Undergraduate Essay


Complete a short paper, APA style. It may be a critique of the theory, an explanation of the theory, a comparison of Kohlberg’s theory with another theory, a biography of Kohlberg, or a combination therein. The paper should be at least 5-7 pages long (minimum of 3-5 pages of content, a title page, and a references page). Use at least two references. Remember to use in text citations. Double space. The assignment will be graded in 3 areas, content, APA guidelines, and grammar/spelling


An Explanation of Kohlberg’s Theory


Introduction. 2

Overview of Kohlberg’s Theory. 2

Punishment and Obedience. 3

Instrumental Exchange. 4

Interpersonal Conformity. 4

Law and Order 5

Cynicism.. 5

Prior Rights and Social Contract 6

Universal Ethical Principles. 7

Conclusion. 7

References. 8


Lawrence Kohlberg was a twentieth-century philosopher and psychologist. He is mostly known for the detailed theory he coined about the moral development from childhood to adulthood. The theory continues to have solid influence in today’s philosophical and psychological arena. Contemporary studies not only support this theory but also provide insights into how it can be applied in other related research areas (Walker, 2010; Olson, 2011; Li, 2016. As such, this paper explains Kohlberg’s theory by analyzing various sources to shed light on its foundational principles.

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Overview of Kohlberg’s Theory

To begin with, led by the interest to know how children and adults acquire the sense of right, wrong, and justice, Kohlberg observed definite stages of human growth and development. The American psychologist opined that people progress through various stages before accomplishing moral development. According to Kohlberg, a person cannot skip any stage or bounce back to a previous one. He also theorized that the stages are governed by qualitative modes of thinking, thought processing and problem solving. That is why the theory is highly associated with Piaget’s work theoretical work on cognitive development. Although many may conclude that these two acclaimed theories are similar, Kohlberg’s ideas more or less constitute an advancement of Piaget’s work (Walker, 2010). His theory consists of six stages, including punishment and obedience, instrumental exchange, and interpersonal conformity. The other stages include law and order, prior rights and social contract, and, lastly, universal ethical principles.

The first two stages are normally identified as pre-moral or pre-conventional categories. They focus more on self than others, and the motivation for behavior relies on the anticipated pleasure or pain. The stages are evident among children aged between 10 and 13. The third and fourth stages are regarded as factors of conventional morality; they involve adherence to the standards and requirements of one’s group. They are manifested among people joining middle school as well as the middle-aged. However, there is a transition stage which is comprised of people who do not believe in the conventional and pre-conventional morality, and it is referred to as the cynic stage. Finally, the fifth and sixth stages fall under the post-conventional or principled morality category. They prioritize dignity and justice for all irrespective of the prevailing circumstances. However, very few people succeed in reaching this level. Each of these stages is discussed in detail in the subsequent sections.

Punishment and Obedience

Punishment and obedience constitutes the first stage of Kohlberg’s theory. It focuses on the need for child to do what is deemed right in order to avoid punishment. In this case, punishment is an immediate reaction that is more inclined towards negative consequences of one’s actions. Hence, the goodness or badness of an action is dictated by its repercussions. If the act bears positive consequences, it might be right. If it yields negative results, then it is most probably wrong. It is important to note that not all good actions lead to positive results and vice versa. However, children are obliged to do what is right. One cannot justify a bad action by arguing that it has produced good results. Kohlberg stated that children’s element of obedience resembles that of adults. The former are more like soldiers who carry out orders in line with the interest of their authorities. That is why this stage is driven by questions such as what must be done in order to escape punishment and what can be done to force one’s will upon others (Olson, 2011).

Instrumental Exchange

This second stage of moral development is instrumental exchange, which encompasses the egoism factor. Revenge is viewed as the main driver of moral duty (Li, 2016). A child will swiftly do what has been done to him/her as a way of retaliating. Thus, it is all a matter of exchanging blows or favors. In this case, people acknowledge the utility of the saying: “an eye for an eye”. It is assumed that conceding to defeat may not satisfy an individual. In essence, people believe that taking revenge might fulfill their desires. Hence, this is a dangerous stage as it may breed a culture of conflict. It may also foster the emergence of a society in which injustices such as corruption and nepotism are glorified. It may compel people to do whatever they think is necessary, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, to have their way. The stage of instrumental exchange entails the view of the individual in terms of his/her relentless efforts to avoid pain and maximize pleasure (Li, 2016).

Interpersonal Conformity

During interpersonal conformity, the behavior of a person depends on what is socially accepted. An individual acts in a way that will get approval from others. It is a stage of stereotyped behavior in efforts to conform to the expectations of peers or the society. One does what he does because others are doing, an indication that the action is perceived as natural or as a manifestation of modernity. The pressure to confirm to these forces is so strong that an individual will sacrifice his/her interests just to suit the expected demands. Such an individual only hosts values that pitch loyalty to the group. Besides, he/she sin as any deed that breaches the prevailing group, class or social norms. However, this stage prohibits personal vengeance (Klikauer, 2012). At a personal level, forgiveness is preferred, although collective retribution from the group may also be encountered. An example of collective punishment is the rejection of one’s quest to join a group. Interpersonal conformity is very common in religious groups where one’s behavior is strongly influenced by the need to gain approval from other members.

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Law and Order

During the stage of law and order, the attributes of being a good citizen are prioritized. An individual must honor the established rules and regulations as enshrined in a country’s constitution. After all, laws have authority over all persons. Individual manifesting this stage of development typically abide by the set rules and are ready to sacrifice the self for the greater good. In every society, there are certain institutions that act as moral watchdogs and which help in serving justice. Accordingly, one’s actions may bring about a reward or punishment. The right behavior is that which safeguards the prevailing social order. Evidently, this stage prevents criminal injustices and promote societal democracy. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to question the actions of prominent figures such as judges, senior politicians, and presidents. For the most part, this is the highest stage that a majority of adults can achieve (Olson, 2011). According to Kohlberg, the assumption is that most of the population will ultimately tend to conduct himself/herself according to the existing laws for top-notch morality and stability to be achieved in society.


Cynicism is a transition stage that characterizes people who are apparently lost between egoism and skepticism. In other words, despite wading through the above stages, these people are yet to discover and respect universal ethics. Kohlberg suggests that these people are the lot which has not abandoned conventional reasoning even after witnessing its negative effects (Walker, 2010). Thus, they may have developed a distrustful attitude towards life, and they find it difficult hold back in terms of constructing uncritical evaluations or conclusions. Members who belong to this stage exhibit strong elements of alienation and disillusionment. They typically tend to make remarks such as “nothing really matter anymore” or “all politicians are corrupt”.

Prior Rights and Social Contract

According to Kohlberg, prior rights and social contract constitute the fifth stage of moral development. It entails going beyond conventional reasoning and the established critical ways of serving justices. The point is that an individual can apply abstract, universal and moral principles without rule or checklists. Individuals who belong to this stage tend to have a natural way of knowing what is right, and they understands that they are obliged to conducting themselves as such. Based on this view, Kohlberg argues that societies should not limit the freedom of an individual in the name of promoting justice. The limits on the bounds of liberty should only be imposed when the person has undermined another person’s freedoms. Otherwise, there is no need for references to moral actions as justification for violating one’s liberties. More so, the stage is against the punitive measures taken against offenders. According to Kohlberg’s theory, punishing others is a way of violating the same values which the society endeavors to condemn. It is argued that doing so continues to violate people’s human rights under the guise of providing deterrence (Gibbs, Basinger, Grime & Snarey, 2010). Meanwhile, every person is expected to intuitively know what the right thing to do is in relation to the situation at hand and to act accordingly.

Universal Ethical Principles

The final stage is universal ethical principles, which involves reflecting on people who demonstrate the highest level of moral conduct. Such people work relentlessly towards promoting equity for all humankind. They equally consider their interests and those of others in order to enhance everyone’s human dignity. Hence, this stage is a representation of the Golden Rule model. Using moral decision making as opposed to rules, one is able to apply right principles of social engagement in diverse contexts. Here, people value principles more than they value their own lives (Gibbs, Basinger, Grime & Snarey, 2010). In a nutshell, these people are potential martyrs. However, according to Kohlberg, very few people succeed in attaining this level of moral development.


Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides a strong basis for the analysis of changes in human behavior at different stages in life. It achieves tremendous success in explaining the various differences manifested in distinct stages of childhood and adulthood in respect of moral behavior. Using this theoretical approach, it is easy to understand human psychology better and even establish ways of countering the development of undesirable perceptions and beliefs. Lastly, it provides a basis for the emergence of new areas psychological and philosophical thought particularly in regards to moral development and its impact on society.


Gibbs, J. C., Basinger, K. S., Grime, R. L., & Snarey, J. R. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review, 27443-500.

Klikauer, T. (2012). The Ethics of Employment Relations and Human Resource Management: Kohlberg’s Seven Levels of Morality. New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, 37(2), 1-20.

Li, S. (2016). A mechanism for gratitude development in a child. Early Child Development & Care, 186(3), 466-482.

Olson, C. (2011). The Deep Roots of the Fairness Committee in Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory. Schools: Studies in Education, 8(1), 125-135.

Walker, L. J. (1982). The Sequentiality of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Child Development, 53(5), 1330.

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall.

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