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28.2: Kohlberg's State Model Of Moral Development

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    Lawrence Kohlberg (1976) developed a very influential stage model of moral development based on Piaget’s stage model of cognitive development (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). He distinguished between three different levels (“styles”) of reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, each subdivided for a total of six stages. Pre-conventional morality is based upon extrinsic rewards and punishes. At first, during Piaget’s sensorimotor period, the child is only sensitive to extrinsic rewards and punishers. Once the child acquires speech during Piaget’s pre-operational stage, distinctions between right and wrong are taught by parents and other authority figures. The child learns the value of cooperation (e.g., “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine”) once making friends and interacting with others. Conventional morality is based on reference to an authority figure (e.g., parent, teacher, clergy member, etc.) at first and then advances to written sources (e.g., the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, etc.). The child acquires a more abstract and flexible understanding of morality once progressing to the stages of concrete and formal operations. The highest (and rarest) post-conventional morality level is based on the application of universal principles such as the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development. [This work, “Kohlberg’s Model of Moral Development,” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Judy Schmitt. It is a derivative of “Kohlberg Model of Moral Development” by Lawrence Kohlberg and Em Griffin/Wikimedia Commons, which is in the public domain.]

    In attempting to teach codes of moral conduct, much parenting consists of the intentional or non-intentional administration of appetitive and aversive events. We may consider how the different parental styles implement learning procedures and how they may relate to Kohlberg’s levels of moral development (see Table \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Parental Styles and Stages of Morality

    Adapted from Levy (2013).





    Unavailable to monitor behavior, administer consequences consistently, or provide explanations

    Available to administer non-contingent presentation of appetitive events and provide praise

    Available to administer contingent presentation of mostly aversive events without explanation

    Available to administer contingent presentation of appetitive and aversive events with explanation

    Pre-conventional morality

    Sense of entitlement

    Conventional morality

    Post-conventional morality

    Indifferent parents (low demandingness, low responsiveness) do not specify codes of conduct or respond to their children’s needs. If other people (siblings, relatives, peers) do not provide rules and/or consequences, the children will most likely base right and wrong on the outcomes of their actions (if it feels good it is right; if it feels bad it is wrong). Indifferent parenting would appear to be most likely to produce pre-conventional reasoning in children.

    Indulgent parents (low demandingness, high responsiveness) do not specify codes of conduct but are affectionate and responsive. They provide “unconditional positive regard” (Rogers, 1957), the type of non-contingent appetitive consequence likely to result in “spoiling” and a sense of entitlement. This could create problems for the children in other contexts (e.g., school, playgrounds) when others react differently to their behavior.

    Authoritarian parents (high demandingness, low responsiveness) specify strict codes of conduct in a non- responsive manner. If the children ask for reasons, they may reply “because I say so!” In their parents’ absence, the children would seek other sources of authority. The authoritarian parenting style would appear likely to result in conventional reasoning.

    Authoritative parents (high demandingness, high responsiveness) specify strict codes of conduct within a con- text of warmth and sensitivity to the children’s needs. They are likely to provide reasons for their codes of conduct, listen to their children’s perspective, and in some instances, negotiate alternative codes. The authoritative style would likely result in post-conventional reasoning. Ideally, by providing reasons and explanations in age-appropriate language, our children would internalize principles of moral conduct and apply them appropriately throughout their lives.

    It is very difficult to administer punishment immediately and on a consistent basis in the natural, free-living environment. Therefore, it is not likely that punishment will work as intended, to suppress undesired behavior. Often, instead, the child will learn to become deceptive or lie in order to avoid being punished. Indifferent parents are not likely to be present to appropriately administer punishment and will probably be inconsistent. Indulgent parents are less likely to administer punishment than other parents, if at all. Authoritarian parents (“my way or the highway”) might effectively suppress the undesired behavior when they are present. However, the behavior may occur when they are not present or when the child is in different situations. Authoritative parents, taking advantage of their children’s verbal and reasoning skills, probably have the greatest likelihood of attaining the desired result. For example, an older sibling picking on a younger one might be told the following scenario which includes stipulation of rules of conduct:

    There is a difference between a jungle and a society. In the jungle, strong animals often attack weaker animals who receive no protection. Human beings have families and societies in which the strong protect the weak and help them grow stronger. You have to decide whether you want to live in our family and be a member of society. If you keep picking on your little brother/ sister, we will need to treat you like an animal from the jungle. We put dangerous animals in a zoo so they cannot hurt anyone, so we will keep you in your room. If you take care of your little brother/sister, mommy and daddy will let you play together and have fun.

    By relying upon language to stipulate and enforce rules in this manner, a parent is most likely to achieve the short- term objective of encouraging appropriate and discouraging inappropriate behavior. In addition, by providing thoughtful explanations and justifications of rules, the parent increases the likelihood that the child will internalize a moral code of conduct as he/she matures.

    This page titled 28.2: Kohlberg's State Model Of Moral Development is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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