What Is Pre-Conventional Morality?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There have been several 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. To understand morality theories like this one, looking at pre-conventional morality and other levels of moral development can be helpful.

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Pre-conventional morality

Pre-conventional morality is the first level of morality. It is common in children and sometimes in teens. Pre-conventional morality is most apparent in preschool and elementary school; it may be present in many students. Some students may still experience it by middle school, but it is considered rarer in high school.

The first stage of pre-conventional morality is punishment avoidance and obedience. In this case, a child or 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 might. 

The second stage is an exchange of favors. In this stage, a person learns that everyone has a need they're seeking to fulfill. They 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 when it benefits them.

Conventional morality

Conventional morality is level two, primarily found in high school students. However, some younger students may also experience this level. 

Conventional morality also contains the third stage, known as "good boy or girl." It involves making decisions that please other people. The individual realizes that they can receive a reward if they satisfy their authority figures. This stage is where the idea of a "teacher's pet" may come from. Other students may roll their eyes at someone trying to please the teacher, but the person may do so to receive benefits. 

However, people may not only partake in this behavior with teachers but also with friends. For example, some may realize: 

  • If you have something that one person wants, you can share it and create a bond. 
  • You may learn 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 may not see nuance in law. They may rarely question society and struggle to realize that some rules are unfair. Some may question authority. 

Post-conventional morality

Post-conventional morality is the third stage. It's rarely found in anyone under college age, and stage six of this stage may not be found in some adults. 

In stage five, the social construct stage, a person begins to recognize that rules are 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 peace and order of society.  

People realize 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 toward 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 a construct.

Finally, there is stage six, the universal ethical principle stage. This stage is hypothetical, so whether anyone has reached this level is unknown. Stage six occurs when an individual adheres to principles that they believe in. These principles are applied to everyone and can be abstract. Someone in stage six follows their conscious and never disobeys what they believe. They may break laws they disagree with without caring about the consequences.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Assumptions and the philosophy of Kohlberg's stages

This theory assumes that humans are all inherently able to communicate, reason, and understand the world around them, including the people they talk to. Kohlberg argues that this theory will measure reasoning for morals rather than the following conclusions. He believes that the structure of his moral arguments does not include the content.

One aspect of Kohlberg's theory is the idea of justice. Justice is how people make their morals; it relies on someone's principles being sound. For this reason, some may criticize Kohlberg's theory for relying too much on justice and not on other human emotions, such as love. 

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

In Kohlberg's theory, no one can skip stages. One must go through each stage individually to reach the top. If someone is afraid of disobeying rules because they fear punishment, they may struggle to move on to looking at societal constructs. They may realize the limitations of their thinking and move on to the next stage. While many people may feel comfortable in stage five, some will move on to stage six. 

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Navigating morality with professional support

Talking to a professional can help individuals cope with quarrels related to morality. If you're struggling with these topics, it may be beneficial to talk to a therapist. Therapists can be reached online or in person, but some may prefer online therapy for convenience and affordability. 

Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be valuable 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 by selecting a nickname when you sign up. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Research shows that online therapy is beneficial for managing symptoms of various mental health challenges, 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 healthcare. 


If you are experiencing a moral crisis or want to check your morality, know that help is available. Some people may be comfortable at their stage or want to move on to the next stage. A counselor can assist you in understanding which theories of morality you connect with.
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