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Kohlberg, Lawrence (1927–1987)


Lawrence Kohlberg virtually developed the fields of moral psychology and moral education through his pioneering cognitive developmental theory and research. Kohlberg's work grew out of a lifelong commitment to address injustice. After graduating from high school at the end of World War II, he volunteered as an engineer on a ship that was smuggling Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine through the British blockade. He was captured, interred in Cyprus, escaped, fled to a kibbutz in Palestine, and made his way back to the United States where he joined another crew transporting refugees.

A passionate reader of the Great Books throughout his life, Kohlberg completed his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in one year. In 1958 he received his doctoral degree in psychology after writing a dissertation on developmental changes in children's moral thinking. This dissertation, which evaluated children's responses to the fictional dilemma of an impoverished man who steals an expensive drug for his dying wife, became one of the most cited unpublished dissertations ever. Kohlberg taught briefly at Yale, then at the University of Chicago, and finally at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where he established the Center for Moral Education.

When Kohlberg began his graduate studies, American psychologists, who were for the most part behaviorists, did not even use the word moral. Kohlberg's broad intellectual pursuits, which embraced philosophy, sociology, and psychology, led him to challenge mainstream thinking. In his dissertation and subsequent research, he drew on a moral philosophical tradition extending from Socrates to Kant that focused on the importance of moral reasoning and judgment. Although Kohlberg was heavily influneced by Jean Piaget's research and played a major role in advancing Piaget's cognitive developmental paradigm in the United States, James Mark Baldwin, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead also significantly affected Kohlberg's thinking.

Kohlberg's empirical research yielded an original and fecund description of moral development. In his dissertation, he presented a cross-section of children and adolescents with a set of moral dilemmas and asked them to justify their judgments with a series of probing questions. Using an abductive "bootstrapping" method, he derived a sequence of moral types, which became the basis for his well-known six stages of moral judgment.

Stages of Moral Judgment

Kohlberg modified his descriptions of the stages and method for coding them from the time of his dissertation to the publication of the Standard Issue Scoring Manual in 1987. Stage one is characterized by blind obedience to rules and authority and a fear of punishment. Stage two is characterized by seeking to pursue one's concrete interests, recognizing that others need to do the same, and a calculating instrumental approach to decision-making. Stage three is characterized by trying to live up to the expectations of others for good behavior, by having good motives, and by fostering close relationships. Stage four is characterized by a concern for maintaining the social system in order to promote social order and welfare. Stage five is characterized by judging the moral worth of societal rules and values insofar as they are consistent with fundamental values, such as liberty, the general welfare or utility, human rights, and contractual obligations. Stage six is characterized by universal principles of justice and respect for human autonomy.

Kohlberg hoped that his stages could provide a framework for moral education. He noted, however, that one could not simply assume that a higher stage was a better stage; one had to make a philosophical argument that the higher stages were more adequate from a moral point of view. It was only then that educators could find a warrant for pursuing moral development as an aim of education. In his provocative essay, "From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Psychological Fallacy and Get Away with It in the Study of Moral Development," Kohlberg demonstrated a parallelism between psychological descriptive and philosophical-normative analyses of the stages, a parallelism, which, he contended, led to a complementarity and even convergence of the two analyses.

In addition to the moral hierarchy of the stages, Kohlberg made four other fundamental claims for his moral stage approach that are directly relevant to moral education. First, he, like Piaget, conceived of the stages as constructed and reconstructed by individuals through interacting with their social environment. Kohlberg sharply distinguished his constructivist/interactionist approach from approaches which emphasize primarily the environment (socialization approaches) or the individual (maturationist approaches). Second, he posited that the stages of moral development are universal. Third, he held that the stage formed an invariant sequence of development without skips or reversals. Finally, he maintained that his stages were holistic structures or organized patterns of moral reasoning. Kohlberg and his colleagues attempted to support these claims through twenty years of longitudinal and cross-cultural research.

Moral Education

When he turned his attention to moral psychology to moral education, Kohlberg was faced with the objection that any form of teaching virtue involved the imposition of an arbitrary personal or religious belief. Kohlberg appealed to the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate the principles of justice upon which the American government is based are, in fact, the very principles at the core of his highest stages. For Kohlberg civic and moral development are one and the same. Kohlberg endorsed Dewey's view that development (intellectual as well as moral) ought to be the aim of education and that schools ought to provide an environment conducive to development. As a constructivist, Kohlberg advocated that schools provide an environment that encouraged active exploration rather than passive learning. Later Kohlberg would put these ideas into practice when he instituted the just community first in prisons and later in schools.

Kohlberg's first research-based contribution to moral education was the moral discussion approach. He started working on the approach in 1967 after his graduate student, Moshe Blatt, had found that the discussion of moral dilemmas led to a modest but significant development in moral reasoning. The moral discussion approach offered educators a way of promoting moral development while avoiding the Scylla of indoctrination and Charybdis of values relativism. The key to the moral discussion approach was to stimulate a lively exchange of points of view that would lead to the disequilibrium necessary for cognitive development. The discussion leader acted as a facilitator and Socratic questioner, encouraging students to consider the perspective of others and to examine the adequacy of their own arguments.

The moral discussion approach should not be confused with the values clarification approach that was very prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. The values clarification approach, which started with the assumption that values were a matter of individual preference, represented the extreme of individual relativism. According to this approach, the role of the teacher was limited to helping individual students to become aware of their own values and to tolerate the values of others.

Kohlberg saw the moral discussion approach as one way of promoting development to higher stages of moral reasoning through thoughtful and critical dialogue about moral issues. He was concerned that traditional approaches to character education with their emphasis on exhortation and role-modeling oversimplified the process of moral development and encouraged conformity. Kohlberg wanted an approach to moral education that could address the social issues of his day, such as racism and social inequality. He also wanted an approach to moral education that went beyond cultural relativism. Moral education, he believed, ought to be about fostering universal principles of justice, not transmitting the values of one's particular culture or subculture.

Kohlberg's abiding concern for building a more just society through moral education led him to question whether the moral discussion approach was sufficient. Classroom moral discussions focused on hypothetical dilemmas or problems in history and literature, but not the problems that students encountered in school. Dilemma discussions stopped at individual students' moral reasoning and did not address the school environment. Kohlberg challenged schools to take a more radical approach and become "little republics" ruled not by an aristocracy of philosopher-teachers but by a democracy of teachers and students, engaged in philosophical deliberation about the good of their community.

Kohlberg's most significant contribution to moral education was the just community approach, which he developed over the last thirteen years of his life by working closely with teachers and students in three alternative high schools. The just community approach has two major features: direct-participatory democracy and a commitment to building community, characterized by a strong sense of unity. Direct participatory democracy not only involves students in moral discussions about problems in school, but also helps students to feel responsible for solving those problems. The role of democracy in the just approach cannot be understood, however, apart from the role that community plays in providing a goal for the democracy and shared expectations for student participation.

Kohlberg's view of community was heavily influenced by his observations of a kibbutz high school in Israel and his appropriation of Émile Durkheim's collectivist theory of moral education. Kohlberg believed that American schools were too focused on individual achievement and failed to offer students an opportunity to become attached to a group that could offer them a rich social and moral experience. He urged that teachers become advocates of community in democratic meetings by challenging students to commit themselves to upholding shared values of caring, trust, and collective responsibility. While asking teachers and students to devote themselves to promoting the welfare of the community, he established procedures for checking the power of the group over the individual. Kohlberg believed that the just community approach was needed not only to promote moral development but also to revitalize a sense of democratic civic engagement in a culture that had become excessively focused on private interest.

See also: Affect and Emotional Development; Educational Psychology; Moral Development.


Colby, Anne, et al. 1987. The Measurement of Moral Judgment: Vol 1, Theoretical Foundations and Research Validation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. Essays on Moral Development: Vol. 1, The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. Essays on Moral Development: Vol. 2, The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kuhmerker, Lisa; Gielen, Uwe; and Hayes, Richard L. 1994. The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions. Birmingham, AL: Doxa.

Modgil, Sohan, and Modgil, Celia, eds. 1986. Lawrence Kohlberg, Consensus and Controversy. Philadelphia: Falmer.

Power, F. Clark; Higgins, Ann; and Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1989. Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education. New York: Columbia University Press.

Reed, Donald R. C. 1997. Following Kohlberg : Liberalism and the Practice of Democratic Community. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Reimer, Joseph; Paolitto, Diana Pritchard; and Hersh, Richard H. 1983. Promoting Moral Growth from Piaget to Kohlberg. New York: Longman.

F. Clark Power

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Kohlberg, Lawrence

Kohlberg, Lawrence 1927-1987


The psychologist and educator Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a cognitive-developmental theory of morality that dominated the fields of moral psychology and moral education for over two decades until the mid-1990s. Though born of a wealthy family in New York, he chose to identify himself with the oppressed, helping to smuggle Jews through the British blockade of Palestine after World War II (19391945). He viewed his theory of moral development as a response to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Despite the pervasive reliance of everyday decision-making on notions of right and wrong, good and bad, that constitute the domain of moral psychology, little empirical research had actually been done on the subject. At the time Kohlberg completed his dissertation in 1958, moral psychology in North America was dominated by theories that portrayed people as either caught in a conflict between powerful self-interest and social convention (Freudian psychoanalysis) or passively molded by social norms (behaviorism). In Freuds account, morality was at best something to be endured in order for people to live cooperatively. On the assumption of cultural relativity, there were no morally justifiable grounds upon which to judge Hitlers actions as wrong.

It was in Kohlbergs seminal work From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalistic Fallacy and Get Away with It (1971) that he acknowledged self-interest, cultural embeddedness, and cultural relativity (the is), and at the same time saw within the process of cognitive development the grounds for validating a formally more adequate and universal morality (the moral ought). (The naturalistic fallacy of the books title refers to the invalid derivation of the moral good from the facts of how the world is.) Extending the earlier work of Jean Piaget, he proposed three broad and universal levels of moral development that proceeded from primary self-interest (level 1: preconventional morality), to embeddedness within social norms and structures (level 2: conventional morality), to the highest level of developmental maturity (level 3: postconventional or principled morality). Each of the three levels was further divided into two stages. Nature would point the way, so to speak, in differentiating higher-stage morality from more conventional views on morality, and moral development was described as proceeding through an invariant and irreversible stage sequence.

Each successive stage of moral development was made possible by increases in perspective-taking ability, with the highest, principled level taking into account the perspectives of all individuals in a moral conflict (i.e., a universal perspective). Level 3: stage 5 (the social-contract legalistic orientation) includes a number of moral principles commonly found in philosophy and professional codes of ethics. Ideal societies are those that are founded upon: (1) a free and willing participation in a common agreement (or contract) to live together in a law-structured society, (2) respect for individual rights, and (3) a utilitarian analysis of consequences to society for ones actions. Stage 6 (the universal ethical principle orientation) was Kohlbergs vision of ideal moral reasoning, where self-chosen, abstract moral principles of universal justice were viewed as transcending social convention and law.

To investigate moral reasoning within Kohlbergs model, research participants are asked to discuss hypothetical dilemmas that place values into conflict (e.g., life versus law). In the most famous of these dilemmas, the protagonist Heinz considers stealing an unaffordable drug that would cure his terminally ill wife. Heinz has explored every option but comes up financially short. Should Heinz obey the law or steal the drug to save his wifes life? For scoring purposes, the decision to steal or not steal the drug is not as important as the stage of reasoning used to reflect upon the life-versus-law conflict the story imposes. Using this procedure, a considerable body of longitudinal and cross-cultural research has confirmed that individuals do progress through Kohlbergs stages in the proposed invariant sequence (stages 1, 2, 3, etc.).

Despite the far-reaching theoretical and practical influence of Kohlbergs model within psychology, education, and even correctional settings, the model has not been without its strong critics. The theory has been alleged to be biased against women and non-Western cultures who were said to reason in lower level, social conventional terms (Gilligan 1982; Shweder 1994). Even in Western culture, few individuals reason about moral dilemmas in high level, post-conventional terms. The most recent version of the scoring manual has removed the highest level (stage 6) reasoning altogethernot a small deletion given that stage 6 defined the stage sequence as a theory of justice reasoning. Although many of the criticisms have been addressed, the model seems to have lost its conceptual hold within the field. In comparison with earlier published reviews of moral psychology that celebrated the legacy of Kohlberg, more recent reviews emphasize the very social, relationship, and emotional-personality factors that he sought to exclude from the moral domain. Nonetheless, his work remains an important foundation within the field.

SEE ALSO Morality; Piaget, Jean


Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Womens Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Killen, Melanie, and Judith Smetana, eds. 2006. Handbook of Moral Development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. The Philosophy of Moral Development. Vol. 1 of Essays on Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development. Vol. 2 of Essays on Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Shweder, R. 1994. Liberalism as Destiny. In Moral Development: A Compendium, Vol. 4, The Great Justice Debate, ed. Bill Puka, 7174. New York: Garland.

Karl H. Hennig

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Kohlberg, Lawrence

Lawrence Kohlberg

American psychologist whose work centered in the area of the development of moral reasoning.

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York, and received his B.A. (1948) and Ph.D. (1958) from the University of Chicago. He served as an assistant professor at Yale University from 1959 to 1961 and was a fellow of the Center of Advanced Study of Behavioral Science in 1962. Kohlberg began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1963, where he remained until his 1967 appointment to the faculty of Harvard University, where he has served as professor of education and social psychology . Kohlberg is best known for his work in the development of moral reasoning in children and adolescents. Seeking to expand on Jean Piaget's work in cognitive development and to determine whether there are universal stages in moral development as well, Kohlberg conducted a long-term study in which he recorded the responses of boys aged seven through adolescence to hypothetical dilemmas requiring a moral choice. (The most famous sample question is whether the husband of a critically ill woman is justified in stealing a drug that could save her life if the pharmacist is charging much more than he can afford to pay.) Based on the results of his study, Kohlberg concluded that children and adults progress through six stages in the development of moral reasoning. He also concluded that moral development is directly related to cognitive development, with older children able to base their responses on increasingly broad and abstract ethical standards.

In evaluating his research, Kohlberg was primarily interested not in the children's responses themselves, but in the reasoning behind them. Based on their thought processes, he discerned a gradual evolution from self-interest to principled behavior and developed a chronological scheme of moral development consisting of three levels, each made up of two separate stages. Each stage involves increasingly complex thought patterns, and as children arrive at a given stage they tend to consider the bases for previous judgments as invalid. Children from the ages of seven through ten act on the preconventional level, at which they defer to adults and obey rules based on the immediate consequences of their actions. The behavior of children at this level is essentially premoral. At Stage 1, they obey rules in order to avoid punishment , while at Stage 2 their behavior is mostly motivated by the desire to obtain rewards. Starting at around age ten, children enter the conventional level, where their behavior is guided by the opinions of other people and the desire to conform. At Stage 3, the emphasis is on being a "good boy" or "good girl" in order to win approval and avoid disapproval, while at Stage 4 the concept of doing one's duty and upholding the social order becomes predominant. At this stage, respecting and obeying authority (of parents, teachers, God) is an end in itself, without reference to higher principles. By the age of 13, most moral questions are resolved on the conventional level.

During adolescence, children move beyond this level and become capable of postconventional morality, which requires the ability to formulate abstract moral principles, which are then obeyed to avoid self-condemnation rather than the censure of others. At Stage 5, adolescents are guided by a "social contract" orientation toward the welfare of the community, the rights of others, and existing laws. At Stage 6, their actions are guided by ethical standards that transcend the actual laws of their society and are based on such abstract concepts as freedom, dignity, and justice. However, Kohlberg's scheme does not imply that all adolescents negotiate the passage to postconventional morality. Progress through the different stages depends upon the type of thinking that a child or adolescent is capable of at a given point, and also on the negotiation of previous stages. Kohlberg points out that many people never pass beyond the conventional level, and that the most clearly principled response at Stage 6 was expressed by fewer than 10 percent of adolescents over the age of 16. (In relation to the dilemma of the stolen drug, such a response would clearly articulate the existence of a moral law that transcends society's laws about stealing, and the sanctity of human life over financial gain.)

Kohlberg's system is closely related to Piaget's theories, both in its emphasis on cognitive development and in its designation of a chronological series of stages, each dependent on the preceding ones. It also has important implications for the nature-nurture controversy , as it stresses the role of innate rather than environmental factors in moral development. According to Kohlberg, progress from one level or stage to the next involves an internal cognitive reorganization that is more complex than a mere acquisition of precepts from peers, parents, and other authorities. Kohlberg's most famous book is The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, the first volume in a series entitled Essays on Moral Development. The second volume, The Psychology of Moral Development, was published in 1984.

See also Cognitive development

Further Reading

Alper, Joseph. "The Roots of Morality," Science 85, (March 1985): 70.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View. New York: Longman, 1987.

Power, F. Clark. Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

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