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University of Wyoming

Lawrence Kohlberg

Theory of Moral Development


Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory or Moral Development (1973) is a sequential developmental theory in which the notions of adult experience and moral development converge. Moral growth begins early in life and continues in stages throughout adulthood until death. Kohlberg defines three sequential levels, with each level having two sequential stages. To attain the higher stages of moral development one must experience irrevocable more decision making.

Assumption about Learning:

Kohlberg does not link moral development with specific ages. Rather, adults are fully developed when they can respond to life as distinct autonomous human beings. "Lawrence Kohlberg's ideas of moral development are based on the premise that at birth, all humans are void of morals, ethics, and honesty. He identifies the family as the first source of values and moral development for an individual. He believed that as one's intelligence and ability to interact with others matures, so does one's patterns of moral behavior" (Woolfolk, 1993)

Brief History (Context):

Kohlberg was born on October 25, 1927 in Bronxville, New York. Despite his families wealth, he joined the navy and after World War II, he helped to smuggle Jews through the British blockade of Palestine. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and American philosopher John Dewey influenced Kohlberg's work. Kohlberg studied under Piaget and embraced his idea of stages, moral realism, and morality of cooperation. Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychology professor at Harvard University, devoted his life to research in moral reasoning and development. In 1987, Kohlberg was hospitalized for a tropical disease he had contracted years before., He was reported missing and later found dead in a marsh. Rumor surrounds his death; it is alleged he took his own life.

Major Proponents/Critics:

Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg, did not believe his conclusions were cognizant of women. Her research, on how women make moral decisions, concludes that women's moral decision making and values are different from men's. Carol Gilligan, Budd Churchard, Mary Field Belenky, Thomas Lickona and countless others were spurred by the framework and findings of Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development.

Major Tenets:

Kohlberg used surveys to aid research in assessing moral development. Subjects (of all ages, primarily boys/men) were given certain scenarios with moral dilemmas and asked to evaluate the moral conflict. He concluded that moral growth begins early in life and continues in stages throughout adulthood until death.

The Theory of Moral Development is hierarchical, people progress in their moral reasoning (i.e., in their bases for ethical behavior) through a series of stages. Kohlberg's stages of moral development "build on each other in order of importance and significance to the person. Each stage depends on the other from simple to complex. Each stage also is more cognitively complex than the previous stages."