Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development: Example Billy's Moral Code

Photo credit: By Lawrence Kohlberg, Em Griffin   By Dr. Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi 

Photo credit: By Lawrence Kohlberg, Em Griffin 

By Dr. Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi 

By Dr. Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi

        Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development discusses psychological methodologies, which are predicated on Jean Piaget’s theoretical framework. The basis of the framework is indicative of three development stages: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010). It is primarily focused on ethical behavior and handling moral dilemmas.

moral dilemma: billy

        Billy is a nine-year-old boy, sees a bike he has always wanted. This is an interesting dilemma because there is not sufficient information about Billy to determine what he may do in this scenario. Based on the situation, there is a significant amount of temptation to take the bike, since no one is around and the bike appears to be unlocked from the bike rack. He can take the bike without anyone knowing, therefore, he would not be blamed (unless there are other circumstances such as passerby, cameras, etc.). 

kohlberg's theory

            Again, understanding what is going through Billy’s mind is difficult since there is not enough information to understand his upbringing, household, personality, and how he interacts in his environment (which I believe would be important elements to anticipate what he may do). However, based on Kohlberg’s theory, assumptions can be made. Pre-conventional morality is based on one’s assessment of discipline. Based on this step, Billy knows if he steals the bike and is caught, he will be punished either by the school, his parents, or both. According to Dr. Barger, at this stage, individuals behave to socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by persons of authority (2000, para. 4). If Billy cares about being punished or has regard for the person who may be upset when he/she finds out the bike is stolen, he will not steal the bike. In this stage, there is also a benefit for Billy. If no one sees him take the bike, he can take it undetected, and now he has the bike he has always wanted (i.e. self-interest). The second level is conventional morality, in which individuals will make decisions based on the needs of others because they are either concerned with maintaining a relationship or they may be worried of how they will react. In Billy’s case, he may contemplate taking the bike because he may fear his parents, teachers, or friends will be disappointed. Plus, he knows right from wrong based on societal norms and how he has been disciplined by his parents (i.e good boy/girl attitude and authority/law/morality/order). The last level is post-conventional morality, which is a bit tricky. Per Dr. Barger, Kohlberg feels this level is not reached by most adults (2000, para. 6). If that is the case, how would this level affect Billy’s decision? I believe it is a mature stage of social and ethical development, as one recognizes social responsibility and has unpretentious interests in the regard for others. Also, this level covers the importance of having a conscience. Therefore, if Billy has a conscience and regard for others, he would not steal the bike. 

moral & social responsibility

        Billy is maturing and with maturing comes social responsibility and ethical behavior standards that should be understood at his age.  I found an article, which stated kids within the United States can comprehend moral themes by nine or ten and understand what is wrong and right as early as 19 months (Blair, 2015; “Research Shows Toddlers Understand Right from Wrong at just 19 months,” 2012). At the same time, with insufficient information, assumptions are made, as we cannot validate that all children’s decisions will be based on such principles due to various factors. There are varying factors to be considered with children (i.e. social environment, upbringing, genetics, mental illness, social disorders, etc.). However, the University of Central Florida (n.d.) discusses Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and mentions that children between the ages of 10 and 13 should understand the universal principles of ethical behavior and moral development. Specifically, at this age, “an individual who reaches this stage [universal ethical principles] acts of out universal principles based upon the equality and worth of all living beings” (“Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, n.d.," para. 11). Based on one's position of universal principles and this article, Billy would not steal the bike because of the “good ol boy” image and the fact he understands consequences and punishment as well as regard for others.


        If one is thinking logically, then it would make sense Billy would not take the bike because he does not want to get in trouble. However, if he is thinking “logically,” he knows if he stole the bike, he would not be able to ride it because people would see it and he would also have to explain it to his parents (if they found it on their property or caught him with the bike in his possession). Also, at nine years of age, he may be thinking about the police as well. Of course, a stolen bike would be reported, so maybe he would think of the consequences of being questioned by the police and that would shun him from taking the bike. But because we do not have sufficient information, we can only base our information on logic and anticipate what he may do and not his background/behavior and environment. The determination of his actions would be based on logic and perception. More than likely, Billy may not want to take it, but if he wants to be accepted and thought of as “cool,” he may steal the bike to impress those who are pressuring and/or influencing him to do so. On the other hand, if he has convictions and a decent upbringing, his instincts of fear and consequences may outweigh the thought of stealing.


Barger, R. N. (2000). A summary of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. 

Blair, E. (2015). And the moral of the story is…kids don’t always understand the moral. NPR. Retrieved from (accessed on 27 February 2018). 

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. (n.d.). University of Central Florida. Retrieved from (accessed on 28 February 2018).

University of Notre Dame. Retrieved from (accessed on 25 February 2018). 

McDevitt, T. M. & Omrod, J. E. (2010). Child development and education. Pearson Ally Bacon            Prentice Hall. 

Research Shows Toddlers Understand Right from Wrong at just 19 months. (2012). Daily Mail. Retrieved from   toddlers-understand-right-wrong-just-19-months.html (accessed on 27 February 2018).