Integrating Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development in the Justice System

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Incorporating Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development in the Criminal Justice System Assonia Sims Professor Earl Pinkney November 18, 2018, This paper will identify and discuss three levels of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development and how to incorporate them into the criminal justice system. Next, it will discuss how police officers can use Kohlberg’s stages to evaluate three types of criminals at different stages of moral development. Then, it will illustrate several ways in which to address self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure to prevent police corruption. Finally, this paper will identify and discuss three PrimaFacie duties that all law enforcement should fulfill. In order to be able to incorporate Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development into the criminal justice system, one should be able to identify and understand what each stage is.

Understanding Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Moral development is defined in three levels, with specific stages attached to each level, according to Kohlberg. They are levels 1) Preconventional Morality, 2) Conventional Morality, and 3) Postconventional Morality (Williams & Arrigo, 2012). The first level is conventional morality. Obedience and punishment are considered. This level deals with children aged ten or younger. They are taught rules, values, and societal norms early in life by their parents, and they learn what behaviors their parents will allow and which actions have consequences attached. Kohlberg attributes this conventional way of thinking to children drawing near to a “self-interest” of values driven by external forces or outside influences and consequences. (Williams & Arrigo 2012).

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For example, an adult with knowledge of the laws and good morals and values would think twice about the consequences of committing a crime. A child, on the other hand, with no real knowledge of the law may commit a crime because they understand their parent’s punishment and who have not yet developed morals and values based on societal views will think more about what they can get out of committing a crime as opposed to the consequences. Their behavior is purely based on punishment vs. reward (Williams & Arrigo, 2012). To address this level, officers should ensure that whether the behavior is good or bad, everyone is treated fairly according to the appropriate level of punishment or reward based on the laws and ethical and moral judgment.

The second level is conventional morality. Interpersonal and/or social relationships are formed. This is manifested in children who have reached their teen years and have developed an understanding of social norms, laws, morals, and values. They have simply learned right from wrong and think more selflessly as opposed to children in level one. At the conventional level, people have a strong belief that they should follow the rules set by their family, law, and society and make decisions that demonstrate they think about others. Kohlberg attributes this way of thinking to a desire to be accepted by others (Williams & Arrigo, 2012). For example, a person with good morals and values will avoid unethical behaviors that violate family rules, laws, and social norms because this is what is accepted. A criminal may see themselves as deprived in some way and justify their behavior by thinking that laws and social norms are wrong as it relates to their unethical behavior.

Utilizing Kohlberg’s Stages in Criminal Evaluation

The criminal seeks to please others rather than be accepted by them. In the third and final level, known as post-conventional morality, youth have now reached adulthood. Viewpoints about life and the world around them have changed, and care for self and others is important. More consideration is placed on the values that should be upheld in society instead of their personal values. More self-reflection has occurred at this level; societal norms are incorporated within as opposed to external factors or how others view morality. For example, an adult at this level will not commit crimes because they value laws and the right to live.

The criminal mind, on the other side, does not care about the consequences and will commit the crime (W. et al., 1985). 1. Since there are different levels of crime and different types of criminals, officers could address each type by asking the series of questions that Kohlberg asked in the “Heinz dilemma”: Should the person have committed said crime? 2. Would it change anything if said crime was not committed? 3. Would it make a difference if said crime was committed against someone known or a stranger? 4. Should the criminal be arrested for said crime? In asking this series of questions, officers will be able to identify how moral reasoning morphs over time, and this should help them to be able to make the most ethical and fair decision at any level.

Now, that is not to say that civilians are the only criminals out there. This is a moral issue that exists within the criminal justice system as well. It is called “corruption,” which can be defined as an abuse of authority. Indeed, the very people that are sworn to uphold the law also break the law. Why? Because they are human first and law enforcement second, this type of behavior will never stop. It can, however, be curtailed. The steps necessary to reduce this corrupt way of thinking are to first revise and implement a more stringent code of conduct that heightens the focus on ethics and integrity within law enforcement. Second, officer training. The training received while at the academy is not as realistic as the on-the-job training one can receive.

Based on what division an officer works in, textbook learning will not be enough to prepare them for the “real” dangers they will face. If they are narcotics, they need to be trained for that. If they are homicide, they need that training. The third step should address raises or other incentives. Officers do a tough and dangerous job every day and should be compensated for that. This will greatly reduce the desire to act in self-interest or the pursuit of pleasure (White, 1999). According to W.D. Ross, the duties officers are sworn to uphold are defined as prima facia duties or conditional duties, which are binding unless overridden or trumped by another duty or duties (Williams & Arrigo). These duties include fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, beneficence, self-improvement, and justice. The three most important that all law enforcement should fulfill are 1) duties of fidelity.


This includes keeping promises, agreements, and contracts, which will allow others to be able to trust you. 2) duties of non-maleficence. This duty involves not harming and preventing harm to others in reference to health and safety, to name a few. 3) duties of self-improvement. This is done by continuing to improve knowledge in order to be effective and efficient in specific duties and maintaining good health (Garrett, 2004). Is understanding all of what has been discussed the end all, be all? Absolutely not. Will crime still exist? Absolutely. Having knowledge of why people choose to commit a crime can ultimately have a great impact on patterns of thinking, and this has the potential to address moral reasoning and decrease criminal activity.


  1.’ sMoralStages.htm
  3. Williams, C. R. & Arrigo, B. A. (2012). Ethics,
  4. Crime, and Criminal Justice (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall / Pearson.

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