You’ve probably heard a lot of moral theories, such as behaviorism, intuitionism, and relativism. But what do we do when confronted with something that does not fall under these theories?
That’s right — postconventional morality is the next step in moral development. Please find out how it differs from conventional morality and other theories, what makes it important, and why it is useful in society.
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a comprehensive framework that describes the process of moral maturation as a sequence of stages. Unlike common beliefs of the time, Kohlberg proposed that moral development is a continuous journey that extends into adulthood.
His theory was inspired by the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget and was informed by his study of answers children and young adults gave to practical moral dilemmas. Kohlberg’s theory comprises three main levels, each representing a fundamental shift in moral reasoning:
1. Preconventional Morality (typically up to age 9): Children base their moral decisions on avoiding punishment and obtaining rewards at this stage. The primary concern is for personal consequences.
2. Conventional Morality (early adolescence till adulthood): Individuals evaluate right and wrong based on societal rules and norms. They focus on maintaining social order, acting well in others’ eyes, conforming to laws, fulfilling duties, and upholding societal expectations.
3. Postconventional Morality (some adults, not all reach this stage): In this stage, individuals employ abstract reasoning to reflect on ethical principles that transcend societal norms and rules. They consider impartiality, justice, human rights, and welfare. At this level, people are willing to challenge laws or conventions they view as unjust.
Characteristics of Postconventional Morality
The postconventional level of morality characterizes the moral reasoning of most adults, who have developed a more universalistic perspective on ethical issues. Postconventional morality is characterized by a concern for the rights and welfare of all people, not just one’s self-interest or those individuals close to oneself.
Postconventional morality is characterized by a concern for the rights and welfare of all people, not just one’s self-interest or those individuals close to oneself. People at this level often uphold principles such as human rights, justice, equality, and liberty;
- they value principles over rules and laws;
- they consider societal contexts in their decision-making;
- they seek to understand underlying causes rather than simply focusing on symptoms;
- they are willing to question authority figures when necessary and
- they can look beyond their perspectives to consider multiple points of view.
After the conventional stage, people develop a more postconventional morality. This means they don’t just follow the rules; they question them. They ask themselves what is right and wrong.
Stages in Postconventional Morality
Most people go through different stages in morality; however, the most common stages are Obeying the law, behaving ethically for social acceptance, and complying with your duties.
Postconventional morality is divided into two stages, each reflecting a greater understanding of universal ethical principles and the belief in a social contract that fosters fairness and justice.
1. The Social Contract Orientation
The social contract orientation is a postconventional stage of moral development. Individuals who have reached this stage have achieved the capacity to think beyond their interests and to consider the welfare of others, the principles of justice, and the common good.
They recognize that society needs laws, and those laws must be followed. Those who have not matured beyond this stage tend to see moral rules as arbitrary or feel they know what is right or wrong.
Individuals with a social contract orientation believe they have obligations to obey laws because an authority figure created them. They believe that individuals should follow these laws because society would collapse if everyone did as they pleased.
This type of person may also believe that there are times when people must violate laws to help others.
2. Universal Ethical Principles
In the postconventional morality stage, individuals can apply universal ethical principles, marking the pinnacle of moral development. From conventional morality, which applies principles to specific situations, postconventional morality is anchored in universal ethical principles with broad applicability.
The primary objective of this stage is to foster positive relationships and uphold the rights of others. Achieving this goal necessitates individuals to recognize the equal significance of their rights and those of others. Consequently, individuals must be willing to sacrifice certain personal desires to accommodate the needs and wants of others.
At this stage, individuals demonstrate an aptitude for considering all facets of a situation before making decisions instead of focusing on a singular aspect. They also acknowledge the existence of multiple approaches to solving problems or addressing situations, acknowledging that definitive answers may not always exist.
Individuals at this stage also understand their limitations and do not hold unrealistic expectations of perfection. When mistakes are made, or inappropriate actions are taken towards others, they understand that such instances do not define their character negatively or invalidate their right to respect from others.
Postconventional Morality Vs. Conventional Morality
Morality is distinguishing between right and wrong. Postconventional thinking is a stage in cognitive development theory that comes after conventional logic. Conventional morality relies on laws, rules, and accepted social norms to define right and wrong. Here’s a quick overview of how conventional morality differs from postconventional morality:
|Follows universal ethical principles
|Adheres to rules and norms agreed upon by society
|Stage of Moral Development
|Stage 5 & 6 (Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development)
|Stage 3 & 4 (Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development)
|Individual abstract reasoning
|Social standards and relationships
|Based on personal judgment
|Based on the expectations of others
|Justice, human rights, selflessness
|Loyalty, conformity, following social norms
|Considers multiple perspectives and how they affect others
|Follows societal rules regardless of personal beliefs
|Relationship with authority
|Respect for authority, only if it adheres to moral values
|Adherence to authority, regardless of moral values
|Autonomous thought, creating a fair and just society
|Maintain social order, ensure status quo
|Seeks to benefit the greater good
|Focuses on conforming to societal roles
Survive and Thrive in the Progressive Age
People’s morality tends to change as they age. The extent to which this happens depends on the individual. Still, many people tend to become more moral in the postconventional phase – even if they aren’t always acting upon their sense of morality.
This is not to say that only older adults display postconventional morals. Rather, individuals must become more independent and autonomous in thinking about right and wrong before being considered postconventional.
What Is Postconventional Morality?
Postconventional morality refers to the stage in moral development where individuals base their ethical decisions on universal principles and abstract reasoning rather than physical or social consequences. It is the highest level in Kohlberg’s moral development theory.
What Is the Distinguishing Feature of Postconventional Morality?
The distinguishing feature of postconventional morality is its emphasis on personal ethical principles as a basis for judgment. Decisions at this stage are not made based on societal laws and regulations but on larger concepts of justice, human rights, and the welfare of humanity itself.
What Age Is Postconventional Morality?
Postconventional morality typically emerges in adulthood. However, not everyone reaches or operates at this level consistently, as it requires a high level of abstract reasoning and the ability to prioritize ethical principles over societal norms – attributes that often come with maturity and life experience.
What Is an Example of Postconventional Morality?
An example of postconventional morality could be when a person opts to break the law because they perceive it as unjust. For instance, someone might participate in civil disobedience (breaking the law) to protest a regulation or policy they believe is morally wrong or unfair. Despite the potential for legal consequences, the person’s actions are guided by their conviction and principles of justice and fairness.
Fang, Z., Jung, W. H., Korczykowski, M., Luo, L., Prehn, K., Xu, S., Detre, J. A., Kable, J. W., Robertson, D. C., & Rao, H. (2017, August 2). Post-conventional moral reasoning is associated with increased ventral striatal activity at rest and during task. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-07115-w
Elm, D. R., & Weber, J. (1994, May). Measuring moral judgment: The Moral Judgment Interview or the Defining Issues Test? Journal of Business Ethics, 13(5), 341–355. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00871762
Kohlberg, L. (1981, July 1). The Philosophy of Moral Development: Essays in Moral Development. Harper San Francisco. https://doi.org/10.1604/9780060647605
Kohlberg, L. (2008). The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order. Human Development, 51(1), 8–20. https://doi.org/10.1159/000112530