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Lawrence Kohlberg Psychologist and Emeritus professor at Harvard presented the following levels and stages of Moral Reasoning:

The typology below contains three distinct levels of moral thinking, based on in depth studies done by Kohlberg and colleagues in longitudinal studies. Within each of these levels there are two stages. Kohlberg considered each level and stage a separate moral philosophy representing distinct views of the socio-moral world. 

The important variable in moral reasoning is the 'why' for choice of action - which is the 'reason' or 'motivation' given as explanation by the individual. 
Progression is forward in sequence, and does not skip steps. However an individual may stop at any given stage at any time. This can be brought on by having experienced a negative life experience. An example is trauma which often leads to fears of survival, again leading to rigid thinking due to the need for predictability. Thus the need for rigid boundaries and structure becomes important as defense against the mistrust (fear) of the future, as the ultimate unknown. 

The last stages, 5 & 6 can be considered 'ideal' and is rarely reached by the majority of people. 

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Lizzie van Zyl



Transmission of Trauma

A British smear campaign
againts the Afrikaners...

Scorched Earth

On Forgiveness...

Moral Reasoning

Brief Biography of a 'quite
civilized Afrikaner'







Age Range


Nature of Moral Reasoning

Level I: Preconventional Morality

Seen in preschool children, most elementary school students, some junior high school students, and a few high school students

Stage 1: Punishment-avoidance and obedience

People make decisions based on what is best for themselves, without regard for others' needs or feelings. They obey rules only if established by more powerful individuals; they may disobey if they aren't likely to get caught. "Wrong" behaviors are those that will be punished. [The reasoning is: I can do something (wrongful) as long as I don't get caught]. The main goal is to avoid punishment.



Stage 2: Exchange of favors

People recognize that others also have needs. They may try to satisfy others' needs if their own needs are also met ("you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours"). They continue to define right and wrong primarily in terms of consequences to themselves - the pragmatic view. Personal gain is important not loyalty, gratitude or justice.

Level II: Conventional Morality

Seen in a few older elementary school students, some junior high school students, and many high school students (Stage 4 typically does not appear until the high school years)

Stage 3: Good boy/girl

People make decisions based on what actions will please others, especially authority figures and other individuals with high status (e.g., teachers, popular peers). They are concerned about maintaining relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty, and they take other people's perspectives and intentions into account when making decisions.
Conformity and being 'nice' is important. Intention like 'he means well' is overused. 



Stage 4: Law and order

People look to society as a whole for guidelines about right or wrong. They know rules are necessary for keeping society running smoothly and believe it is their "duty" to obey them. However, they perceive rules to be inflexible; they don't necessarily recognize that as society's needs change, rules should change as well.
Earning respect of society by performing dutifully is important. The emphasis is on doing your duty, stick to the rules and obey the law unquestionably.

Level II: Postconventional Morality

Rarely seen before college Stage 6 is extremely rare even in adults.

Stage 5: Social contract

People recognize that rules represent agreements among many individuals about appropriate behavior. Rules are seen as potentially useful mechanisms that can maintain the general social order and protect individual rights, rather than as absolute dictates that must be obeyed simply because they are "the law" as seen in stage 4. People also recognize the flexibility of rules; rules that no longer serve society's best interests can and should be changed.



Stage 6: Universal ethical principle

Stage 6 is a hypothetical, "ideal" stage that few people ever reach. People in this stage adhere to a few abstract, universal principles (e.g., equality of all people, respect for human dignity, commitment to justice) that transcend specific norms and rules. They answer to a strong inner conscience and willingly disobey laws that violate their own ethical principles. The guiding principle is equality of human rights, respecting the dignity of human beings as individual persons.

Sources: Colby & Kohlberg, 1984; Colby et al., 1983; Kohlberg, 1976, 1984, 1986; Reimer, Paolitto, & Hersh, 1983; Snarey, 1995.

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