What is Moral Development Theory?

Lawrence Kohlberg, standing on the shoulders of Jean Piaget and his cognitive development theory, decided to take a look into the cognitive action behind moral decision-making. Kohlberg offers no commentary on moral content, but rather focuses his moral development theory on the ability of humans to engage in moral reasoning. Kohlberg identifies two arenas related to this engagement of moral reasoning—perspective-taking and justice operations. Catherine Stonehouse (1995) provides insight into these two components: “Perspective-taking is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another [and] justice operations are the ways in which one understands equality, equity, and reciprocity of the give and take in a situation of moral conflict. Differences in these two components lead to very different ways of judging moral decisions” (p. 63).

Heavily influenced by Piaget’s stage-theory, Kohlberg detected three levels of moral reasoning:

  1. Pre-Conventional
  2. Conventional
  3. Post-Conventional

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development:

Level 1


Level 1, Pre-Conventional, is based on an egocentric, or self-centered, perspective of oneself. Moral reasoning is ascertained through the grid of what benefits the individual.

Level 2


Level 2, Conventional, stands on the previous level and “maintains that moral decisions are dictated by an outside authority, i.e. laws, rules, guidelines” (Estep, 2010, p. 127). Moral reasoning is ascertained through the grid of what would please the perspective of a respected authority figure.

Level 3


Level 3, Post-Conventional, moral reasoning is “based on individually applied principles” (Estep, 2010, p. 128), which means the perspective of moral decision-making is autonomous to a set of principles not merely individualistic or via an authority figure.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The strength of Kohlberg’s theory on moral development lies in its advancement of Piaget’s cognitive development theory. Moral reasoning is inherently intellectual. How humans think tend to relate into action. Kohlberg codified the development of moral reasoning into sequential and invariant stages much like Piaget did with general cognitive development.

A weakness of Kohlberg’s theory on moral development lies in his small sampling pool. Through a course of study called longitudinal, Kohlberg focused on 98 males over the course of thirty years. It could be a weakness that Kohlberg relied solely on males. Furthermore, it could be an even further weakness that only 98 subjects were interviewed. While still a valid working theory, it would have been prudent to take the time to study both male and females as well as follow a greater number of students over the course of a longitudinal study.

Contribution to the Study of Human Development

In studying his subjects’ moral reasoning over time, Kohlberg identified the varying difference that perspective contributes to the question of moral development. Is one’s perspective focused on the self? Is one’s perspective focused on others? Is one’s perspective focused on a general principle of human communal coexistence? It is the perspective on perspectives that Kohlberg identified within human development that contributes so significantly to the advancement of moral reasoning.

Contribution to the Study of Spiritual Formation

While Kohlberg made no claim to the content of morality, simply the cognitive method of reasoning, the moral formation of a Christian does indicate a source of moral authority—God. According to Estep (2010), with a source a moral authority identified, the application of moral formation within a faith community consists of three approaches:

  1. Indoctrination, or a call to transmit the “ethical teachings of Jesus” (p. 147) and the church.
  2. Values clarification, which “encourages the individual to make certain moral determinations [and] reason through moral issues from a Christian perspective” (p. 147).
  3. Moral education, which consist of principles “derived through periods of divergence of opinion, dialog within the community, role-taking, and moral interchange” (p. 148).

Engaging in these three approaches, along with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, can greatly assist the parent, mentor, or Christian educational environment in developing moral reasoning through the lens of the Gospel.

Application to Children and Youth Ministry

Steve Patty (1997) shares a practical outworking of engaging in stage appropriate moral development:

“Young middle schoolers see morality in terms of fair exchanges, or ‘deals.’ As a result [students in the conventional level] revel in investigating what they should or should not do in life situations. They are highly attuned to discovering correct answers. For a Christian, God’s promises of reward for godly living are highly motivating” (p. 76).

Developing a robust moral framework that appropriates the developmentally correct level of moral reasoning coupled with the content of the Christian message found in Scripture could greatly benefit the spiritual formation of children, adolescents, and adults.

Resources for Moral Development Theory

Estep, J. R. (2010). Moral development and christian formation. In J. R. Estep & J. H. Kim (Eds.), Christian formation: Integrating theology & human development (pp. 123-159). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Patty, S. (1997). A developmental framework for doing youth ministry. In R. R. Dunn & M. H. Senter III (Eds.), Reaching a generation for christ (pp. 69-86). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Stonehouse, C. (1995). The power of kohlberg. In J. C. Wilhoit & J. M. Dettoni (Eds.), Nurture that is christian (pp. 61-74). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.