Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development in Adolescence

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  • 0:01 Moral Development
  • 1:15 Moral Dilemma
  • 2:52 Stages
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The way people think about what is right and what is wrong changes as they grow up. Watch this lesson to find out about Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development, including what it is and its main stages of morality.

Moral Development

Kat is 14, and she really likes hanging out with her friends. Last week, they were at the store together, having a good time, when something happened. Kat noticed that her friend Patty stole a granola bar from a store. It wasn't a big thing that Patty stole, but Kat wasn't sure what to do. On one hand, she loves Patty, but on the other hand, Patty did something wrong. Should Kat turn her in?

Kat is in adolescence, or the time of life between childhood and adulthood, usually lasting from age 13 to age 20. During adolescence, people begin to think differently. They are able to solve more complex problems, like the algebra problems Kat faces in school.

Along with the ability to solve more complex math problems, the cognitive (or thinking) abilities that develop in adolescence allow people to solve more complex social problems. As this happens, the moral development, or the way that people make judgments about what's right and wrong, also changes. Let's look at the most famous theory of moral development and the way that adolescents' morality develops.

Moral Dilemma

Kat is changing the way she thinks about morality. A few years ago, she wouldn't hesitate to turn Patty in to the authorities. After all, right is right and wrong is wrong, and if someone does something wrong, they should be punished. But now Kat isn't so sure. Patty is very poor, and Kat knows that Patty stole the granola bar because she couldn't afford to pay. Is it wrong to not turn her in?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in the way people, like Kat, develop their ideas about what the moral thing to do in a difficult situation is. He told people a story similar to that of Patty's. He said that there was a husband whose wife was dying. A local drug store owner had developed a drug that could save the wife's life, but he was selling it for a lot of money. The drug only cost the drug store owner $200 to make, but he was charging $2000 for it.

The husband borrowed from everyone he knew but was only able to scrape together $1000. He told the pharmacist that his wife was dying and begged the man to sell him the drug for $1000 or let him pay the rest later, but the drug store owner stood firm. He said that he had invented the drug and it was his right to make money on it. At night, the husband broke into the drug store and stole the drug to save his wife's life.

Kohlberg wasn't interested as much in whether people thought that what the husband did was right or wrong. He was interested in why they believed what they believed. How did they approach the moral dilemma?


Based on the answers he saw, Kohlberg identified several stages of moral development. They are:

1. Preconventional Morality: This is how children think of morality. There is a right and wrong answer, and decisions about morality are made based on punishment or reward. For example, a child might say that what the husband did was wrong because he will be punished.

Likewise, a few years ago, Kat would say that what Patty did when she stole the granola bar was wrong because stealing is a punishable offense. It didn't matter what the circumstances were; if there's a punishment involved, it's wrong. Younger children generally view morality as being about avoiding punishment, whereas older children view morality about gaining rewards. Either way, though, they are still focused on rewards and punishment.

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