Lawrence Kohlberg

October 25, 1927-January 19, 1987

Early Life

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York. He was the son of Alfred Kohlberg, a Jewish man, and of his second wife, Charlotte Albrecht, a Protestant woman. Kohlberg enrolled at the University of Chicago. His scores on the admissions tests were so high that he was excused from most of the required courses and earned his bachelor's degree in one year, 1948. He began study for his doctorate degree, which he earned at Chicago in 1958


In his 1958 dissertation, Kohlberg wrote what are now known as Kohlberg's stages of moral development. 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. Kohlberg proposed a form of “Socratic” moral education and reaffirmed Dewey’s idea that development should be the aim of education. He also outlined how educators can influence moral development without indoctrination and how public school can be engaged in moral education consistent with the Constitution.His 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. Lawrence 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. In studying these, Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment that is far beyond the ages originally studied earlier by Piaget, who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages. 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, even spawning dialogue of philosophical implications of such research.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. Each level contains two stages. These stages heavily influenced others and have been utilized by others like James Rest in making the Defining Issue Test in 1979.

How to Teach Students the Kohlberg Stages of Development

Give the students an example such as the Heinz dilemma. Heinz is a man whose wife is dying from cancer. He has raised $1000 of $2000 needed to buy the drug which will save her. He asks the drug maker if he can have the drug at cost price or pay full price later. The drug maker refuses. Heinz breaks into the drug store that night and steals the drug.Ask the students for their reaction to that story. Ask them not only for their immediate reaction, but also for a justification of their reaction. Kohlberg stated that there are six potential stages of moral development in which all justifications fit. These can be divided into three larger groups. Divide the students into three groups.Place in one group the students who said that Heinz should not steal the drugs since he would be breaking the law and would be punished. These people are in the "pre-conventional morality" stage. They are linking the action with the fear of punishment. Also in the "pre-conventional morality" stage are those who said that Heinz should steal the drugs to keep his wife alive to look after him, and those who said that the drug manufacturer has worked hard to make the drug and so should be allowed to make money. Those in group one are acting on self-interest, even if it is an empathetic self-interest.Create a second group, which contains those who defer not to self-interest, but to the value of societal obedience. This contains those who think that Heinz should steal the drug, and accept any prison sentence to impress his wife and his in-laws. Similarly, those who think that Heinz has a duty to save his wife, but the law also has a duty to put him in prison. This is the "conventional morality" group who feel that the desire to conform to societal pressures should dictate behavior.Make a third group, which is the "post-conventional morality" group. This group contains those who feel that Heinz should steal the drugs, since the right to life supersedes the rights of property. This group believes in universal system of ethics, and that the social contract which underpins law can be changed by consensus. These people feel that society is something they are a part of, and is not external to them.Discuss the results with the students. They will have been engaged in the theory, and will have a frame of reference for future work in the subject.