Lawrence Kohlberg

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Lawrence Kohlberg (October 25, 1927 – January 19, 1987) was born in Bronxville, New York. He served as a professor at the University of Chicago as well as Harvard University. He is famous for his work in moral development and education. Being a close follower of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg's work reflects and extends the work of his predecessor. A brilliant scholar, Kohlberg was also passionate about putting theory into practice. He founded several "just community" schools in an attempt to stimulate more mature moral thinking in young people, with the hope that they would become people who would create a more just and peaceful society.


Lawrence Kohlberg grew up in a wealthy family and attended Phillips Academy, a private and renowned high school. During the Second World War, following his high school education, he decided to join the merchant marines. During his time as a sailor he helped Jews escape from Europe by smuggling them into Palestine.

After his service in the war he applied to the University of Chicago. He received his bachelor's degree in psychology in just one year. Kohlberg stayed at the University of Chicago for his graduate work, becoming fascinated with children's moral reasoning and the earlier works of James Mark Baldwin, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, William McDougall, Jean Piaget, and others. He wrote his doctoral dissertation there in 1958, outlining what became his theory of moral development.

In 1968, at 40 years of age and married with two children, he became a professor of education and social psychology at Harvard University. There he met and befriended Carol Gilligan, who became his colleague and most outspoken critic of his theory.

During a visit to Israel in 1969, Kohlberg journeyed to a kibbutz and was shocked to discover how much more the youths' moral development had progressed compared to those who were not part of kibbutzim. Jarred by what he saw, he decided to rethink his current research and started by beginning a new school within a school, called the Cluster School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cluster School ran as a "just community" where students and staff had a basic and trustworthy relationship with one another, using democracy to make all the school's decisions. Armed with this model he started similar "just communities" in other schools and even in a prison.

Kohlberg contracted a tropical disease in 1971 while doing cross-cultural work in Belize. As a result, he struggled with depression and physical pain for the following 16 years. On January 19, 1987, he took a day's leave from the hospital where he was being treated, drove to the coast, and drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. Rumors persist that he committed suicide. He was 59 years old. To this day Kohlberg's work is continued by his peers, friends, colleagues, and students.


Theory of moral development

Did you know?
Lawrence Kohlberg identified stages in the development of moral reasoning by asking people to solve "moral dilemmas" and exploring the reasoning behind their answers

Kohlberg is most well-known for his theory of the development of moral reasoning. Fascinated by Piaget's work on moral development in children and adolescents, he developed his own interview technique for his doctoral dissertation. In what has become the classic method for studying moral reasoning, he presented a "moral dilemma" to 72 white boys aged seven to sixteen. This dilemma was in the form of a fictional story about a man called Heinz whose wife needed a special drug to save her life.

Heinz and the Drug
In Europe a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer.
There was one drug that doctors thought might save her. It was a form
of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered.
The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten
times what the drug cost to make. He paid $200 for the radium and
charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband,
Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only
get together about $1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the
druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or
let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug
and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and began
to think about breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for
his wife.
Should Heinz steal the drug?
Stages of moral development

Kohlberg explored the reasoning behind the boys' answers, not just whether they said Heinz should steal the drug or not. In this way he found that younger children based their reasoning on laws given by authority, such as it's bad to steal (Pre-conventional level), older children considered more the social conventions and what is socially acceptable (Conventional level), and finally, the most mature considered the welfare of others (Post-conventional level). These levels correspond to stages of cognitive development, as the children used increasingly complex and abstract reasoning to justify their responses. Based on these results, Kohlberg constructed a model of moral development consisting of six stages, two within each of the three levels. His doctoral dissertation, published in 1958, presented the child as a moral philosopher, developing his or her own moral judgments through a fixed sequence of increasingly flexible kinds of moral reasoning.

He continued to refine this model during his years at Harvard, investigating further the nature of each stage, the invariant nature and universality of the sequence of these stages, and how we progress through them. He never found anyone who fully satisfied his criteria for stage 6 reasoning, which is based on universal principles, although he cited historical figures, for example Gandhi, as performing on that level. In his later years he reflected on issues that went beyond morality into the realm of religious thought, such as "Why live?" and "Why be just in a universe that is largely unjust?" postulating a seventh stage of development in which we achieve peace and contentment through loving “that which is most worthy of love, or the most permanent cause of Love: Life, the Universe, God, or Nature” (Kurtines & Gewirtz 1991, 42).

While his theory generated great interest, and continues to be the benchmark of theories of moral development, it was also the source of great controversy. His most famous critic was his colleague at Harvard, Carol Gilligan, whose book In a Different Voice (Gilligan 1982) argued that since Kohlberg interviewed only boys, his theory was lacking certain components found in women's thinking, particularly the importance of relationships and an ethic of care as opposed to justice.

Just community schools

Kohlberg was more than a brilliant scholar, he was passionate about putting theory into practice. His theory of moral development involved a series of stages, which he believed children must pass through in a fixed order. Kohlberg believed that progress from one stage to the next was based on social interaction—opportunities to experience and reflect on situations involving moral decisions. Therefore, he reasoned, participating in moral discussions with others, especially those at a higher level of moral reasoning, should lead to increased maturity in moral judgment. The opportunity to test this hypothesis in a real situation came in 1974, when Kohlberg was invited to join the planning group for the Cluster School, which became his first "just community."

This was in effect a community of practice that, at least in Kohlberg's conception, had a core group of those trusted to define and resolve the disputes between members, and to facilitate the growth of moral development of all involved. The use of community meetings on all decisions, combined with the principle of each person (student or staff) having one vote, were designed to expose students to real situations expected to stimulate their moral reasoning.

In addition to this first school, Kohlberg was instrumental in forming several other just communities in schools, as well as one in a women's prison. However, the outcomes of these projects have not shown the straightforward increase in maturity of moral reasoning that Kohlberg initially hoped for.


Kohlberg's theory, research program, and educational practices expanded our conception of morality. His work raised the issues of justice, cross-cultural universality of moral judgment, moral education, and the relationship between moral judgment and action.

Although their research produced different models of moral development, Kohlberg and Gilligan worked together on the "just community" project. They did not reconcile the different approaches to moral development they took to the project; rather, they played quite different roles in the interventions.

Kohlberg's “just community” approach to moral education has been implemented by others, most notably the Swiss educator Fritz Oser, in a variety of schools and educational programs, both in the United States and other countries.

Beyond his theory and educational programs, Kohlberg's legacy is found in his influence on others:

[Kohlberg had a] unique effect on his family of colleagues—both close and extended—in terms of their scholarship, their careers, and their lives. Herein lies Kohlberg's greatest legacy: the study of morality is a collaborative venture in which a community, in the truest sense of the word, joins in mind and spirit to create something larger than itself (Schrader 1990, 1).

Those who knew him recall their friend Larry as a very special person: "philosopher, developmental psychologist, free spirit, scientist, person, and friend…the exceptional person whom one rarely meets in a lifetime" (Kurtines & Gewirtz 1991, 4).

He was the kind of person who related to everyone, opening his office and home to them without restriction, engaging them in open and lively discussion on every issue regardless of their viewpoint. As Gewirtz noted,

Larry's home…functioned very much like the idealized salon of 19th-century Paris. During any visit, one might meet, at Larry's, a remarkable mix of students, opinion leaders, philosophers, psychologists, neighbors, sociologists, faculty and research colleagues, visiting colleagues from the United States, Europe, or Asia, or people Larry would have met in town, on the beach, or while fishing, oystering, clamming, or sailing. A visitor to Larry's place was always guaranteed an exciting intellectual experience (Kurtines & Gewirtz 1991, 4).

One of those European colleagues, Wolfgang Edelstein, offered these remarks in commemoration:

Larry not only left us the moral imperatives and perspectives of enlightened science. He left with us memories of a caring human being, of the tenderness and fragility and friendliness of a person who was able to unite, though he did not fear to divide where such was called for. The world is poorer without him…. The world would be an even less just and less friendly place than it is but for the life and work of Lawrence Kohlberg (Kurtines & Gewirtz 1991, 14).

Major works

  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1958. The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in years 10 to 16. Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1971. "From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalist Fallacy and get away with it in the Study of Moral Development." In T. Mischel, ed., Cognitive Development and Epistemology. New York: Academic Press.
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. Essays on Moral Development: Vol. 1. The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060647604
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. Essays on Moral Development: Vol. 2. The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060647612
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1987. Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View. New York: Longman. ISBN 0582283027
  • Colby, Anne, Lawrence Kohlberg and collaborators. 1987. The Measurement of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521244471

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Garrod, Andrew (ed.). 1993. Approaches to Moral Development: New Research and Emerging Themes. New York: Teachers College Press. ISBN 0807732478
  • Gilligan, Carol. 1993. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (originally published 1982). ISBN 0674445449
  • Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz. 1991. Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development. Volume 1: Theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 0805808809
  • Schrader, Dawn (ed.). 1990. The Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. ISBN 155542824X


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