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Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), psychologist

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York on October 25, 1927. He served as a professor at Harvard University. He started as a developmental psychologist in the early 1970s and became famous for his later work in moral education, especially his theory of moral development.

Previously, observers like Jean Piaget, John Dewey and James Mark Baldwin emphasized that human beings develop philosophically and psychologically in stages.

Table of contents
1 Kohlberg's stages of moral development
2 An explanation of the stages:
3 Kohlberg's moral discussion approach

Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Kohlberg added that moral reasoning (the basis for ethical behavior) also develops through stages. He was able to demonstrate this in his studies at Harvard's Center for Moral Education. He concluded that there are six identifiable stages which are classified into three levels.

Level 1 (Pre-conventional)

1. Obedience and Punishment
2. Individualism, Instrumentalism, and Exchange

Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal Concordance ("Good boy/girl")
4. Law and Order

Level 3 (Post-conventional)
5. Social Contract
6. Universal Ethical Principles (Principled Conscience)

Some notes and explanation:

These stages refer to reasoning, not actions and not people themselves. Furthermore, Kohlberg insists that the form of moral arguments remains independent of the content of the arguments.

He also says that moral reasoning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for moral action and that Piaget's stages of cognitive development are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the stages of moral reasoning. Also, it is important to remember that he posits justice as the a piori summum bonum.

An explanation of the stages:

The first level is the elementary school mentality. In stage one, people conform to social norms and to what they are told to do by authority figures (parents, teachers). This motive is to avoid punishment (punishment is threatened). Stage two espouses the "what's in it for me" position; right behavior being defined by what is in one's own best interests.

The second level is the "conventional" or typical stage found in society in general. Stage 3 is seeking the approval of others. Stage 4 is oriented to obeying the law and heeding the obligations of duty.

The third level, Kohlberg said, is rare: most adults never reach this stage of moral reasoning. Stage 5 is the awareness that social contracts are mutually benefitial, which implies that a person at this stage is concerned about others. Stage 6 is respects universal principle and answers to the individual conscience. (While Kohlberg insisted there was a stage 6, he could never get enough test subjects to define or observe it.)

Some conditions and notes

According to Kohlberg, one cannot skip levels. A person cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer opinions (stage 3) to a being a proponent social contracts (stage 5). In fact, one cannot even comprehend the reasoning of a stage higher than the one immediately above the present stage. However, when a person encounters a moral dilemma (see below) and finds that his current level of moral reasoning is not satisfactory, he will look to the next level -- in fact, higher level reasoning is "cognitively attractive" because it makes more sense and resolves more conflicts.

Kohlberg also observed that there is a stage 4 or 4+ which is a transition from stage 4 to stage 5. This stage is where people have become disaffected with the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning and become moral relativists. This transition stage may result in either progress to stage 5 or in regression to stage 4.

Kohlberg further speculated that a 7th stage may exist (Transcendental Morality) which would link religion with moral reasoning (See James Fowler's stages of faith).

Kohlberg's moral discussion approach

Like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that development is fueled by social interaction. Moral education can be accomplished in formal education by confronting people with moral dilemmas (or cognitive conflicts). Discussion of the dilemma would cause insights and development to higher stages by showing the benefits of higher stage reasoning. He and others formulated Kohlberg dilemmas for this purpose.

Lawrence Kohlberg died on April 15, 1987.