Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

An Overview of the 3 Main Moral Development Theories

By Olivia Stankey

Ever worked with a student who made a decision against their better judgement? Ever had to work with a student leader who put themselves in a moral dilemma? Ever been in a moral or ethical dilemma yourself? There are three main Moral Development theories within the realm of student affairs: Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, Gilligan’s Theory of Women’s Moral Development, and Rest’s Neo-Kohlbergian Approach. Each of these theories has added something new to our collective understanding of moral development in the students we work with. The following is an overview of each, along with how they compare and contrast to each other.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Of the three moral development theories, this one came first. Kohlberg drew his inspiration from the work of Piaget and Rawls. He was one of the first people to student the moral development of adolescent and college aged students. His work centered around analysis of how psychology and moral philosophy worked together. The result of his work was a hard stage model, meaning the stages are inflexible and individuals work through them in a specific order that does not change (Evans, 2010). There are six stages within three levels.  In addition to these stages and levels, Kohlberg outlined three criteria for his theory and used a very specific justice orientation with his work.

The first criterion is the structure criterion. This criterion states that individuals in each stage display the same level of reasoning ability no matter the situation. The second criterion is the sequence criterion. As stated above, within this theory, individuals move through in a set order that does not change, even if environment changes. Lastly, is the hierarchy criterion. This criterion states that this theory builds on itself to create higher orders or reasoning. Each stage encompasses the ones that come before (Evans, 2010).

Below is a brief overview of each level and stage:

  • Level One (Pre-Conventional)
    • Stage 1: Heteronomous Morality
      • Individuals justify actions based on avoidance of punishment and the superior power of authorities
      • The rights or concerns of others are not considered
    • Stage 2: Individualistic, Instrumental Morality
      • Individuals follow rules if it is in their interest to do so
      • Right is defined by what is fair, an equal exchange, or an agreement
    • Level Two (Conventional)
      • Stage 3: Interpersonally Normative Morality
        • Right is defined as meeting the expectations of those to whom one is close and carrying out appropriate, acceptable social roles
        • Shared feelings, agreements, and expectations take precedence over individual interests, but a generalized social system perspective does not yet exist
      • Stage 4: Social System Morality
        • Right is defined as upholding the laws established by society and carrying out the duties agreed on
        • Individuals behave in a way that maintains the system and fulfills societal obligations
      • Level Three (Post-Conventional or Principled)
        • Stage 5: Human Rights and Social Welfare Morality
          • Laws and societal systems are evaluated based on the extent to which they promote fundamental human rights and values
          • Moral obligations and social relationships are based on making, and being able to depend on, agreements
        • Stage 6: Morality of Universalizable, Reversible, and Prescriptive General Ethical Principles
          • Morality involves equal consideration of the points of view of all involved in a moral situation
          • Decisions are based on universal generalizable principles that apply in all situations
          • Note: Kohlberg unsuccessful in empirically demonstrating stage 6 because the stage was based on few individuals, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., with formal training in philosophy and a demonstrated commitment to moral leadership (Evans, 2010)

Overall, Kohlberg’s theory was groundbreaking and opened up a new line of research into individual moral development. However, like many studies and theories of the time, Kohlberg only studied white men. Therefore, this theory may only apply to students who fit those identities, or may partially fit for others who do not share these identities. This is where Gilligan and Rest come into play.

Gilligan’s Theory of Women’s Moral Development

Gilligan built off of Kohlberg’s research. She felt that the moral development of women was not represented within current moral development theories of the time so she worked to change that. Her work studied women in particular, so this theory, like Kohlberg has a binary slant in terms of gender and sex. Therefore, think critically when applying each of these three moral development theories.

Gilligan’s theory has three levels and two transition periods. She focused on how women make connections to others as a central idea of women’s moral development. Where Kohlberg had a justice orientation to his theory, Gilligan has a care orientation. This care orientation focused on how relationships with others must carry equal weight with self-care when making more decisions (Evans, 2010). This orientation made her the first to recognize and document two different moral orientation. Additionally, she worked to link moral development and student affairs more specifically, creating a long-standing relationship between the two (Evans, 2010).

Below is an overview of her three levels and two transition periods:

  • Pre-Conventional/Orientation to Individual Survival
    • Goal is individual survival
    • Selfish, (child)
  • Transition
    • Selfishness to responsibility to others
  • Conventional/Goodness as Self-Sacrifice
    • World is based on reliance on others,
    • Social morality, (wife, mother)
  • Transition
    • From only thinking of others, to also seeing self as a person
  • Post-Conventional/The Morality of Nonviolence
    • Principle of nonviolence
    • Do not hurt others or self, principled morality
    • Similar to Kohlberg, not all reach this highest level (Evans, 2010)

Overall, Gilligan’s theory was meant to build off of Kohlberg with specific consideration to the women who were not represented in his theory, which is why the model is similar in that both theories have stages that you build upon, when you must work through one to reach the next. Additionally, both have a final stage that they both believed not all individuals reach in their lifetime. They mainly differ in terms of orientation – Kohlberg with a justice orientation and Gilligan with a care orientation. The final theorist, Rest, changes some of these assumptions.

Rest’s Neo-Kohlbergian Approach

Rest’s work mainly builds off of Kohlberg’s, similar to Gilligan, but takes a different position. Rest viewed moral development as more fluid and more broadly than Kohlberg did (Evans, 2010). Where Kohlberg and Gilligan have set stages to move through and build on each other, Rest felt that the stages of moral development were more fluid, that one may use more than one stage at a time and may even show forward movement in more than one stage at a time. Like Kohlberg, it is assumed that Rest mainly studied white men, again limiting the range of applicability of these moral development theories.

Where Kohlberg had his three criterion, Rest had three schemas: the personal interest schema, the maintaining norms schema, and the post-conventional schema. The first develops during childhood, where individuals consider what each stakeholder has to gain or lose in a moral dilemma. This schema views morally right as what appeals to the investment an individual holds in the consequences (Evans, 2010). The second criteria is a first attempt to see societal collaborations, such as wanting generally accepted social norms, believing that norms apply to all in said society, establishing a chain of command, and more (Evans, 2010). This schema assumes that respect for authority comes from a respect for society. Lastly, the final schema asserts a moral obligation on communal values and is more advanced in terms of ethics.  With this schema, individuals appeal to an ideal, want shareable values and full reciprocity. With these schemas and the more fluid stages of the theory (overview below), Rest set out to examine how expectations about actions/rules are known and shared and how interests are balanced in a society.

Below is an overview of the central concepts for determining moral rights and responsibilities:

  • Stage 1: Obedience
    • “Do what your told…”
  • Stage 2: Instrumental egoism and simple exchange
    • “Let’s make a deal”
  • Stage 3: Interpersonal concordance
    • “Be considerate, nice, and kind, and you’ll get along with people”
  • Stage 4: Law and duty to the social order
    • “Everyone in society is obligated and protected by the law”
  • Stage 5: Societal consensus
    • “You are obligated by whatever arrangements are agreed to by due process procedures”
  • Stage 6: Non-arbitrary social cooperation
    • “How rational and impartial people would organize cooperation is moral” (Evans, 2010).

Overall, Rest contributed to our understanding of moral development by asserting that individuals do not necessarily develop in neat and tidy stages, but rather can make progress in multiple areas at the same time. Rest also looked more closely at how society affects and is involved in an individual’s moral development, whereas Kohlberg and Gilligan focused more on the individual. Lastly, Rest is known for being one of the first to create an objective measure of moral development, called the Defining Issues Test (DIT).

References: Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student

development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA:


Summary of Comparison and Contrast 


  • All three are Theories on Moral Development
  • Kohlberg and Rest studied similar populations
  • Gilligan and Rest both built off of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
  • Gilligan and Kohlberg both have progressions where you complete one to move onto the next one, where Rest believed you could be in multiple or make progress in multiple at the same time

Olivia works as a Program Coordinator for Residential Leadership at University of Oregon. She may be reached at stankey@uoregon.edu

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