Cultural Considerations of Kohlberg’s Theory

There is cross-cultural support for Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (Gibbs, et al., 2007; Snarey, 1985). It appears that people progress through the stages in the same order; however, individuals in different cultures seem to do so at different rates. Some researchers question the universality of all stages in all cultures. For example, the highest level of Kohlberg’s theory posits that individual principles should override social or cultural tradition and laws. Inherent in this view is a hierarchy which is inconsistent with collectivist cultural values. Additionally, Kohlberg’s theory does not consider relationships, affiliation or justice. As you might expect, his work has been criticized for using only White, males from the Midwestern United States and for his assertion that women seem to be deficient in their moral reasoning abilities when compared to men.


A row of young black male children are smiling and laughing; their arms are around one another.
By 10 children in most cultures believe that harming others, either physically or by violating their rights, is wrong [Image by No Attribution]

Carol Gilligan (1982) criticized Kohlberg’s theory and instead proposed that males and females reason differently about morality. She argued that girls and women focus more on staying connected and maintaining interpersonal relationships, whereas boys and men emphasize justice and individual rights. She labelled these the Morality of Caring and the Morality of Justice. Additionally, Shaffer and colleagues (2002) argued that Kohlberg’s theory neglects to consider the central role that emotion plays in morality. Given that emotions play a critical role in influencing our thoughts and motivating our actions, it seems critical that emotion be part of the model. Other models of morality have emerged to address these limitations and the most widely discussed within cultural psychology is the Three Ethic Model of Morality.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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