Developmental theories about human development became quite popular during the second half of the 20th Century. It began with the work of Erik Erikson (1963), who identified six specific stages through which most human being traverse during their lifetime. Each stage was dictated by the specific challenges being faced at various points in our life as we mature, confront new experiences and grow older. This stage theory gained considerable attention through the work of Daniel Levinsohn and his colleagues at Yale University and the popularization of his work (and that of several other developmental theorists) through the writing of Gail Sheehy (1996). The notion of a mid-life crisis gained considerable traction as a result of this developmental work.
There was a second set of developmental theories that built on the conceptual foundation offered by Jean Piaget, the noted Swiss biologists/psychologists. These theorists also offered a set of stages. However, not all human beings “reach” each of these stages. Some remain at “lower” stages of development throughout their life. Several of these adult development theorists and researchers (notably Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan) focused on moral development. Like others in the Piagetian school, they found that many people do not end up at higher levels of moral maturating. Furthermore, Kohlberg and Gilligan both provided extensive evidence indicating that adults continue to struggle with and change personal values throughout their lives.
Lawrence Kohlberg: Moral Development
Offering a Piagetian model of cognitive maturation, Kohlberg (1984) begins with the assumption that moral reasoning is required for each of us to engage in ethical behavior. Furthermore, based on his extensive interviewing (making use of responses to specific case studies), Kohlberg proposes that there are three developmental phases and six developmental stages. Each phase and stage offers a conception of morality that is more complex and nuanced than the conception held at the previous phase and stage.
Three Phases/Six Stages
Starting with Piaget’s (1977) description of morality conceived by children at several ages, Kohlberg identifies three phases (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional) that encompass the six stages of morality. Each phase contains two of the stages.
Pre-conventional: This phase is solely concerned with the self in an egocentric manner. A child with pre-conventional morality has not yet adopted or internalized society’s conventions regarding what is right or wrong but instead focuses largely on external consequences that certain actions may bring: “If I do x then what will happen.” As the most egocentric of the six stages, Stage one (obedience and punishment driven) focus on the direct consequences of actions on oneself. Stage two (self-interest driven) concerns “what’s in it for me.” What does an individual believe to be in their best interest. What is immediately “convenient.” As related to other people, it is all about reciprocity: “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”