What Is Pre-Conventional Morality?

Updated January 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There have been many interpretations of morality over the years. Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of the six stages of morality is one. Kohlberg was a cognitive developmental psychologist. He believed that moral reasoning is divided into six stages categorized into three morality levels. In this post, we will discuss pre-conventional morality and other levels of moral development.

Pre-Conventional Morality

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Pre-conventional morality is the first level of morality. It is common in children and sometimes in teens. In preschool, pre-conventional morality is most apparent, and in elementary school, it is present for most students. By middle school, some students are still experiencing it. In high school, it's rarer.

The first stage of pre-conventional morality is punishment avoidance and obedience. In other words, a child or even a teen doesn’t follow the rules because it is the right thing to do or because they believe it to be just. They follow it because they fear punishment and know their parents, teachers, or other authority figures may try to punish them if they don’t. If there is a chance that they can break the rules without consequence, they likely will.

Then, there's stage two, which is the exchange of favors. In this stage, a person learns that everyone has a need they’re seeking to fulfill. They will recognize that you can satisfy the needs of someone and get a favor back. It's the philosophy of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” coming to life. Right and wrong are still consequences for them, but they are learning to help others only when it also benefits them.

Conventional Morality

Conventional morality is level two, and it's primarily found in high school students. However, some middle school students possess it, and a few elementary school students, particularly the older ones.

This is the third stage, known as good boy or girl; it's all about making decisions that please other people. They realize that if they satisfy their authority figures, they will receive some kind of reward. This stage is where the idea of a teacher's pet comes from. Other students may roll their eyes at someone kissing up to the teacher, but the person knows that by doing so, they can receive benefits.

It's not just authority figures, however, but friends in general. People begin realizing that you can form bonds in many different ways, including:

  • If you have something that one person wants, you can share it and create a bond. If the two of you have something together, you learn how to share it. This includes siblings and friends.

  • You learn how to trust other people if they can prove their trust. Meanwhile, you try to seem as trustworthy to other people as possible.

  • You remain loyal to your friends. If they are going through a situation, you try to maintain loyalty even though the odds may be against them.

  • When someone makes a decision, they learn how it will affect other people around them. They learn to look at a choice through many perspectives to find the option that benefits the most people they love.

Stage four is known as law and order. A person follows society to find the rules they need to live by. The person in this stage realizes that society has laws they need to follow, and a person may believe that they must obey all or most of them.

A person in this stage typically doesn't view the laws of the land through many nuances. They rarely question society and don't realize that some rules are unfair and that you can change the laws of the land should people realize a rule is unjust. Some question authority, but this isn't usually brought up until level three.

Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality is level three of the stages. It's rarely found in anyone under college age, and as we'll soon discuss, stage six isn't even found in many adults. Let's begin with stage five, the social construct.

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In stage five, the social construct stage, a person begins to recognize that rules are just agreements people have made about right and wrong. A rule isn't a blind command from an infallible deity but a mechanism that keeps the order of the society going and keeps the peace. 

People begin realizing that rules are flexible. Some are rarely enforced, and others are selectively followed, depending on the situation. Rules that go against what society should be going towards should change, no matter the cost. A person at this age has probably seen a few laws change or be implemented and has realized that the law of the land is constantly changing, no matter what. As they soon learn, society is just a construct; with any construction, you can build on it or tear it down.

Finally, there is stage six, the universal ethical principle stage. Not many people can obtain this stage in their lifetime; in fact, as the stage is hypothetical, it's unknown whether anyone is truly on this level.

Stage six is when a person adheres to certain principles they believe in. These principles are applied to everyone and can be quite abstract. Someone in stage six follows their conscious and never disobeys what they believe. They will break laws they disagree with without caring about the consequences.

Assumptions And Philosophy Of Kohlberg's Stages

So, what is the philosophy of all of this? The assumption is that humans are all inherently able to communicate, reason, and want to understand the world around them, including the people they talk to. Kohlberg argues that this theory will measure reasoning for morals rather than the conclusions that follow. He believes that the structure of his moral arguments does not include the content.

One aspect of Kohlberg's theory that keeps popping up is the idea of justice. Justice is how people make their morals; it has to rely on someone's principles to be sound. In fact, some may criticize his theory for relying too much on justice and not on other human emotions, such as caring.

Kohlberg’s philosophy also believes in someone's values as a critical tool in figuring out what is wrong and right. The definition of what is right needs to apply across every society, an idea known as moral universalism. He believes your moral judgments can be evaluated on true and false levels.

What makes Kohlberg's theory even more interesting is that no one can skip stages. One must go through each stage individually to reach the top. If someone is afraid of disobeying rules simply because they fear punishment, they cannot move on to looking at societal constructs. What happens is that one realizes the limitations of their thinking and moves on to the next stage. While most people are comfy in stage five, some will move on to stage six. It just depends on the person.

Navigating Morality With BetterHelp

Online therapy is a valuable tool if you’re experiencing a moral dilemma or want to work through complicated emotions related to ethics. With online therapy, sessions are one-on-one and discreet. You can participate incognito—simply select a “nickname” when registering if you prefer. The licensed professionals at BetterHelp have helped thousands work through difficult-to-process feelings, and they can help you, too.

Research shows that online therapy is a beneficial form of treatment for helping to manage symptoms or concerns arising out of an array of mental health issues, including those related to morality. In a wide-ranging report published in World Psychiatry, the utility of online therapy, particularly online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), was examined. After compiling studies covering several different disorders, researchers concluded that online CBT is an effective, innovative strategy for mental health care. 

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“Stephen is an incredible helper, and has recently guided me through a lot of life. I highly recommend Stephen as someone with a strong moral compass and a great listener.”

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If you are having a moral crisis, or want to have your morality checked, know that help is available. Some people may be comfortable at their stage, or they may want to move on to the next stage. A counselor can assist you by helping you find your moral place in society.

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