Theories of Moral Development

Nursing theories

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Theories of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg


  • Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) devised a theory in which he explained s six stages of moral development divided into three levels.
  • Morality is the system one uses to decide what is right and wrong; how one’s conscience affects choices. 
  • Moral development refers to the capacity of the individual to act in accord with conscience and moral imperatives rather than egocentric values.
  • Kholberg defines moral judjments "as judgments of value, as social judgments, and as judgments that oblige an individual to take action.”
  • He was inspired by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the American philosopher John Dewey.

Moral development across life span

  • By the second year of life, “moral emotions” are emerged.
  • By 36 months, most children demonstrate the internalization of parental standards.
  • During the school years, the importance of rules and adhering to them become well defi ned.
  • Moral dvelopment after adolescent period is complex and influenced by social factors.

Kohlberg's Theory

  • Kohlberg explained three levels of reasoning and six stages of moral development . Each level has two stages that represent different degrees of sophistication in moral reasoning.
  • Three levels of reasoning
    1. Preconventional - reason according to the self perspective
    2. Conventional - reasoning based on social rules and norms
    3. Postconventional - use the principle behind the social norm to direct their behavior.
  •  Stages
    1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation
    2. Individualism and Exchange
    3. Good Interpersonal Relationships
    4. Maintaining the Social Order
    5. Social Contract and Individual Rights
    6. Universal Principles
  • The first two stages have preconventional level of morality.
  • During stage 3 and 4, child shows conventional level of morality.
  • Postconventional level of resoning is observed during stage 5 and 6.


  • Parents influence the moral development of their children.
  • Kolberg's theory explained moral development in a philosophical and psychological context.


  1. Smeltzer SC, Bare BG. Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing. 10th edition. (Edrs). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004.
  2. Psychiatry, Third Edition. Edited by Allan Tasman, Jerald Kay, Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Michael B. First and Mario Maj. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2008.
This page was last updated on: 04/12/2020