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Lawrence Kohlberg was an American development psychologist as well as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is renowned for his theory of six structural stages of moral development. Kohlberg was born in 1927, Bronxville, New York. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1948, and earned his bachelor’s degree in only one year for having such high scores on his admissions. He went on to study psychology at the graduate level. [1] Kohlberg based his work on Jean Piaget’s two stages of moral reasoning. [2] Kohlberg began observing children and adolescents as well as interviewing them, which was used to develop his six stages of moral development. He created nine hypothetic dilemmas, and asked the participants of his study to justify how they would act in such situations. In 1958, he published his doctoral dissertation on these six stages and from that point on was perceived as a mastermind and celebrity in the academic world. His work was so influential because Kohlberg used empirical data to demonstrate for the first time that children were moral beings not because adults imposed this concept on them, but that children were moral agents on their own account. [3]

Six Stages of Moral Development:

Kohlberg believed that throughout each stage the child’s perception of social relations and justice continued to become more developed and balanced. [4] Kohlberg’s initial six stages are:

The Preconventonal Level:

Stage 1: Punishment and obedience orientation- The goodness of an action is evaluated by its consequences. The child will try to avoid punishment, but does not yet understand the underlying moral order.

Stage 2: Instrumental relativist orientation- The child recognizes a right action by what instrumentally satisfies his needs or the needs of others.

The Conventional Level

Stage 3: Interpersonal concordance or “good boy/nice girl” orientation- The intentions of others are acknowledged as well as the benefits of being kind.

Stage 4: “law and order” orientation – the child becomes familiar with authority, rules and the maintenance of social order. Respect for authority and doing your duties has now become important.

Postconventional, Autonomous and Principled Level

Stage 5: Social-contract legalistic orientation- Actions are defined in terms of individual rights which have been acknowledged and approved by the whole society. Laws are tweaked and changed according to the groups needs according to how they will be utilized by the society.

Stage 6: Universal ethical principal orientation- Right action is defined by the decision of the conscience in relations to self-cultivated ethical principles in accord with logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency.

The stages were later altered for the sixth stage was almost never realized. [5] Kohlberg’s stages are influenced by Kant, Mill, Utilitarianism, and the Social Contract theory, among others. [6]
Kohlberg’s stages were controversial and initiated a critical backlash. His most famous critic and previous student, Carol Gilligan, wrote her most influential work critiquing Kohlberg’s methodology and his study in a book entitled In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Gilligan believed that Kohlberg’s theory did not take many important factors into account like relationships, discussion, emotional bonds, and so on. [7] According to Gilligan, the stages ignored the voices of women and people of colour. Kohlberg’s sample for the structural stages was, in fact, 72 Caucasian boys from a school in Chicago. [8]

Just Communities:

In 1968, at 40 years old, Kohlberg became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He very much enjoyed the academic environment provided by the institute, and thrived on moral questioning and the struggle of morality that sprang in his students throughout the late sixties and early seventies. Kohlberg’s focus soon began to change, however, as a trip to a kibbutz in Israel altered his perceptions of moral reasoning in children. He noticed that the poor urban kids of the kibbutz had reached a much higher level of reasoning and morality then those who were not part of this collective. The kibbutz encouraged informality and group decision making. Kohlberg was inspired and began to implement this notion into high schools in New York and Massachusetts which he called “just communities”. These just communities allowed everyone at the schools, from students to staff members, a voice and a vote on all decision making. He even put the just community concept into practice at a women’s prison in Connecticut, and a professor was inspired to implement Kohlbergian just communities in his school in France. [9] [10]

Death:

In 1971, Kohlberg contracted a parasitic infection while performing a cross-cultural study in Belize. This infection was incredibly painful, and Kohlberg suffered from his pain and depression in silence for 16 years. The burden became too heavy, and on a day pass from the hospital on January 19, 1987, Kohlberg committed suicide by plunging to his death in icy cold winter waters. [11] He has left us with the largest body of research on moral reasoning, and research based on his theory can be found in over one thousand studies. [12]



Footnotes:
  1. ^ Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37(2), 38-41, ¶ 1
  2. ^ Kline, S.L., & Woloschuk, J.A. (1983). Moral reasoning development: An introductory review of correlates and antecendents. Notational Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), p.611-630 ¶ 2
  3. ^ Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37(2), 38-41, ¶ 3
  4. ^ Kline, S.L., & Woloschuk, J.A. (1983). Moral reasoning development: An introductory review of correlates and antecendents. Notational Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), p.611-630 ¶ 4
  5. ^ Kline, S.L., & Woloschuk, J.A. (1983). Moral reasoning development: An introductory review of correlates and antecendents. Notational Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), p.611-630 ¶ 5
  6. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introductory to ethic theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, ¶ 6
  7. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introductory to ethic theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, ¶ 7
  8. ^ Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37(2), 38-41, ¶ 8
  9. ^ Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37(2), 38-41, ¶ 9
  10. ^ McDonough, G. P. (2005). Moral maturity and autonomy: Appreciating the significance of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Just Community. Journal of Moral Education, 34(2), 199-213, ¶ 10
  11. ^ Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society, 37(2), 38-41, ¶ 11
  12. ^ Kline, S.L., & Woloschuk, J.A. (1983). Moral reasoning development: An introductory review of correlates and antecendents. Notational Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), p.611-630 ¶ 12