• Category 1: In-Class Active Learning
  • Chapter Objective 9:
    • Describe adolescents’ reasoning abilities and moral development, according to Piaget and Kohlberg.
  • Purpose: Introduce Kohlberg’s theory of moral development
  • In-Class: 15-20 minutes

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development


In introducing Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, you may want to present your class with his best-known dilemma:


In Europe, a woman was near death from a very bad disease, a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging 10 times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could get together only about $1000, which was half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. [Source: Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (p. 379). Chicago: Rand McNally.]  

Ask students to give their own best judgment as to what Heinz should have done and why. Strong differences in opinion inevitably occur and stimulate both a lively classroom discussion and an active interest in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

Kohlberg was more interested in respondents’ reasons than their “yes” or “no” answers. A person could argue that Heinz should or should not steal the drug and be at any of Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning. Reasons for stealing the drug at each level of moral judgment follow:


Preconventional Morality

1.  Avoids punishment—“Heinz’s father-in-law might make big trouble for him if he let his wife die.”

2.  Gains rewards—“Heinz will have someone to fix fine dinners for him if his wife lives.”


Conventional Morality

3.  Gains approval/avoids disapproval—“What would people think of Heinz if he lets his wife die?”

4.  Does duty to support society/avoids dishonor or guilt—“Heinz must live up to his marriage vow of protecting his wife.”


Postconventional Morality

5.  Affirms agreed-upon rights—“Everyone agrees that people have the right to live.”

6.  Abstract, autonomous moral principle—“Saving a life takes precedence over everything else, including the law.”

You might conclude by noting that at one time Kohlberg proposed a possible seventh stage of moral development. Presumably this stage reflected a cosmic orientation in which one is motivated to be true to universal principles and feels oneself part of a cosmic direction transcending social norms.

Alternatively, Mary Vandendorpe suggests applying Kohlberg’s theory to two realistic moral dilemmas—exceeding the 55-mph speed limit and cheating in school. Ask your class to think of reasons for and against these two behaviors. Then divide the class into small groups and have each group classify each reason into one of Kohlberg’s levels.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Vandendorpe, M. M. (1990). Three tasks of adolescence: Cognitive, moral, social. In V. P. Mokosky, C. C. Sileo, L. G. Whittemore, C. P. Landry, & M. L. Skutley (Eds.), Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 126–127). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.