Lawrence Kohlberg

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Lawrence Kohlberg
Born (1927-10-25)October 25, 1927
Bronxville, New York
Died January 19, 1987(1987-01-19) (aged 59)
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Chicago (earned bachelor's degree in one year)
Known for Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg (/ˈklbərɡ/; October 25, 1927 – January 19, 1987) was an American psychologist best known for his theory of stages of moral development. He served as a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago and at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Even though it was considered unusual in his era, he decided to study the topic of moral judgment, extending Jean Piaget's account of children's moral development from twenty-five years earlier.[1] In fact, it took Kohlberg five years before he was able to publish an article based on his views.[1] Kohlberg's work reflected and extended not only Piaget's findings but also the theories of philosophers George Herbert Mead and James Mark Baldwin.[2] At the same time he was creating a new field within psychology: "moral development". In an empirical study using six criteria, such as citations and recognition, Kohlberg was found to be the 30th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.[3]

Early life[edit]

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York.[4] He was the youngest of four children of Alfred Kohlberg,[5] a Jewish German entrepreneur, and of his second wife, Charlotte Albrecht, a Christian German chemist.[6] His parents separated when he was four years old and divorced finally when he was fourteen. From 1933 to 1938, Laurence and his three other siblings rotated between their mother and father for six months at a time. In 1938 this rotating custody of the Kohlberg children was ended, allowing the children to choose the parent with whom they wanted to live.[6] Kohlberg attended high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which was an elite preparatory school. Kohlberg served in the Merchant Marine at the end of World War II.[7] He worked for a time with the Haganah on a ship smuggling Jewish refugees from Romania through the British Blockade, into Palestine.[8][9] Captured by the British and held at an internment camp on Cyprus, Kohlberg escaped with fellow crew members. Kohlberg was in Palestine during the fighting in 1948 to establish the state of Israel, but refused to participate and focused on nonviolent forms of activism. He also lived in an Israeli kibbutz during this time, until he was able to return to America in 1948.[6] In the same year he enrolled at the University of Chicago. At this time at Chicago it was possible to gain credit for courses by examination, and Kohlberg earned his bachelor's degree in one year, 1948. He then began study for his doctoral degree in psychology, which he completed at Chicago in 1958. In those early years he read Piaget's work. Kohlberg found a scholarly approach that gave a central place to the individual's reasoning in moral decision making. At the time this contrasted with the current psychological approaches of behaviorism and psychoanalysis that explained morality as simple internalization of external cultural or parental rules, through teaching using reinforcement and punishment or identification with a parental authority.[10]


Kohlberg's first academic appointment was at Yale University, as an assistant professor of psychology, 1958–1961. In 1955 while beginning his dissertation, he had married Lucille Stigberg, and the couple had two sons, David and Steven. Kohlberg spent a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, in Palo Alto, California, 1961–1962, and then joined the Psychology Department of the University of Chicago as assistant, then associate professor of psychology and human development, 1962–1967. He held a visiting appointment at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1967–68, and then was appointed Professor of Education and Social Psychology there, beginning 1968, where he remained until his death.

Stages of moral development[edit]

In his 1958 dissertation, Kohlberg wrote what are now known as Kohlberg's stages of moral development.[11] These stages are planes of moral adequacy conceived to explain the development of moral reasoning. Created while studying psychology at the University of Chicago, the theory was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget and a fascination with children's reactions to moral dilemmas.[12] Kohlberg proposed a form of "Socratic" moral education and reaffirmed John Dewey's idea that development should be the aim of education.[13] He also outlined how educators can influence moral development without indoctrination and how public school can be engaged in moral education consistent with the United States Constitution.[1]

Kohlberg's approach begins with the assumption that humans are intrinsically motivated to explore, and become competent at functioning in, their environments. In social development, this leads us to imitate role models we perceive as competent and to look to them for validation.[14] Thus our earliest childhood references on the rightness of our and others' actions are adult role models with whom we are in regular contact. Kohlberg also held that there are common patterns of social life, observed in universally occurring social institutions, such as families, peer groups, structures and procedures for clan or society decision-making, and cooperative work for mutual defense and sustenance. Endeavoring to become competent participants in such institutions, humans in all cultures exhibit similar patterns of action and thought concerning the relations of self, others, and social world. Furthermore, the more one is prompted to imagine how others experience things and imaginatively to take their roles, the more quickly one learns to function well in cooperative human interactions.

The sequence of stages of moral development thus corresponds to a sequence of progressively more inclusive social circles (family, peers, community, etc.), within which humans seek to operate competently. When those groups function well, oriented by reciprocity and mutual care and respect, growing humans adapt to larger and larger circles of justice, care, and respect. Each stage of moral cognitive development is the realization in conscious thought of the relations of justice, care, and respect exhibited in a wider circle of social relations, including narrower circles within the wider.

Kohlberg's theory holds that moral reasoning, which is the basis for ethical behavior, has six identifiable developmental constructive stages – each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than the last.[15] Kohlberg suggested that the higher stages of moral development provide the person with greater capacities/abilities in terms of decision making and so these stages allow people to handle more complex dilemmas.[1] In studying these, Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment beyond the ages originally studied earlier by Piaget,[16] who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages.[15] Expanding considerably upon this groundwork, it was determined that the process of moral development was principally concerned with justice and that its development continued throughout the life span,[11] even spawning dialogue of philosophical implications of such research.[17][18] His model "is based on the assumption of co-operative social organization on the basis of justice and fairness."[19]

Kohlberg studied moral reasoning by presenting subjects with moral dilemmas. He would then categorize and classify the reasoning used in the responses, into one of six distinct stages, grouped into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.[20][21][22] Each level contains two stages. These stages heavily influenced others and have been utilized by others like James Rest in making the Defining Issues Test in 1979.[23]

Moral education[edit]

Kohlberg is most well-known among psychologists for his research in moral psychology, but among educators he is known, for his applied work of moral education in schools. The three major contributions Kohlberg made to moral education were the use of Moral Exemplars, Dilemma Discussions, and Just Community Schools.[6]

Kohlberg first method of moral education was to examine the lives of moral exemplars who practiced principled morals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Socrates, and Abraham Lincoln. He believed that moral exemplars' words and deeds, increased the moral reasoning of those who watched and listened to them.[6] Kohlberg never tested to see if examining the lives of moral exemplars did in fact increase moral reasoning. Recent research in moral psychology has brought back the value of witnessing moral exemplars in action or learning about their stories.[24] Witnessing the virtuous acts of moral exemplars may not increase moral reasoning, but it has been shown to elicit an emotion known as moral elevation that can increase an individual's desire to be a better person and even has the potential to increase prosocial and moral behavior.[24][25][26][27] Although Kohlberg's hypothesis that moral exemplars could increase moral reasoning might be unfounded, his understanding that moral exemplars have an important place in moral education has growing support.

Dilemma discussions in schools was another method proposed by Kohlberg to increase moral reasoning. Unlike moral exemplars, Kohlberg tested this method by integrating moral dilemma discussion into the curricula of school classes in humanities and social studies. Results of this and other studies using similar methods found that moral discussion does increase moral reasoning and works best if the individual in question is in discussion with a person who is using reasoning that is just one stage above their own.[6]

The final method Kohlberg used for moral education was known as "just communities". In 1974, Kohlberg worked with schools to set up democracy-based programs, where both students and teachers were given one vote to decide on school policies.[28] The purpose of these programs were to build a sense of community in schools in order to promote democratic values and increase moral reasoning. Kohlberg's idea and development of "just communities" were greatly influenced by his time living in an Israeli kibbutz when he was a young adult in 1948 and when he was doing longitudinal cross-cultural research of moral development in another Israeli kibbutz.[29]


Some of Kohlberg's most important publications were collected in his Essays on Moral Development, Vols. I and II, The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981) and The Psychology of Moral Development (1984), published by Harper & Row. Other works published by Kohlberg or about Kohlberg's theories and research include Consensus and Controversy, The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development, Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education and Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive Developmental View.[30]


Carol Gilligan, a fellow researcher of Kohlberg's in the studies of moral reasoning that led to Kohlberg's developmental stage theory, suggested that to make moral judgments based on optimizing concrete human relations is not necessarily a lower stage of moral judgment than to consider objective principles. Postulating that women may develop an empathy-based ethic with a different, but not lower structure than that Kohlberg had described, Gilligan wrote In a Different Voice, a book that founded a new movement of care-based ethics that initially found strong resonance among feminists and later achieved wider recognition.

Kohlberg's response to Carol Gilligan's criticism was that he agreed with her that there is a care moral orientation that is distinct from a justice moral orientation, but he disagreed with her claim that women scored lower than men on measures of moral developmental stages because they are more inclined to use care orientation rather than a justice orientation.[31] Kohlberg disagreed with Gilligan's position on two grounds. First, many studies measuring moral development of males and females found no difference between men and women and when differences were found it was attributable to differences in education, work experiences, and role-taking opportunities, but not gender.[31] Second, longitudinal studies of females found the same invariant sequence of moral development as previous studies that were of just males.[31] In other words, Gilligan's criticism of Kohlberg's moral development theory was centered on differences between males and females that did not exist. Kohlberg's detailed responses to numerous critics can be read in his book Essays on Moral Development: Vol.II. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages.

Another criticism against Kohlberg's theory was that it focused too much on reason at the expense of other factors. One problem with Kohlberg's focus on reason was that little empirical evidence found a relationship between moral reasoning and moral behavior. Kohlberg recognized this lack of a relationship between his moral stages and moral behavior. In an attempt to understand this, he proposed two sub-stages within each stage, to explain individual differences within each stage.[31] He then proposed a model of the relationship between moral judgments and moral action. According to Kohlberg,[31] an individual first interprets the situation using their moral reasoning, which is influenced by their moral stage and sub-stage. After interpretation individual's make a deontic choice and a judgment of responsibility, which are both influenced by the stage and sub-stage of the individual. If the individual does decide on a moral action and their obligation to do it, they still need the non-moral skills to carry out a moral behavior. If this model is true than it would explain why research was having a hard time finding a direct relationship between moral reason and moral behavior.

Another problem with Kohlberg's emphasis on moral reasoning is growing empirical support that individuals are more likely to use intuitive "gut reactions" to make moral decisions than use reason-based thought.[32] The high use of intuition directly challenges the place of reason in moral experience. This expanding of the moral domain from reason has raised questions that perhaps morality research is entering areas of inquiry that are not considered real morality, which was a concern of Kohlberg when he first started his research.[32]

Scholars such as Elliot Turiel and James Rest have responded to Kohlberg's work with their own significant contributions.


While doing cross-cultural research in Belize in 1971, Kohlberg contracted a parasitic infection. Due to this, he suffered from extreme abdominal pain. The long-term effects of the infection and the medications took their toll, and Kohlberg's health declined as he also engaged in increasingly demanding professional work, including "Just Community" prison and school moral education programs.[33] Kohlberg sometimes experienced depression as well.

On January 19, 1987, Kohlberg parked at the end of a dead end street in Winthrop, Massachusetts, across from Boston's Logan Airport. He left his wallet with identification on the front seat of his unlocked car and walked into the icy Boston Harbor. His car and wallet were found within a couple of weeks, and his body was recovered some time later, with the late winter thaw, in a tidal marsh across the harbor near the end of a Logan Airport runway.[28]

After Kohlberg's body was recovered and his death confirmed, former students and colleagues published special issues of scholarly journals to commemorate his contribution to developmental psychology.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Rest, James; Clark Power; Mary Brabeck (May 1988). "Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987)". American Psychologist. 5. 43: 399–400. doi:10.1037/h0091958. 
  2. ^ See Kohlberg, L. (1982), "Moral development," in J.M. Broughton & D.J. Freeman-Moir (Eds.), The Cognitive Developmental Psychology of James Mark Baldwin: Current Theory and Research in Genetic Epistemology, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.
  3. ^ Haggbloom, S.J. et al. (2002). The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. Vol. 6, No. 2, 139–15. Haggbloom et al. combined three quantitative variables: citations in professional journals, citations in textbooks, and nominations in a survey given to members of the Association for Psychological Science, with three qualitative variables (converted to quantitative scores): National Academy of Science (NAS) membership, American Psychological Association (APA) President and/or recipient of the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, and surname used as an eponym. Then the list was rank ordered.
  4. ^ See Fowler, J.W., Snarey, J., and DeNicola, K. (1988), Remembrances of Lawrence Kohlberg: A compilation of the presentations given at the Service of Remembrance for Lawrence Kohlberg, at Memorial Church, Harvard University, on May 20, 1987, Atlanta, GA: Center for Research in Faith and Moral Development.
  5. ^ Keeley, J. (1969), The China Lobby Man: The Story of Alfred Kohlberg, New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Snarey, J. R. (2012). Lawrence Kohlberg: Moral biography, moral psychology, and moral pedagogy. In W.E. Pickren, D. A. Dewsbury, M. Wertheimer, W. E. Pickren, D. A. Dewsbury, M. Wertheimer (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in developmental psychology (pp. 277–296). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.
  7. ^ See Kohlberg, L. (1991), "My Personal Search for Universal Morality," in L. Kuhmerker (Ed.), The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions, Birmingham, AL: R.E.P. Books.
  8. ^ Kohlberg, Laurence, "Beds for Bananas," The Menorah Journal, Autumn 1948, pp. 385–399.
  9. ^ Rudolph W. Patzert, Running the Palestine Blockade, Airlife Publishing: Shrewsbury, England, 1994.
  10. ^ Kohlberg, L. (1963). The development of children's orientations toward a moral order: I. Sequence in the development of moral thought. Vita Humana, 6(1–2), 11–33.
  11. ^ a b Kohlberg, Lawrence (1958). "The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16". Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago. 
  12. ^ Crain, William C. (1985). Theories of Development (2Rev ed.). Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-913617-7. 
  13. ^ Kohlberg, Lawrence; Mayer, Rochelle (Winter 1972). "Development as the aim of education" (PDF). Harvard Educational Review. 42 (4): 449–496. 
  14. ^ "Kohlberg, L. (1969), "Stage and sequence," Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, McGraw Hill: New York.
  15. ^ a b Kohlberg, Lawrence (1973). "The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment". Journal of Philosophy. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70, No. 18. 70 (18): 630–646. doi:10.2307/2025030. JSTOR 2025030. 
  16. ^ Piaget, Jean (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. ISBN 0-02-925240-7. 
  17. ^ Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-064760-4. 
  18. ^ Kohlberg, Lawrence; Charles Levine; Alexandra Hewer (1983). Moral stages : a current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, NY: Karger. ISBN 3-8055-3716-6. 
  19. ^ Tsui, Judy; Carolyn Windsor (May 2001). "Some Cross-Cultural Evidence on Ethical Reasoning". Journal of Business Ethics. 31 (2): 143–150. 
  20. ^ Kohlberg, Lawrence (1971). From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalistic Fallacy and Get Away with It in the Study of Moral Development. New York: Academic Press. 
  21. ^ Kohlberg, Lawrence (1976). "Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach". In T. Lickona. Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Holt, NY: Rinehart and Winston. 
  22. ^ Colby, Anne; Kohlberg, L. (1987). The Measurement of Moral Judgment Vol. 2: Standard Issue Scoring Manual. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24447-1. 
  23. ^ Rest, James (1979). Development in Judging Moral Issues. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-0891-1. 
  24. ^ a b Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The 'other-praising' emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2),105–127. doi:10.1080/17439760802650519
  25. ^ Aquino, K., McFerran, B., & Laven, M. (2011). Moral identity and the experience of moral elevation in response to acts of uncommon goodness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 703–718. doi:10.1037/a0022540
  26. ^ Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. M. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21(3), 315–320. doi:10.1177/0956797609359882
  27. ^ Silvers, J. A., & Haidt, J. (2008). Moral elevation can induce nursing. Emotion, 8(2), 291–295. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.8.2.291
  28. ^ a b Walsh, Catherine (2000). "The Life and Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg", Society 37(2): 38–41. doi:10.1007/BF02686189
  29. ^ Snarey, J. R., Reimer, J., & Kohlberg, L. (1985). Development of social-moral reasoning among Kibbutz adolescents: A longitudinal cross-cultural study. Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 3–17. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.21.1.3
  30. ^ "Lawrence Kohlberg: books by Lawrence Kohlberg @". Retrieved 2012-08-06. 
  31. ^ a b c d e Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on Moral Development: Vol .II. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco, Harper & Row
  32. ^ a b Arnold, M. L. (2000). Stage, Sequence, and Sequels: Changing Conceptions of Morality, Post-Kohlberg. Educational Psychology Review, 12(4), 365–383.
  33. ^ Power, F.C., Higgins, A., and Kohlberg, L, Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  34. ^ See, for instance, Boyd, D. (Ed.) (October, 1988), "Special Issue in Honour of Lawrence Kohlberg," Journal of Moral Education Vol. 17, #3; Rest, J. (Ed.) (April, 1988), "Special Issue, The Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg," Counseling and Values Vol. 32, #3; Schrader, D. (Ed.) (Spring, 1990), "The Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg, New Directions for Child Development, #47.