Lawrence Kohlberg: Biography, Moral Development, Contributions

Lawrence Kohlberg  (1927 – 1987) was an American psychologist and professor who rose to fame for his theory of moral development in people. This theory is still considered one of the most successful today in this field, and is often compared with other of the most important in the field of development, such as Piaget’s.

During his life he worked as a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, and in the school of education at Harvard. At the same time, despite being a not very common choice in his time, he decided to study moral development in children and expand the theories that Piaget had begun to formulate in this regard.

In the years that followed, Kohlberg was able to expand not only the theories of Jean Piaget, but also those of other important thinkers such as James Baldwin and George Herbert Mead. Later, he published an article summarizing his point of view on the matter, which earned him great recognition both inside and outside his country.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory was very influential in both the field of psychology and education, as he was the first to study the phenomenon of moral development in real depth. At the same time, he was one of the first exponents of the cognitive current, which had not yet gained much traction in the United States.


Early years

Lawrence Kohlberg was born in Bronxville, New York, on October 25, 1927. He was the youngest of four siblings, and the son of entrepreneur Alfred Kohlberg, a Jew of German origin, and his second wife, Charlotte Albrecht, who was dedicated to the world of chemistry. However, when he was only four years old, his parents separated, formally divorcing when he was fourteen.

For the first few years of his life, Lawrence and his siblings lived in the joint custody of their parents, spending six months with each of them. However, in 1938 this joint custody came to an end, and the children were able to choose who they wanted to live with until their adulthood. Her two older brothers stayed with the mother, and the two younger brothers (including Lawrence) decided to live with the father.

During his teens, Kohlberg attended the high school years at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. This center was considered “elite”. Later, he served in the Merchant Navy during the last years of World War II, and briefly worked on a ship that rescued Jewish refugees in Romania and took them to Palestine.

During this stage, the British government captured Kohlberg when he was smuggling Jewish refugees, and locked him up in a concentration camp in Cyprus. However, the young man managed to escape with several of his companions. Afterwards, he stayed in Palestine for a few years, where he decided to demonstrate non-violently for the rights of Israel.

Finally, in 1948 he finally managed to return to the United States, where he decided to pursue higher education.

Academic life

After returning to the United States, Kohlberg enrolled in classes at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in just one year. Later, he began to study the work of Piaget, on whom he drew on to develop his doctoral thesis, which he presented in 1958. Already at this time he became interested in moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s first teaching job was at Yale University, as an assistant in the field of psychology. He remained at this center between 1958 and 1961. At the same time, he continued to combine his moral studies with raising his two newborn children.

Later, after going through several more educational centers, he obtained the post of professor of education and social psychology at Harvard University in 1968. He remained working at this prestigious center for the rest of his life.

In 1971, while in Belize carrying out a series of investigations, Kohlberg was infected by a parasite that caused him all kinds of physical discomfort for the rest of his life. Over time, these became unbearable and caused the psychologist to end up suffering from deep depression. Finally, in 1987, he ended up committing suicide.

However, despite this tragic fact, Kohlberg’s work has been very influential in the world of psychology, to the point where he is considered the 30th most important researcher in this field among all those who lived in the 20th century.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

In his 1958 dissertation, which earned him his doctorate in psychology, Kohlberg first presented what are now known as “Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.” These are different phases that the author identified and investigated in the formation of moral thought in children.

At this time, most psychologists thought that morality was nothing more than the internalization of socially transmitted norms, mainly from parents to children, through a system of reinforcement and punishment.

On the contrary, Kohlberg argued that ethical thinking develops by itself, in the same way that other capacities such as logic do.

The main influence for this author in the development of his theory was Jean Piaget, who had begun to study this area two decades before but never came to formulate a complete theory in this regard.

Basis of the theory

Kohlberg’s thinking is based on the idea that people have an intrinsic motivation to explore and develop, in such a way that they can function appropriately in the environment in which they live.

Within our social development, this leads us to imitate the people we perceive as competent, and to seek their validation to know that we are acting correctly.

On the other hand, Kohlberg defended the idea that there are different patterns in the social world, which can be observed over and over again in all kinds of groups and institutions. These patterns dictate the norms that regulate behavior in the social world, and include elements such as cooperation, advocacy, and mutual aid.

The moral theory of this author, then, explains ethics as a series of skills that are acquired throughout development with the function of allowing us to develop easily within the social world.

Each of the stages described by Kohlberg involves a wider group of people, and the recognition of a greater number of subtleties in this regard.

Stages of moral development

In his research using ethical dilemmas, Lawrence Kohlberg was able to identify six stages all children go through in developing their moral thinking. The author argued that the more advanced a stage was, the better it allowed the person to face different decision-making situations.

It is important to note that not all people manage to reach the highest level, but this would be an event that rarely occurs by itself. Due to this, the author defended the need to carry out moral education programs.

The six stages can in turn be divided into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

1- Preconventional level

This level is characterized by the fact that each action is judged based on its most direct consequences. In this way, people at this level care only for themselves.

Within it, the first stage uses externally received rewards and punishments as a measure of whether an action is appropriate or not.

In the second, on the contrary, the person is able to think beyond and focus on the possible consequences that he believes that each way of acting will have. In this way, she sees the world in a relative way, and does not believe in absolute morality.

2- Conventional level

The conventional level is the most typical among adolescents and adults. People in it judge whether an action is moral or not based on the expectations and ways of thinking of society. This is the most common level among individuals in developed countries.

In stage three, the person judges the morality of an action based on whether it is something approved by the majority of society or not. Your intention is to be perceived as “good.”

In stage four, on the other hand, the acceptance of social norms has more to do with the preservation of an orderly and functional society, and not so much with external approval.

3- Post-conventional level

Finally, people at the third level are able to realize that each individual is separate from society as a whole, and that they can therefore maintain their own views and ethics without having to share them with anyone else.

Individuals at this level tend to live by their principles, which typically include things like freedom and justice.

In stage five, the person perceives the world as a set of ideas, opinions and values ​​that must be respected even if they are not shared. Therefore, laws are considered necessary to maintain social order.

On the contrary, in stage six the only valid ethics for the person is his own logical reasoning, and therefore there is only one absolute truth. Laws, therefore, should exist only if they help encourage individuals to act on this universal moral imperative.

Other contributions and main works

Kohlberg did not publish many complete works during his lifetime, but instead devoted himself primarily to the study of morality. In addition to the well-known theory of the six stages already described, the author also tried to find other phases, some of them intermediate and a later one, which would be considered as the seventh stage. However, it failed to gather enough empirical evidence to prove its existence.

Most of his writings on morality were collected in the compilation Essays on moral development , which was divided into two volumes.


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