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Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987)

Stages of Moral Judgment, Moral Education

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fictional dilemma of an impoverished man who steals an expensive drug for his dying wife, became one of the most cited unpublished dissertations ever.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.


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.


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