Some Ripples Gain Strength after Leaving the Source

When thinking of widespread influence, one of often thinks of flamboyance or fame. In the case of Lawrence Kohlberg, the work itself has rippled out far more strongly than his persona. He was born on October 25, 1927 and grew up in Bronxville, NY, attended private schools but did not show any significant inclination toward an academic life. He would join the merchant marine at the end of World War II and serve as the second engineer on a ship smuggling Jewish refugees into Palestine against the British blockade. It is a certainty that this work in his early life, which was dangerous and illegal by international definitions, would shape and define his scholastic career later in his life.

Kohlberg would enroll at the University of Chicago in 1948 and, based on his entrance scores, was able to extricate himself from so many course requirements that he was able to earn his bachelor’s degree in one year. Initially intending to be a clinical psychologist, he became fascinated with Jean Piaget (1896-1980), for his work in the developing reasoning of children and adolescents. Kohlberg’s doctoral thesis in 1958, after 10 years of interviews with 72 subjects, would stand developmental psychology on its head. Moral development had been seen as either an imposed concept by authority figures or the result of avoiding feelings of anxiety and guilt, perhaps a combination. Expanding on the work of Piaget, Kohlberg, backed by his interviews conducted at intervals several years apart, was able to convincingly argue that neither theory seemed to be correct. In fact, morality was a self-developed concept based on the individual reasoning as it became more sophisticated. In essence, he expanded Piaget’s 2 stages to 3 levels with 2 stages each for a total of 6 stages of moral development.

Kohlberg found that morality developed in a sequential pattern. At level 1, stage 1, the ethical dilemma is viewed in black and white terms: stealing is wrong, punish the guilty. At stage 2, the sense of black and white blur, but self-interest is the central pillar of reasoning. At level 2, stage 3, there is a deepening awareness of social structure and maintaining good relationships. By stage 4, the self is no longer so far forward and social stability is the operating concept in moral decision making. Level 3, stage 5 marks the boundary when justice and the social contract are the foundation for morality. In stage 6, the thinking becomes more Utopian with civil disobedience as an option to thwart unjust laws, similar to the activities of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

What separates Kohlberg from his predecessors is that he was able to frame his stages in qualitative ways to identify the concrete reasoning that was in use. Many of the subjects did not change answers of right and wrong so much as they changed how they reached their conclusions.

Beginning in 1968, Kohlberg would teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and would directly influence thousands of students. He would continue to try to refine his questioning so that the unfairness of his original study (all white, all male) could be addressed by other researchers and would also abandon attempts to identify level 6 morality in the subjects interviewed. While his contention that there is no regression of morality or that stages occur in strict sequence is under some legitimate scrutiny, the criticism that female morality develops significantly differently and that there is social bias in the morality development that he failed to identify, have not been shown to have much traction.

The obvious influence in the field of psychology is noteworthy. However, the effect on primary and secondary education is even more profound. Kohlberg’s work indicates that moral development is the direct result of working through experiential problems, and there is good reason to believe that all learning development will follow this gradually growing sophistication in thinking processes.

Sadly, Lawrence Kohlberg would die in 1987 of an apparent suicide. He was suffering from an incurable and painful tropical disease at the time. He was not a flashy individual by any account, famous only to his students and colleagues. He was also one of the top 50 most influential people of the 20th century.

extract of “Theories of Development” by W.C. Crain pgs 118-136,