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Developmental Psychology > COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT IN ADOLESCENCE > Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg's model

In all, Kohlberg described six levels of moral reasoning, which he classified into three stages. In the preconventional stage , the person's view of morality is driven by self-interest. Moral reasoning at this stage reflects the desire to avoid punishment and seek reward. "Stealing is wrong because you might get caught" and "returning a lost wallet is right because you will get the reward" both reflect the preconventional concern with punishment and reward. The moral reasoning of most pre-adolescents can be characterized as preconventional. They tend to believe that things that are punished are simply wrong and things that are rewarded are right.

In the conventional stage , social rules and conventions dominate the person's view of morality. Moral acts at this stage are behaviors that please others and/or conform to the rules and laws of the society. "Stealing is wrong because it is against the law" and "telling the truth because my parents want me to" both reflect conventional reasoning. Kohlberg found that most adolescents reason within this conventional framework.

In the postconventional stage, moral acts are defined more abstractly. Moral acts are those that fit with universal principles of justice (e.g., respect for life and equality) or with one's own personal standards of morality. A person who decides to go to jail rather than fight in a war because of a personal belief that killing is wrong exemplifies postconventional moral reasoning. Similarly, a decision to sacrifice a small number of people in order to save the lives of many reflects postconventional thinking.

Criticisms of Kohlberg's model

The evidence supporting Kohlberg's model is mixed. On the one hand, longitudinal studies find support for Kohlberg's notion that children advance through the stages of reasoning in the order Kohlberg predicted (Colby et al., 1983) and that relatively few people, once they attain a higher level of reasoning, regress to a lower level (Walker & Taylor, 1991). On the other hand, the theory has been criticized on at least two grounds. First, the highest level of reasoning in Kohlberg's model occurs when the person adopts a very abstract, though logically coherent, framework. But should this type of reasoning be seen as the "highest"? Why not elevate "respect for human life" or "compassion" to the highest level (Dien,1982; Gilligan, 1982)?

Second, it is often unclear whether Kohlberg's theory describes moral reasoning or moral justification. The distinction between these two points is subtle, but important. A theory of moral justification describes how people rationalize and excuse the behaviors they commit. In contrast, a theory of moral reasoning should describe the reasoning and logic that lead people to commit acts in the first place. From this latter perspective, it is problematic that people's moral reasoning is often inconsistent across situations (Wygant, 1997) and that it often fails to predict behavior.


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