Moral development in late adolescence and adulthood: A critique and reconstruction of kohlberg’s theory

John Michael Murphy, Carol Gilligan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article provides an alternative conception of postconventional moral development which fits existing data on late adolescent and adult moral judgment better than Kohlberg’s higher stage descriptions. Moral judgment data from a longitudinal study of 26 undergraduates are scored by Kohlberg’s newly revised manual and replicate his original finding that a significant percentage of subjects appear to regress from adolescence to adulthood. The persistence of rclativistic regression in these data suggests the need to revise the theory. The same hypothetical moral dilemmas are also scored according to an alternative coding scheme based on the hypothesis of an adult form of cognitive development. Results indicate that the Kohlberg regressors are progressors when evaluated against a standard of commitment in relativism instead of absolute principles of justice. Real-life data on the same subjects suggest that this progression is related to actual experiences of moral conflict and choice which lead to the restructuring of moral judgment to a more dialectical mode. It is suggested that this alternative notion of postconventional development is necessary for understanding (and scoring) adult moral judgment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-104
Number of pages28
JournalHuman Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1980


  • Adolescent development
  • Adult development
  • Cognitive development
  • Epistemological development
  • Formal operations
  • Moral development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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