Self-Actualisation, as I see it, is that both Maslow and Carl Rogers, without explicitly saying so, changed significantly what they mean by the term over time. Initially with both, it seemed to mean being all that you can be – Rogers sometimes called it ‘Full Function’. By 1956 Maslow’s 14 descriptors of Self-Actualisation read more like an abstracted, meta-way of thinking which sounds to me an awful lot like YELLOW. Graves (1971/2002, 1978/2005) certainly regarded ‘Maslow’s Self-Actualised man’ as thinking in G-T (YELLOW). I’ve attempted to address some of these issues around Self-Actualisation in

    Where there are discrepancies between Maslow and Graves, I usually take Graves over Maslow every time. Maslow, like Freud, was an inspired observer and theorist but Graves did the laborious, hands-on research. Even so, I tend to find Maslow much more descriptive of the 7th and 8th levels than Graves.

    Trey, does any of this help with your reservations about Maslow?

  2. Try Harris says

    I realize that in a lot of circles, questioning Maslow might seem like blasphemy. But I’m not in those circles, and I’d love to posit that Maslow’s model, while useful, is not complete and, in fact, is a bit misleading.

    (I’m rather new to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and came to it after my experience with Spiral Dynamics, so my understanding of it may be fundamentally flawed by viewing it through these spiral-colored glasses. Please keep this in mind as you read on!)

    I have a bit of an issue with the ‘Self-Actualization’ tier on the hierarchy. Maslow’s original intent may be different, but it seems as though most commentary on the Hierarchy considers this to be a catch-all category of all Needs that are growth-based (rather than deficit-based). While he later split out the categories of Cognitive & Aesthetic Needs, I would say there are still a couple specific sets of Needs that have at least as much impact as either of those:

    1) Purpose/Meaning: It’s very common to hear that the main reason our consciousness is special among animals is that we are aware of our own death. And, as far as I’ve ever heard, this is true. And I believe this awareness of our life cycle leads directly, in a majority of cases, to questioning our purpose and the meaning of life. This category would also relate to the need for goals and direction.

    2) Charity: I believe there is something fundamental about making it through the first three stages of Needs that allows someone to open up a capacity for sharing with those in need. Whether it’s medical/psychological help, monetary assistance, or simply extra attention, many people are driven by the need to give back. Gandhi and Mother Theresa might be examples of people driven by this Need.

    3) Innovation: There are many people driven by the need to advance civilization, to innovate for innovation’s sake. They’re not trying to achieve because they lack self-esteem, or because of some cognitive need to understand things better, but simply because there is a desire to blaze trails. Neil Armstrong, Lewis & Clark, and The Wright Brothers all made their names because of this (complex) Need.

    The other Levels can be split, as well. When we talk about Physiological needs, are we talking basic survival or better nutrition & exercise? When we discuss Safety needs, do we mean shelter or Customs Agents? Belongingness and Love can be split between Familial Love and Intimate Relationships, and Esteem can be separated into Internal and External rewards.

    Most of these split levels (save maybe the Esteem segments) won’t occur at the same developmental stage (i.e., someone in need of their next meal is not thinking about getting to the gym), so the pyramid model would be incapable of maintaining these distinctions.

    In fact, I think there is a flaw with the whole concept of this being a “hierarchy,” wherein one set of needs cannot be met until the others are fulfilled. For instance, I know plenty of people pursuing self-actualization (Level 5 or 7) who haven’t exercised (Level 1) in years. There are plenty of people who are driven by a need for cognitive understanding (Level 5 in the Adapted model) precisely because they did not fulfill their need for Love and Belonging (Level 3).

    Thoughts? How is my understanding of this model flawed?

    Trey Harris, MNLP MTD MHt
    Washington, DC