Kohlberg, Lawrence 1927-1987

Updated on Apr 28, 2014

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was a psychologist who drew on education, anthropology, and philosophy, to inform his work on the development of moral judgment and on moral behavior. Kohlberg was raised in Bronxville, New York, and attended Phillips Academy, an elite boarding


school. After World War II he assisted in smuggling European Jewish refugees to Palestine. This work, a turning point in Kohlberg's interest in morality, was documented in his first article, “Beds for Bananas” (1948). At the age of 21, Kohlberg enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and earned his bachelor's degree within a year. Kohlberg continued studying at the University of Chicago in pursuit of a degree in clinical psychology; he was inspired by Jean Piaget's work to interview children and adolescents about morality, which was the focus of his dissertation. Kohlberg completed his doctoral degree in 1958. He held a faculty position at the University of Chicago department of psychology for six years before joining the Graduate School of Education at Harvard in 1968. Kohlberg was devoted to developing his research and mentoring students at Harvard until his death in 1987.

Kohlberg's work was particularly influenced by the philosophies of Socrates, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill, as well as the works of Jean Piaget and John Dewey. Just as Socrates thrived on dialogue and conflict, Kohlberg viewed such interactions as essential for his development. Thus, many of his critics could also be considered his collaborators. Most notably, this group includes feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, who began teaching at Harvard with Erik Erickson in 1967. After meeting her in 1968, Kohlberg invited Gilligan to collaborate on a study and, in 1970, to become his teaching and research assistant. Colleagues and friends, the pair coauthored a book and several papers. In 1982, Gilligan authored In a Different Voice, in which she challenged Kohlberg's work by calling for the inclusion of female populations and women's perspectives in morality research. Though at odds with each other in their publications Kohlberg and Gilligan continued to teach together, actually teaching about their disagreements.

Kohlberg's initial contribution to educational psychology set the stage for the remainder of his work. Previous theories on morality assumed that society or adults imposed morality on children or that moral judgments were based on avoiding negative feelings. In contrast, Kohlberg asserted that children are moral philosophers whose ability to formulate their own moral decisions develops with experience. For his doctoral dissertation, Kohlberg interviewed 72 White Chicago boys about the Heinz dilemma: Heinz, a man without the means to buy the drug necessary to save his wife's life, steals the drug from the pharmacist. Based on the boys' responses and influenced by Piaget's theory of developmental stages, Kohlberg identified six stages of moral judgment development contained within three levels. The preconventional level includes stage 1, punishment and obedience orientation, and stage 2, instrumental relativist orientation. The conventional level includes stage 3, interpersonal concordance orientation, and stage 4, society maintaining orientation. The postconventional or principled level includes stage 5, social contract orientation, and stage 6, universal ethics principles. Seeking to validate his theory, Kohlberg developed an interview protocol and scoring guidelines (moral judgment interview) and gathered longitudinal and cross-cultural data. These studies included a 22-year study with data collected every three years and over forty studies conducted in Western and nonWestern countries. Generally, these studies found support for Kohlberg's theory.

Although widely known for his theoretical and empirical work, Kohlberg focused increasingly on practical applications of his work. He consulted on and created moral education programs for schools, universities, prisons, and community organizations. The most radical of these programs was his “just community approach” in which organizations are fully democratic. Kohlberg helped several schools adopt this approach in which every student and staff member has an equal voice, and an equal vote, in every school decision. One decision at the Cluster School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, allowed students to leave school early if there was no elective course they wanted to attend. Elsa Wasserman, a Cluster School counselor, reported that the students felt a rare sense of commitment to the school and to fellow students due to the just community approach.

The impact of Kohlberg's work is not that he provided a definitive answer to a particular psychological question, but that he breathed new life into the formulation of questions and the pursuit of answers. Kohlberg brought a new perspective and new methodology to moral development inquiry and encouraged students and colleagues to challenge his and others' work by bringing their own perspectives to bear on issues. Thus, whereas Kohlberg's theory of moral development is so highly regarded that it is included in nearly every psychology textbook, Kohlberg's work as a whole energized the field, actually diversifying the perspectives and approaches represented in the moral development research conducted by other researchers.



Kohlberg, L. (1948). Beds for bananas. Menorah Journal, 36, 385–399.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 347–380). Chicago: Rand McNally.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Kohlberg, L., & Mayer, R. (1972). Development as the aim of education. Harvard Educational Review, 42, 449–496.

Power, F. C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg's approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.


Kuchinke, K. P. (2001). Lawrence Kohlberg. In J. A. Palmer (Ed.), Fifty modern thinkers on education: From Piaget to the present (pp. 188–193). New York: Routledge.

Walsh, C. (2000, October 1). Reconstructing Larry: Assessing the legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Ed. Magazine. Retrieved April 9, 2008, from

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