Lawrence Kohlberg developed a landmark theory on moral development that has generated much research, application, and controversy in many fields. Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York, to a wealthy family and was educated in private schools. Facing the immorality of the Holocaust as a young man, he helped smuggle Jewish refugees from Europe. He enrolled at the University of Chicago and, because of his brilliance on admissions tests, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1 year, continuing on to do graduate work in psychology.
Kohlberg was much influenced by works of Dewey and Piaget, particularly Piaget’s views of moral reasoning and use of problems to ascertain children’s thinking levels. Kohlberg’s dissertation, published in 1958, proposed a six-stage theory of moral development, based on his study of 72 middle-class white boys in Chicago, expanding Piaget’s two-stage model. This brought him instant recognition in psychology because he broke with earlier approaches to morality. His research challenged the view that adults shaped moral behavior to avoid bad feelings in children. Kohlberg believed children construct their own moral judgments through interaction with others and their own positive emotions to become moral agents.
In 1968, at age 40, Kohlberg assumed a position at Harvard University. He was revered by students and colleagues and spawned a great deal of research, activism, and controversy. In later years, he developed physical illness and mental instability and committed suicide at age 59, walking into the frigid Atlantic Ocean in January 1987, although his body was not recovered until April of that year.
Kohlberg used “moral dilemmas” to study moral reasoning, first studying teens in the United States, and later in Great Britain, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey. He found moral reasoning to be gradual and developmental, in stages (like Piaget), with all people going through each level in order, but at different rates and with rare regression to earlier stages. There are three levels, each with two stages—six stages total (see entry on Moral Reasoning).
Kohlberg’s earlier work was questioned because his research had not been cross-culturally validated and there was an issue finding so few individuals at stage 6, the highest level. Kohlberg went on to do cross-cultural research and found the same sequence, but varying end points, based on a given society’s levels of social interaction. There were questions about whether a nation’s values affect moral reasoning, with group-oriented cultures having somewhat different responses.
Issues also arose about differences between moral thought and moral behavior and whether self-reports, rather than behavioral outcomes, should be assessed (e.g., do our thoughts predict our acts?). Yet Kohlberg found that 15% of individuals reasoning at level III, 55% of those at level II, and 70% of those at level I cheated when given the chance, indicating that moral reasoning and behavior are connected.
Some have questioned the assumptions of “ordinality” and domain specificity. Is moral reasoning the same for a teacher concerning a problem in education as for a lawyer, coming from a different domain? Particular dilemmas also elicited differences in stage, known as stage mixture, with the modal response being the stage assigned.
A major concern was gender differences in moral reasoning, questioning the generalizability of Kohlberg’s longitudinal work on young males to females (and perhaps to non-Western cultures). Women were found to base moral decisions on caring, personal relations, and attention to human needs, rather than rules, rights, and justice.
Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning, despite its controversies, has influenced many fields, including education, psychology, theology, law, and even politics, spawning a vast amount of research and a focus on moral issues. His approach to moral education through moral controversies is still very much alive.
- Gilligan, (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harvard Graduate School of (2000, October 1). Reconstructing Larry: Assessing the legacy of Lawrence
- Kohlberg. HGSE News/Ed. Retrieved from http://www.gse.harvedu/news/features/larry10012000_page2.html
- Kohlberg, (1975). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education. Phi Delta Kappan, 56, 670–677.
- Kohlberg, (1981). Essays on moral development: The philosophy of moral development: Vol. 1. New York: Harper& Row.
- Kohlberg, (1984). Essays on moral development: The psychology of moral development: Vol. 2. San Francisco: Harper & Row.