Stages of Moral Development

Describes Kohlberg's "six levels of moral development" and its relevance for gifted children

KOHLBERG'S APPROACH to levels of moral development is attractive, particularly in the context of the gifted who are often accused of being immature on the grounds that they do not always readily find a set of social peers.

The following information to the table of Kohlberg's stages comes from Guiding the Gifted Child by Webb Meckstroth and Tolan.

"In addition, gifted children move rapidly through what have been called the 'Stages of Moral Development' [Kohlberg, 1964], summarised in Table 10. This rapid movement means that the gifted child is likely to be out of step with many of the needs, preferences, even personality traits of his age peers. He is, therefore, likely to question, challenge or defy traditions that his peers take for granted.

"Only about 10% of all people reach the last two stages of moral development. In our experience, though, most gifted children do achieve these upper levels unless their environment has prevented their growth. People in these upper levels are the leaders, creators and inventors who make major contributions to society and who help reformulate knowledge and philosophy, often changing major traditions in the process. While traditions form a continuum from the most insignificant matter of social custom to the principles formed into law, they may also go beyond law, to sweeping principles of universal order. Those who have reached the highest levels of moral development may go beyond the law as well, sometimes sacrificing themselves and often changing the world's perception of the law, and finally the law itself. Gifted children may set themselves on such a course early in life."

Table 10 is reproduced below.

Stages of Moral Development (Adapted from Kohlberg, 1964)

Issue of Moral Concern
Selfish Obedience
Rules followed to avoid punishment; obedience and concern for physical consequences.
Doing things for others because it will result in others doing things in return; concern for reward, equal sharing and benefit to self.
Conforming to Traditions
Whatever pleases the majority is considered morally right; other viewpoints can be seen, conformity is prized, desire to do things for others.
Group authority, law, duty and rules of society prized; concern for maintaining social order for its own sake; social disapproval avoided; emphasis on the inherent 'rightness' of rules and duties.
Moral Principles Beyond Conformity
Internal commitment to principles of personal conscience; concern with individual rights within standards set by consensus; emphasis on fair procedures for reaching consensus and for evaluating principles and rules.
Concern with universal ethical principles and abstract morality affecting all beings regardless of conventional views; emhasis on universality, consistency, and logical comprehensiveness.

To put Kohlberg's moral stages into perspective it is appropriate to mention two criticisms. One is that it does not take into account emotions which may be critical motivators for our actions but concentrates on moral reasoning. People of different temperaments may respond differently even if at the same moral stage.

Another criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it is biased towards western cultures. Some non-Western cultures do not value individualism and would not see challenging society's rules as a "higher" stage of morality. Do we regard these societies as at a lower moral stage?