Moral Development

This page will review the following theories:

  • Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
  • Rest’s Neo-Kohlbergian Approach
  • Gilligan’s Theory of Women’s Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) – THEORY OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

  • Cognitive component of moral behavior
  • Representing “the transformations that occur in a person’s form or structure of thought” (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977, p. 54) with regard to what is viewed as right or necessary.
  • Three Levels; Six Stages
  • Preconventional
    • Students are not concerned about social norms, unaware of social norms, individuals’ personal interest that matter
    • Stage 1: Hereronomous Morality
      • Follows the rules and does not harm others
      • Actions based on avoidance of punishment and superior authority
    • Stage 2: Individualistic, Instrumental Morality
      • Self-interest determine whether they follow rules
      • Understand others needs and interest and willing to compromise or agree
      • Focused on the “me” mentality but works to minimize the negative consequences
  • Conventional
    • More interaction with peers
    • Identify with rules and expectations
    • Students become more socially aware, happen before they get to college but many of the students are struggling in the third and fourth stage
    • Stage 3: Interpersonally Normative Morality
      • Meeting expectations of appropriate social roles
      • Concern with making sure they maintain the “good person” view
      • Generalized social perspective does not exist
    • Stage 4: Social System Morality
      • Viewed consistent set of rules and procedures for all people
      • “Right is defined as upholding the laws established by society and carrying out the duties agreed on” (p. 104).
      • Behavior maintains the system and social obligations
  • Postconventional or Principled
    • Individuals make their own choices, understanding the views of other people but make their own decisions
    • Stage 5: Humans Rights and Social Welfare Morality
      • “Promote fundamental human rights and values” (p. 104).
      • “Freely entered social contract to protect members’ rights and ensure the welfare of all” (p.104).
      • Agreements determine the obligations of relationships of the individual
    • Stage 6: Morality of Universalizable, Reversible, and Prescriptive General Ethical Principles
      • Morality focuses on the equal consideration of others in all aspects in the situation
      • Actions and decisions are based on generally accepted principles of all situations (i.e. equality for mankind/human rights)
      • Typically not reached by students


Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into Practics, 16, 53-59.

Carol Gilligan (1982)

  • Background: Women were viewed as deviant and unable to develop into those main factors of development as men
  • Care orientation impacts relationships with others and must carry similar weight in reflection of moral decisions
  • Idea that the sequence focuses on progressive differentiations
  • Three Levels: Two Transitions
    • Level 1: Orientation to Individual Survival
      • Focused on self and trying to survive and struggles to define the difference between need and want
      • Tendency to be isolated, relationships do not meet expectations, wants and need only are needed to maintain the self
    • First Transition: From Selfishness to Responsibility
      • Connectivity and Relations with Others
      • Independence and Selfishness shifts to connection and responsibility
      • Individual comes to understand the right thing
      • Idea of responsibility and care are integrated
    • Level 2: Goodness as Self Sacrifice
      • Defining the self and care for others
      • Reflection of conventional values
      • Disequilibrium
    • Second Transition: From Goodness to Truth
      • Others before self
      • Needs in relations to responsibility
      • Struggle to compromise the significance between care and hurt
      • More elements play into the decision making process (others and own needs)
      • Needs as truth and responsibility for decisions
    • Level 3: Morality of Nonviolence
      • Nonviolence as the main focus to determine moral action and decisions
      • Reformed idea of self and correlates with understanding of morality
        • Respect for self
        • Dissolve of selfishness and responsibility
        • Reconciliation becomes apparent

James Rest (2000)

  • Personal Interest
    • A person can have evaluate what they may lose or gain without looking at the “bigger” picture involvement
    • “Focus on the self and recognizes some awareness of the other in making moral decisions” (p.106).
  • Maintaining Norms
    • Societal collaboration shape thinking
    • Elements:
      • Generally accepted principles governance
      • All Rules apply
      • “Clear, Uniform, and categorical” norms (p.107)
      • Reciprocity on view of norms
      • Authority and Chain of Command
  • Post-Conventional
    • Moral obligation impacts generalized values in terms of logic and rhetoric
    • More developmental complexity and advance sense of ethical fiber
    • Elements (p.107):
      • Primacy of moral criteria
      • Appeal to an ideal
      • Shareable values
      • Full reciprocity

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student

development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 


This page was written and created by Stephen Dominy. Please use the comment section below to ask questions, provide reflection, discussion and/or feedback. To contact directly about this page, please see Stephen Dominy at


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