Theories of Moral Development - Kohlberg versus Gilligan

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Acknowledging the relevance of Piaget’s cognitive perspective on development, Kohlberg proposed a theory of progressive moral development based upon cognitive aspects of moral reasoning. He proposed that children progress through stages of moral maturation based on their cognitive conceptualizations of right and wrong. He measured these constructs using situational examples of moral dilemmas to assess the underlying thought processes used in the determination of these judgments.

The theory gives precedence to the reasoning utilized to arrive at moral conclusions rather than evaluating the moral content of the choice. Based on his research, Kohlberg posited three levels and six stages of moral development which documents the progression of moral development through the process of internalization whereby behavior is governed first by external influences and later by internally incorporated standards and principles. Kohlberg’s levels are outlined as follows:

1. Preconventional Level – Moral judgments are neither internalized nor based on social convention, rules or laws but governed external reward and punishment

a. Stage 1 – Heteronomous Morality – judgments based on an obedience and punishment orientation whereby good behavior is based upon a desire to avoid punishment from external authority

b. Stage 2 – Individualism, Purpose and Exchange – judgments based on a hedonistic and instrumental orientation whereby actions are motivated by a desire for reward or benefit and good is judged in relation to whatever satisfies one’s own needs, directly or indirectly

2. Conventional Level – Moral judgments are based on internalized standards arising from concrete experience in the social world with reasoning focusing on the opinions of others or on formal laws

a. Stage 3 – Mutual Interpersonal Expectations, Relationships and Interpersonal Conformity (the good-boy/nice-girl orientation) – actions are based on the consideration of the approval of others and are motivated more by a fear of disapproval rather than by a fear of punishment; the moral standards of influential adults are assimilated into the child’s moral code

b. Stage 4 – Social System Morality (authority or law and order orientation) – moral judgments based upon doing one’s duty as prescribed by society’s laws with concerns about dishonor or harm to others replacing concern about the disapproval of others

3. Postconventional Level /Principled Morality – Moral judgments transcend conventional reasoning and are focused upon abstract principles underlying right and wrong

a. Stage 5 – Social Contract or Utility and Individual Rights – (social contract orientation) - the goal is to meet one’s obligation to society; laws are deemed important, even if judged as arbitrary, because they allow for societal harmony; actions are motivated by a desire to maintain self-respect and the respect of peers

b. Stage 6 – Universal Ethical Principles – (hierarchy of principles orientation) – the goal is to make decisions on the basis of the highest relevant moral principles; rules of society are integrated with dictates of conscience to provide a hierarchy of moral principles; concern shifts to avoiding self-condemnation for violating one’s own principles. (Kohlberg, 1976; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004).
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

While Kohlberg’s justice perspective presents a structured and empirically supported categorization of the progression of moral thought, it is limited by the observation that moral reasoning in hypothetical situations has been shown at best, to be only weakly predictive of actual moral behavior (Rest, 1983). Additionally, Kohlberg’s theory has been criticized for separating the form of moral reasoning from the actual content of moral judgment, an aspect that comprises the key point of evaluation for many theorists. Others argue that Kohlberg underestimates the influence of parental guidance, which, through discipline and observed example teaches children moral principles and moral behavior (Hoffman, 1971; Gibbs, et al., 2007). Furthermore, his construct fails to give adequate consideration to the influence of the broader cultural context and gender differences on the development of values and morals (Santrock, 2002).

Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s theory for gender bias, emphasizing its lack of attention to relationship and the development of empathy and concern for others. In her view, known as the care perspective, interpersonal relationships, attachment and connectedness form the basis for the motivation to think and behave in morally correct ways, particularly in the development of girls. Gilligan claims that through the process of socialization, boys and girls are taught to apply a different focus when evaluating moral situations – males using a justice perspective and females using a care perspective. Specifically, she argues that females respond to moral dilemmas based on interpersonal obligations while males respond to more abstract concepts such as justice, fairness and equality, a difference, she argues, which results in lower developmental scores for girls in the moral dilemma tests using the Kohlberg system (Gilligan, 1992, 1996; Santrock, 2002; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004).

While Gilligan may have pointed out a shortfall of the Kohlberg model, research does not fully support her claims of gender bias (Walker, 1984; Lyons, 1990). Her model of gender based orientation to moral reasoning appears too simplistic to explain the complex phenomena of moral thought and behavior (Thoma, 1986; Wark & Krebbs, 1996). Furthermore, like Kohlberg’s model, Gilligan’s categorization can be criticized for being culture-specific, reflecting the individualistic nature of middle-class groups in highly complex and developed societies (Snarey, 1985).


DeHart, G. B., Sroufe, L. A. & Cooper, R. G. (2004). Child development: Its nature and course, 5e. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Gibbs, J., Basinger, K., Grime, R., & Snarey, J. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review. 27. 443-500. 10.1016/j.dr.2007.04.001.

Gilligan, C. (1992, May). Joining the resistance: Girls’ development in adolescence. Paper presented at the symposium on development and vulnerability in close relationships, Montreal, Canada.

Gilligan, C. (1996). The centrality of relationships in psychological development: A puzzle, some evidence and a theory. In G. G. Noam & K. W. Fischer (Eds.). Development and vulnerability in close relationships. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hoffman, M. L. (1971). Identification and conscience development. Child Development, 42:1071–1082.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.). Moral development and behavior. New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston.

Rest, J. (1983). Morality. In P.H. Mussen, J. H. Flavell, and E. M. Markman (Eds.). Handbook of child psychology, Volume 3, Cognitive development, 4e, 920-990. New York, NY: Wiley.

Santrock, J. W. (2002). Life-span development, 8e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Snarey, J. R. (1985). Cross-cultural universality of social-moral development: A critical review of Kohlbergian research. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 202-232.

Thoma, S. J. (1986). Estimating gender differences in the comprehension and preference of moral issues. Developmental review, 6, 165-180.

Wark, G. & Krebbs, D. (1996). Gender and developmental differences in real-life moral judgment. Developmental Psychology, 32, 220-230.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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