Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development – Part II

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While the Conventional Level of morality is concerned with social norms, the third and highest level of moral reasoning moves beyond mere convention. Kohlberg called this final level of moral development the Post-Conventional or Principled Level. It's called the Principled Level because people make moral decisions based on a basic set of principles that represent their most important values and beliefs. At this level, people think more abstractly about their values and beliefs. Therefore, morality is determined by a complex evaluation of these ideological values rather than a blind adherence to an existing set of rules. At this level of development, people apply these ideological values when making a determination of right from wrong, and when evaluating conflict between groups of people with opposing values such as different religious groups, different cultural groups, or different governmental bodies.

Like the previous Conventional Level, the Principled Level is subdivided into two stages. Stage five is called the social-contract orientation. At this stage, people understand rules and laws are mere tools intended to create social justice and designed to promote the well-being of all people. Thus, the ideological values of social justice and humanitarian concern are considered to be important, not the rule or law itself. At stage five, people recognize that rules and laws may require some degree of interpretation and flexibility, and these rules and laws may need to be re-evaluated from time-to-time to ensure the intended purpose is still being met.


Furthermore, people at this stage understand that governing bodies, such as the United States Congress or the school administration, are morally obligated to design and enforce rules and laws in a manner that balances individual freedom, with the needs of the larger group, in order to protect the safety and welfare of all. The leaders who create the rules and laws, and the group members who must adhere to them, implicitly or explicitly agree that this balance between individual freedom and the needs of the group must be maintained. Group members accept that it may become necessary to give up some personal freedom in order to enjoy a safe and orderly society.

For example, a group of college students at stage five (the social-contract-orientation of moral reasoning) may request a meeting with their college administrators to discuss a campus rule that limits condom distribution to the campus health clinic, and requires students to first meet with a nurse before receiving condoms. The intended purpose of this rule is to provide health education regarding the proper and safe use of a condom. On the surface, this rule seems sensible from a health education perspective. However, the students believe the rule has the unintended effect of deterring students from using condoms. They believe that in order to reduce the spread of diseases, and to limit unwanted pregnancies, condoms should be available at convenient locations that ensure comfort and privacy, such as dormitory restrooms. These students believe the intended principle behind the rule (to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the student body) is not being met and this principle trumps the need to document health education regarding condom use. This group of students firmly believes their college administrators have an obligation to change the rule for the greater good of the student body.

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According to Kohlberg, the sixth and final stage of moral development is the universal ethical principle orientation. At this stage, universal and abstract values such as dignity, respect, justice, and equality are the guiding force behind the development of a personally meaningful set of ethical principles. Individuals at this level of development believe these ethical principles should guide their actions above all else, including previously established rules, laws, and social contracts.

Dramatic social change has often been brought about by people operating from a universal ethical principle orientation. These social changes were precipitated by people whose actions were guided by this level of moral reasoning, even though their ethical convictions proved to be inconvenient, difficult, or even dangerous to implement. For example, young African-American adults during the 1960's chose to seat themselves at segregated lunch counters even though they knew that this action was against the law, contrary to the local culture, and was personally risky. However, these courageous men and women believed it was their basic human right to be seated alongside whites. More importantly, this simple act of defiance was intended to draw attention to an important principle: that a fair and just society does not impose segregation. They maintained a commitment to ethical principles by using non-violent civil disobedience, while risking their own personal safety. Their actions became a vital piece of the larger civil rights movement that brought about changes in American laws and American culture. As a result, we have a more just and more equal society today.

Research has tended to support Kohlberg's theory (Colby et al., 1983; Rest, 1986; Walker, 1989, Walker &Taylor, 1991b). However, any discussion of morality and moral development must acknowledge the cultural biases that are inextricably embedded in definitions of what is moral, and what is not. Woven throughout Kohlberg's theory is an inherent assumption that morality is defined by the principles of fairness and justice. Of course, it is quite sensible that fairness and justice are highly valued in the individualistic and competitive cultures common to many Western societies. However, other less competitive cultures may more highly value a different set of principles such as compassion and group integrity, over that of fairness and justice.

In a related way, it has been argued that even within competitive Western societies men and women have their own unique sub-cultures with differing sets of moral imperatives. Kohlberg's original research, and much of the subsequent research, has been limited to the study of adolescent males. This body of research has indeed demonstrated that by late adolescence, most adolescent males have reached stage three (the morality of interpersonal cooperation) or stage four (the social-order-maintaining orientation). The limited research with female adolescents suggests they reach the same levels of moral reasoning as their male counterparts (Jadack, Hyde, Moore, & Keller 1995; Kahn, 1992). Nonetheless, there is a general consensus that more research is needed that compares and contrasts male and female moral development, as well as the need for cross-cultural studies.

In summary, the process of moral development can be very frustrating for parents and caregivers to endure as youth question the rules and challenge authority. However, parents may find comfort knowing that this process is essential for youth to develop a set of values and beliefs that will guide them for the rest of their lives. While some rebellion is to be expected, it remains important for parents to offer love, support, and guidance. This includes appropriate discipline when necessary and allowing youth to experience the consequences of their moral choices.

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