Kohlberg, Lawrence.  "The Child as a Moral Philosopher."  PSYCHOLOGY

TODAY, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 24-30, Sept. 1968.





You're a good man Charlie Brown!  You have humility, nobility and a sense of honor that is very rare indeed. You are kind to all the animals and every little bird. With a heart of gold, you believe what you're told, every single solitary word. You bravely face adversity; you're cheerful through the day; you're thoughtful, brave and courteous. You're a good man Charlie Brown! You're a prince, and a prince could be a king.  With a heart such as yours you could open any door – if only you weren't so wishy‑washy.


The Child as a Moral Philosopher, by Lawrence Kohlberg


How can one study morality? Current trends in the fields of ethics, linguistics, anthropology and cognitive psychology have suggested a new approach which seems to avoid the morass of semantical confusions, value‑bias and cultural relativity in which the psychoanalytic and semantic approaches to morality have foundered. New scholarship in all these fields is now focusing upon structures, forms and relationships that seem to be common to all societies and all languages rather than upon the features that make particular languages or cultures different.

For 12 years, my colleagues and I studied the same group of 75 boys, fol­lowing their development at three‑year intervals from early adolescence through young manhood. At the start of the study, the boys were aged 10 to 16. We have now followed them through to ages 22 to 28. In addition, I have explored moral development in other cultures ‑ Great Britain, Canada, Taiwan, Mexico and Turkey.

Inspired by Jean Piaget's pioneering effort to apply a structural approach to moral development, I have gradually elaborated over the years of my study a typological scheme describing general structures and forms of moral thought which can be defined independently of the specific content of particular moral decisions or actions.

The typology contains three distinct levels of moral thinking, and within each of these levels distinguishes two related stages. These levels and stages may be considered separate moral philosophies, distinct views of the socio‑moral world.

We can speak of the child as having his own morality or series of moralities.  Adults seldom listen to children's moralizing. If a child throws back a few adult cliches and behaves himself, most parents – and many anthropologists and psycbologists as well – think that the child has adopted or internalized the appropriate parental standards.

Actually, as soon as we talk with children about morality, we find that they have many ways of making judgments which are not "internalized" from the outside, and which do not come in any direct and obvious way from parents, teachers or even peers.


Moral Levels


The preconventional level is the first of three levels of moral thinking; the second level is conventional, and the third post conventional or autonomous. While the preconventional child is often “well‑behaved" and is responsive to cultural labels of good and bad, be interprets these labels in terms of their physical consequences (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or in terms of the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels of good and bad.

This level is usually occupied by children aged four to 10, a fact long known to sensitive observers of children. The capacity of "properly behaved" children of this age to engage in cruel behavior when there are holes in the power structure is sometimes noted as tragic (Lord of the Flies, High Wind in Jamaica), sometimes as comic (Lucy in Peanuts).

The second or conventional level also can be described as conformist, but that is perhaps too smug a term. Maintaining the expectations and rules of the individual's family, group or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right. There is a concern not only with conforming to the individual's social order but in maintaining, supporting and justifying this order.

The postconventional level is characterized by a major thrust toward autonomous moral principles which have validity and application apart from authority of the groups or persons who bold them and apart from the individual's identification with those persons or groups.


Moral Stages


Within each of these three levels there are two discernable stages. At the preconventional level we have:

Stage 1: Orientation toward punish­ment and unquestioning deference to superior power. The physical consequences of action regardless of their human meaning or value determine its goodness or badness.

Stage 2: Right action consists of that which instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, of reciprocity and equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" not of loyalty, gratitude or justice.


And at the conventional level we have:

Stage 3: Good‑boy‑good‑girl orientation. Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or "natural" behavior. Behavior is often judged by intention ‑"he means well" becomes important for the first time, and is overused, as by Charlie Brown in Peanuts. One seeks approval by being "nice."

Stage 4: Orientation toward authority, fixed rules and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one's duty, showing respect for authority and maintaining the given social order for its own sake. One earns respect by performing dutifully.


At the postconventional level, we have:

Stage 5: A social‑contract orientation, generally with legalistic and utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general rights and in terms of standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right or wrong is a matter of personal "values" and "opinion." The result is an emphasis upon the "legal point of view," but with an emphasis upon the possibility of changing law in terms of rational considerations of social utility, rather than freezing it in, the terms of Stage 4 "law and order”.  Outside the legal realm, free agreement and contract are the binding elements of obligation.  This is the “official” morality of American government, and finds its ground in the thought of the writers of the Constitution.

Stage 6: Orientation toward the decisions of conscience and toward chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. Instead they are universal Principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.


Up to Now


In the past, when psychologists tried to answer the question asked of Socrates by Meno "Is virtue something that can be taught (by rational discussion), or does it come by practice, or is it a natural inborn attitude?" their answers usually have been dictated, not by research findings on children's moral character, but by their general theoretical convictions.

Behavior theorists have said that virtue is behavior acquired according to their favorite general principles of learning. Freudians have claimed that virtue is superego‑identification with parents generated by a proper balance of love and authority in family relations.

The American psychologists who have actually studied children's morality have tried to start with a set of labels – the “virtues" and "vices," the "traits" of good and bad character found in ordinary language.  The earliest major psychological study of moral character, that of Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May in 1928-1930, focused on a bag of virtues including honesty, service (altruism or generosity), and self-control.  To their dismay, they found that there were no character trains, psychological dispostions or entities which correspond to words like honest, service, or self-control.

Regarding honesty, for instance, they found that almost everyone cheats some

of the time, and that if a person cheats in one situation, it doesn't mean that he will or won’t in another.  In other words, it is not an identifiable character trait, dishonesty, that makes a child cheat in a given situation. These early researchers also found that people who cheat express as much or even more moral disapproval of cheating as those who do not cheat.

What Hartshorne and May found out about their bag of virtues is equally upsetting to the somewhat more psychological‑sounding names introduced by psychoanalytic psychology: "superego-strength," "resistance to temptation," “strength of conscience," and the like. When recent researchers attempt to measure such traits in individuals, they have been forced to use Hartshorne and May's old tests of honesty and self‑control and they get exactly the same results –  “superego strength" in one situation predicts little to "superego strength" in another. That is, virtue‑words like honesty (or superego‑strength) point to certain behaviors with approval, but give us no guide to understanding them.

So far as one can extract some generalized personality factor from children's performance on tests of honesty or resistance to temptation, it is a factor of ego‑strength or ego‑control, which

always involves non‑moral capacities like the capacity to maintain attention, intel­ligent‑task performance, and the ability to delay response. "'Ego‑strength" (called “will" in earlier days) has something to do with moral action, but it does not take us to the core of morality or to the definition of virtue. Obviously enough, many of the greatest evil‑doers in history have been men of strong wills, men  strongly pursuing immoral goals.


Moral Reasons


In our research, we have found definite and universal levels of development in moral thought. In our study of 75 American boys from early adolescence on, these youths were presented with hypothetical moral dilemmas, all deliberately philosophical, some of them found in medieval works of casuistry.

On the basis of their reasoning about these dilernmas at a given age, each boy's stage of thought could be determined for each of 25 basic moral concepts or aspects. One such aspect, for instance, is "Motive Given for Rule Obedience or Moral Action." In this instance, the six stages look like this:

1. Obey rules to avoid punishment.

2. Conform to obtain rewards, have favors returned, and so on.

3. Conform to avoid disapproval, dislike by others.

4. Conform to avoid censure by legitimate authorities and resultant guilt.

5. Conform to maintain the respect ofthe impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare.

6. Conform to avoid self‑condemnation.


In another of these 25 moral aspects, the value of human life, the six stages can be defined thus:

1. The value of a human life is confused with the value of physical objects and is based on the social status or physical attributes of its possessor.

2.  The value of a human life is seen as instrumental to the satisfaction of the needs of its possessor or of other persons.

3.  The value of a human life is based on the empathy and affection of family members and others toward its possessor.

4.  Life is conceived as sacred in terms of its place in a categorical moral or religious order of rights and duties.

5.  Life is valued both in terms of its relation to community welfare and in terms of life being a universal human right.

6.  Belief in the sacredness of human life as representing a universal human value of respect for the individual.


I have called this scheme a typology. This is because about 50 per cent of most people's thinking will be at a single stage, regardless of the moral dilemma involved. We call our types stages because they seem to represent an invariant developmental sequence. "True" stages come one at a time and always in the same order.

All movement is forward in sequence, and does not skip steps. Children may move through these stages at varying speeds, of course, and may be found half in and half out of a particular stage. An individual may stop at any given stage and at any age, but if he continues to move, he must move in accord with these steps. Moral reasoning of the conventional or Stage 3‑4 kind never occurs before the preconventional Stage‑1 and Stage‑2 thought has taken place.  No adult in Stage 4 has gone through Stage-6, but all Stage‑6 adults have gone at least through 4.

While the evidence is not complete, my study strongly suggests that moral change fits the stage pattern just described. (The major uncertainty is whether all Stage-6s go through Stage 5 or whether these are two alternate mature orientations.)


How Values Change


As a single example of our findings of stage‑sequence, take the progress of two boys on the aspect "The Value of Human Life." The first boy Tommy, is asked "Is it better to save the life of one important person or a lot of unimportant people?". At age 10, he answers "all the people that aren't important because one man just has one house, maybe a lot of furniture, but a whole bunch of people have an awful lot of furniture and some of these poor people might have a lot of money and it doesn't look it."

Clearly Tommy is Stage 1: he con­fuses the value of a human being with the value of the property he possesses.  Three years later (age 13) Tommy's conceptions of life's value are most clearly elicited by the question, "Should the doctor 'mercy kill a fatally ill woman requesting death because of her pain?".  He answers, "Mavbe it would be good, to put her out of her pain, she'd be

better off that way'. But the husband wouldn’t want it, it’s not like an animal.  If a pet dies you can get along without it – it isn’t something you really need. Well, you can get a new wife, but it's not

really the same.”

Here his answer is Stage 2: the value the woman’s life is partly contingent on its hedonistic value to the wife herself but even more contingent on its instrumental value to her husband, who can’t replace her as easily as he can a pet.

Three years later still (age 16) Tommy's conception of life’s value is elicited by the same question, to which he replies: "It might be best for her, but her husband – it's a human life – not like an animal; it just doesn't have the same relationship that a human being does to a family. You can become attached to a dog, but nothing like a human you know."

Now Tommy has moved from a Stage 2 instrumental view of the woman's value to a Stage‑3 view based on the husband’s distinctively human empathy and love for someone in his family. Equally clearly, it lacks any basis for a universal human value of the woman’s life, which would hold if she had no husband or if her husband didn't love her. Tommy, then, has moved step by step through three stages during the age 10‑16. Tommy, though bright (I.Q. 120), is a slow developer in moral judgment. Let us take another boy, Richard, to show us sequential movement through the remaining three steps.

At age 13, Richard said about the mercy‑killing, "If she requests it, it's really up to her. She is in such terrible pain, just the same as people are always putting animals out of their pain," and in general showed a mixture of Stage‑2 and Stage‑3 responses concerning the value of life. At 16, he said, "I dont know. In one way, it's murder, it's not a right or privilege of man to decide who shall live and who should die. God put life into everybody on earth and you're taking away something from that person that came directly from God, and you're destroying something that is very sacred, it's in a way part of God and it's almost destroying a part of God when you kill a person. There's something of God in everyone."

Here Richard clearly displays a Stage-4 concept of life as sacred in terms of its place in a categorical moral or religious order. The value of human life is universal, it is true for all humans. It is still, however, dependent on something else, upon respect for God and God's authority; it is not an autonomous human value. Presumably if God told Richard to murder, as God commanded Abraham to murder Isaac, he would do so.

At age 20, Richard said to the same question: "There are more and more people in the medical profession who think it is a hardship on everyone, the person, the family, when you know they are going to die. When a person is kept alive by an artificial lung or kidney it's more like being a vegetable than being a human. If it's her own choice, I think there are certain rights and privileges that go along with being a human being. I am a human being and have certain desires for life and I think everybody else does too. You have a world of which you are the center, and everybody else does too and in that sense we're all equal."

Richard's response is clearly Stage 5, in that the value of life is defined in terms of equal and universal human rights in a context of relativity ("You have a world of which you are the center and in that sense we're all equal"), and of concern for utility or welfare consequences.


The Final Step


At 24, Richard says: "A human life takes precedence over any other moral or legal value, whoever it is. A human life has inherent value whether or not it is valued by a particular individual. The worth of the individual human being is central where the principles of justice and love are normative for all human relationships."

This young man is at Stage 6 in seeing the value of human life as absolute in representing a universal and equal respect for the human as an individual.  He has moved step by step through a sequence culminating in a deflnition of human life as centrally valuable rather than derived from or dependent on social or divine authority.


In a genuine and culturally universal sense, these steps lead toward an increased morality of value judgment, where morality is considered as a form of judging, as it has been in a philosophic tradition running from the analyses of Kant to those of the modern analytic or “ordinary language" philosophers. The person at Stage 6 has disentangled his judgments of – or language about – human life from status and property values (Stage 1), from its uses to others (Stage 2), from interpersonal affection (Stage 3), and so on; he has a means of moral judgment that is universal and impersonal. The Stage‑6 person’s answers use moral words like "duty" or "morally right," and he uses them in a way implying universality, ideals, impersonality: He thinks and speaks in phrases like “regardless of who it was," or ". . . I would do it in spite of punishment."


Across Cultures


When I first decided to explore moral development in other cultures, I was told by anthropologist friends that I would have to throw away my culturebound moral concepts and stories and start from scratch learning a whole new set of values for each new culture. My first try consisted of a brace of villages, one Atayal (Malaysian aboriginal) and the other Taiwanese.

My guide was a young Chinese ethnographer who had written an account of the moral and religious patterns of the Atayal and Taiwanese villages. Taiwanese boys in the 10‑13 age group were asked about a story involving theft of food. A man's wife is starving to death but the store owner won't give the man any food unless he can pay, which be can't. Should he break in and steal some food? Why? Many of the boys said, "He should steal the food for his wife because if she dies he'll have to pay for her funeral and that costs a lot."

My guide was amused by these responses, but I was relieved: they were of course "classic" Stage‑2 responses. In the Atayal village, funerals weren I t such a big thing, so the Stage 2‑boys would say, "He should steal the food because he needs his wife to cook for him."

This means that we need to consult our anthropologists to know what content a Stage‑2 child will include in his instrumental exchange calculations, or what a Stage‑4 adult will identify as the proper social order. But one certainly doesn't have to start from scratch. What made my guide laugh was the difference in form between the children's Stage‑2 thought and his own, a difference definable independently of particular cultures.

Illustrations number 1 and number 2 indicate the cultural universality of the sequence of stages which we have found. Illustration number 1 presents the age trends for middle‑class urban boys in the U.S., Taiwan and Mexico. At age 10 in each country, the order of use of each stage is the same as the order of its difficulty or maturity.

In the United States, by age 16 the order is the reverse, from the highest to the lowest, except that Stage 6 is still little‑used. At age 13, the good‑boy, middle stage (Stage 3), is not used.

The results in Mexico and Taiwan are the same, except that development is a little slower. The most conspicuous feature is that at the age of 16, Stage‑5 thinking is much more salient in the United States than in Mexico or Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is present in the other countries, so we know that this is not purely an American democratic construct.

Illustration 2 shows strikingly similar results from two isolated villages, one in Yucatan, one in Turkey. While conventional moral thought increases steadily from ages 10 to 16 it still has not achieved a clear ascendency over preconventional thought.

Trends for lower‑class urban groups are intermediate in the rate of development between those for the middle‑class and for the village boys. In the three divergent cultures that I studied, middle-class children were found to be more advanced in moral judgment than matched lower‑class children. This was not due to the fact that the middle‑class children heavily favored some one type of thought which could be seen as corresponding to the prevailing middle‑class pattern. Instead, middle‑class and working‑class children move through the same sequences, but the middle‑class children move faster and farther.

This sequence is not dependent upon a particular religion, or any religion at all in the usual sense. I found no important differences in the development of moral thinking among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems and atheists. Religious values seem to go through the same stages as all other values.


Trading Up


In summary, the nature of our sequence is not significantly affected by widely varying social, cultural or religious conditions. The only thing that is affected is the rate at which individuals progress through this sequence.

Why should there be such a universal invariant sequence of development? In answering this question, we need first to analyze these developing social concepts in terms of their internal logical structure. At each stage, the same basic moral concept or aspect is defined, but at each higher stage this definition is more differentiated, more integrated and more general or universal. When one's concept of human life moves from Stage 1 to Stage 2 the value of life becomes more differentiated from the value of property, more integrated (the value of life enters an organizational hierarchy where it is "higher" than property so that one steals property in order to save life) and more universalized (the life of any sentient being is valuable regardless of status or property). The same advance is true at each stage in the hierarchy. Each step of development then is a better cognitive organization than the one before it, one which takes account of everything present in the previous stage, but making new distinctions and organizing them into a more comprehensive or more equilibrated structure. The fact that this is the case has been demonstrated by a series of studies indicating that children and adolescents comprehend all stages up to their own, but not more than one stage beyond their own. And importantly, they prefer this next stage.

We have conducted experimental moral discussion classes which show that the child at an earlier stage of development tends to move forward when confronted by the views of a child one stage further along. In an argument between a Stage‑3 and Stage‑4 child, the child in the third stage tends to move toward or into Stage 4, while the Stage‑4 child understands but does not accept the arguments of the Stage‑3 child.

Moral thought, then, seems to behave like all other kinds of thought. Progress through the moral levels and stages is characterized by increasing differentiation and increasing integration, and hence is the same kind of progress that scientific theory represents. Like acceptable scientific theory – or like any theory or structure of knowledge – moral thought may be considered partially to generate its own data as it goes along, or at least to expand so as to contain in a balanced,

self‑consistent way a wider and experiential fleld. The raw data in the case of our ethical philosophies may be considered as conflicts between roles, or values, or as the social order in which men live.


The Role of Society


The social worlds of all men seem to contain the same basic structures.  All the societies we have studied have the same basic institutions – family, economy, law, government. In addition, however, all societies are alike because they are societies ‑systems of defined complementary roles. In order to play a social role in the family, school or society, the child must implicitly take the role of others toward himself and toward others in the group. These role-taking tendencies form the basis of social institutions. They represent various patternings of shared or complementary expectations.             

In the preconventional and conventional levels (Stages 1‑4), moral content or value is largely accidental or culture-bound. Anything from "honesty" to “courage in battle" can be the central value. But in the higher postconventional levels, Socrates, Lincoln, Thoreau and Martin Luther King tend to speak without confusion of tongues, as it were. This is because the ideal principles of any social structure are basically alike, if only because there simply aren't that many principles which are articulate, comprehensive and integrated enough to be satisfying to the human intellect. And most of these principles have gone by the name of justice.

Behavioristic psychology and psychoanalysis have always upheld the Philistine view that fine moral words are one thing and moral deeds another. Morally mature reasoning is quite a different matter, and does not really depend on "fine words." The man who understands justice is more likely to practice it.

In our studies, we have found that youths who understand justice act more justly, and the man who understands justice helps create a moral climate which goes far beyond his immediate and personal acts. The universal society is the beneficiary.