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Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987)

Born in Broxville, N.Y., Lawrence Kohlberg was a professor of Education and Social Psychology at Harvard University and is best known for his influential work in moral development and moral education.

As a young man, Kohlberg served in the U.S. Merchant Marine after World War II. He then volunteered to help smuggle Jewish refugees out of Europe and through a British blockade into British-controlled Palestine. He was captured and held in a detention center on Cyprus, finally being rescued by the Haganah, a Jewish fighting force.

Kohlberg's interest in morality developed from these experiences and from the theories of Jean Piaget, who studied the cognitive development of children. In his doctoral dissertation, Kohlberg examined the ways that children reason about what is right and wrong. He presented boys, ages ten to sixteen, with a series of moral dilemmas—stories about people in situations who had to make difficult decisions. The most famous dilemma asks whether a man whose wife is dying from a rare form of cancer should steal the only medicine that might save her life from a scientist who refuses to sell the drug at a price the man can afford.

Based on this research, Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development. He proposed three levels of moral reasoning. At the first level (pre-conventional), children's decisions are based on avoiding punishment and receiving rewards. At the second level (conventional), upholding the rules of society is the highest value. At the highest level (post-conventional), individuals follow universal moral principles that may be more important than the rules of a particular country or group. Clearly Kohlberg was influenced by his own experiences when he broke England's law in order to carry out what he believed was a higher moral imperative: to aid refugees of the Holocaust.

Kohlberg extended his theory into practice with applications to moral education in classrooms. Following criticism that his work dealt with moral reasoning, but not moral action, he developed a program in which participatory democracy in the classroom served as the basis for moral development.

A major debate about Kohlberg's theories was sparked by Carol Gilligan, a professor at Harvard, whose research reflected the view that women's morality differs from that of men's, on whom most of Kohlberg's research was based.

Kohlberg also applied the cognitive-developmental approach to the development of gender identity. His research showed that children's understanding of gender is linked to their level of cognitive development.


Publications by Kohlberg

"A Cognitive-Developmental Analysis of Children's Sex-Role Concepts and Attitudes." In E. E. Maccoby ed., The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1966.

The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive Developmental View. New York: Longman, 1987.

Laura E. Levine

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 5