What Is Pre-conventional Morality?

Updated July 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There have been many interpretations of morality over the years. The theory of the six stages of morality, and the three levels that follow, is one such interpretation. It was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg, a cognitive developmental psychologist. He believed that moral reasoning is divided into six stages, and each stage is grouped into three morality levels. These levels are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. In this post, we will discuss more about all the levels.

Pre-conventional Morality

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This is the first level of morality. It is common in children, and sometimes in teens. In preschool, pre-conventional morality is at its most apparent. In elementary school, it is present for most students. By middle school, there are some students who are experiencing it still. 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 will not follow a rule because it is the right thing to do or because they believe it to be just, but they will follow it because of a fear of punishment. Someone will follow a rule because their parents, teachers, or other authority figures may try to punish them if they follow it. They might not know why the behavior is wrong, but they avoid it because of punishment. If there is a chance that they can break the rules without consequence, they will do that.

Many children just don't know right from wrong, and they need someone to guide them. As they grow older, they'll perform moral actions or avoid what they find to be immoral actions because it's the right or wrong thing to do.

Then, there's stage two, which is 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 back-scratching coming to life. For them, right and wrong are still consequences, but they are learning to help others only when it also benefits them.

Conventional Morality

This is level two, and it's mostly found in high school students. However, there are some middle school students who possess it and a few elementary school students, particularly the older ones.

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In stage three, known as good boy or girl, it's all about making the decisions that will be able to please other people. They realize that if they please their authority figures, they will receive some kind of reward. It's where the 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. These are also the brown nosers at work who are known to kiss up to the boss.

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

  • If you have a possession that one person wants, you can share it or make bonds. 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 you possibly can.
  • You remain loyal to your friend. If they are going through a situation, you try to maintain loyalty even though the odds may be against them.
  • Decision-making. When someone makes a decision, they learn how it will affect other people around them. They learn how to look at a choice through many perspectives in order to find the choice that benefits the most people they love.

Then, we move onto stage four, which is known as law and order. A person follows society in order 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 much nuance. The person rarely questions society and doesn't realize that some rules are unfair, and that you can change the laws of the land should people realize a rule is unjust. There are definitely some who will question authority, but this isn't usually brought up until level three.

Post-Conventional Morality

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

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In the social construct stage, a person begins to recognize that rules are just agreements that people have made about what is right and what is wrong. A rule isn't a blind command from an infallible deity, but instead a mechanism that keeps the order of the society going and keeps the peace. People begin realizing that rules are flexible. Some rules are rarely enforced. Others are selectively followed, depending on the situation. Rules that go against what society should be going towards should change, no matter what the cost may be. 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 always changing, no matter what. Society, as they soon learn, is just a social construct, and with any construction, you can build on to it or tear it down.

Finally, there is stage six, the universal ethical principle stage. This is a stage that not many people are able to obtain in their lifetime, so if you have achieved this stage of morality, you should consider yourself lucky. In fact, as the stage is hypothetical, it's unknown if anyone is truly on this level or not.

Basically, stage six is when a person adheres to certain principles that 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 shatter laws they disagree with without caring for their consequences.

Here are a few examples.

  • A person may believe in equality for everyone. If they see someone's equal rights being threatened or violated, they will attack the aggressor, be it physically or by punishing them in other ways.
  • Commitment to justice. Someone wants to see a person punished for their crimes, and when the punishment doesn't fit the crime, they may take it upon themself in order to seek justice. This may include activism, and can go as far as vigilante justice.
  • Respecting everyone. A person may believe that everyone deserves respect and may even break some laws to respect someone.

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. He argues that this theory will measure reasoning for morals, and not necessarily 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 seems to be how people make their morals, and it has to rely on someone's principles in order to be sound. In fact, some may criticize his theory for relying too much on justice and not by other human emotions, such as caring.

His philosophy also believes in someone's values as being a critical tool in figuring out what is wrong and what is right. The definition of what right is will depend on someone, but in the end, it needs to be applied across every society. This is known as moral universalism. He believes that the moral judgments you make can be evaluated in true and false levels.

Also, what makes Kohlberg's theory even more interesting is that no one can skip stages. One must go through each stage individually if they want to reach the top. If someone is afraid of disobeying rules simply because they fear punishment, they cannot move to looking at societal constructs. What happens is that one realizes the limitations of their thinking and moves onto the next stage in order to be satisfied.

While most people are comfy in stage five, some will move onto stage six. It just depends on the person.

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Navigating Morality With BetterHelp

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, and in particular 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. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works by helping individuals reframe the negative, intrusive thought patterns often underlying unwanted emotions and behaviors. This can make difficult situations, such as ethical quandaries, easier to manage.

As discussed above, if you’re experiencing a moral dilemma, or want to work through complicated emotions related to ethics, online therapy is a valuable tool. With BetterHelp, counseling can be done privately and discreetly. You can participate completely anonymously—simply select a “nickname” when registering, if you prefer. The licensed professionals at BetterHelp have helped thousands work through difficult-to-process feelings. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who’ve been helped by online therapy in the past. 

Counselor Reviews

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

“This has been a very difficult year for me, and Elizabeth has been absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better therapist. We have tackled so many topics and I have never felt better about life than I do right now.”


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

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