Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A developmental model of moral thinking based on Jean Piaget's cognitive development theory. Because religion is closely intertwined with values and morality, this field of research is highly relevant to religion. Additionally, some theorists insist that a change in stage of moral thinking is such a profound transformation that it amounts to a kind of conversion experience.

Lawrence Kohlberg, the foremost scholar associated with this paradigm on morality, maintained that all persons, regardless of religious background or culture, move through the same sequence of stages. Kohlberg's research was conducted by giving children moral dilemmas in which two values are in conflict. Based on longitudinal studies with the same individuals over two decades, he has identified three levels of thinking with two stages at each level, six stages in all. Each stage represents an increased ability to place oneself in a role more removed from oneself.

Preconventional thinking: At this level, the person is entirely egocentric in outlook. There are two stages at the preconventional level. In the first of these, punishment-obedience, the child is concerned first and foremost about obeying superiors to avoid punishment. The stage 2 person is more calculating in determining right from wrong, showing willingness to risk the possibility of being caught and punished if the potential reward is great enough. A person at this stage engages in a cost-benefit analysis with his or her own needs and desires as the criteria for evaluation of cost and benefit. The concept of justice or fairness in relationships is guided by reciprocity. The bottom line in any relationship at stage 2 is the question: "What's in it for me?"

Conventional level: Conformity to the social group takes on extreme importance, and values become ethnocentric rather than egocentric. Stage 3, interpersonal sharing, is oriented toward pleasing significant others or conforming to a reference group so as to be liked. The stage 3 person wants to conform to the expectations of those with whom she or he has a face-to-face relationship. Stage 4 represents an awareness that survival of a society requires laws, and it requires that the citizens obey the laws. Maintenance of the social order at all costs becomes the criterion for "right." The circle of loyalties has expanded beyond one's immediate acquaintances; one's loyalties now include one's nation or ethnic group.

Principled level: Thinking at this level is more abstract; one considers many more factors to determine a just solution to a problem and attempts to be universalistic in concern. The fifth stage, social contract thinking, involves thinking about how to construct a legal system (a social contract) in which the rights of each individual can be protected. Laws must be fair to all members of that society, and due process is essential. Stage 6, the universal ethical principle orientation, emphasizes respect for human personality as a supreme value. Moral decisions are based on logical, comprehensive, and universalistic ethical principles.

The most serious flaw in Kohlberg's work was that he used only males in his original studies, and the model of stage development was built on the basis of his early data. One former associate of Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, insists that the stages of development are rather different for girls and women from those for boys and men.

Kohlberg (1927-1987) was Professor of Education and Social Psychology at Harvard University at the time of his death. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1958.

See also Cognitive Models, Carol Gilligan

Keith A. Roberts


C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

L. Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development , 2 vols. (New York: Harper, 1981, 1984)

J. Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1932])

M. M. Wilcox, Developmental Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979).

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