Lawrence Kohlberg: biography of this American psychologist

Morality is a concept widely studied in psychology. One of the best-known theories of moral development is that of Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist born in 1927 and who died more than 30 years ago. However, his theory is still true.

In this article we will see a biography of Lawrence Kohlberg, And we will also know in a concise way his work and what consist of the 6 stages that he proposes to explain the evolution of morality.

    Brief biography of Lawrence Kohlberg

    Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist born in New York on October 25, 1927 and died on January 19, 1987 in Massachusetts at the age of 59. He studied at the University of Chicago; he particularly delved into the field of morals and moral judgments.

    Lawrence Kohlberg was influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who at the time had little influence in the United States, and who had carried out research primarily in the area of ​​cognition on cognition and morals.


      In 1958, Lawrence Kohlberg presented his doctoral thesis on this subject and obtained his doctorate in philosophy; more precisely, it covered the subject of the development and evolution of moral judgments at different stages of life.

      In addition to the psychologist and philosopher, Kohlberg he taught in several universities. Specifically, after graduating from the University of Chicago, he worked at Yale University for a short time. He then returned to the University of Chicago, where he created the “Child Psychology Training Program”.

      Research and work

      Later, in 1968, Kohlberg moved to Harvard University, where to found the “Center for Moral Development and Education”. It was at Harvard University that he conducted a more in-depth analysis of his ideas on the development of morality and autonomy.

      In addition to his research, Lawrence Kohlberg put himself into practice, trying to implement his theory; thus, in the Bronx district of New York, he worked on a program to apply his moral principles to misfit youth.

      As for his work, in addition to his research, he has written several books on morality. Some of them are: The Claim of the Moral Adequacy of a Higher Phase of Moral Judgment (1973) or Essays on Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981).

      Moral development of Kohlberg: characteristics

      Lawrence Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development at different stages of life. Before delving into his theory, let’s differentiate the concepts of morality and ethics; thus, while morality, in the broad sense, refers to acting “rightly or wrongly” in everyday life, ethics concerns philosophical reflection on this behavior.

      On the other hand, morality also includes a set of norms, customs and beliefs considered appropriate for judging or “cataloging” the behavior of people within a community.

      To develop his theory, Lawrence Kohlberg presented ethical dilemmas to participants in his research, in order to assess his level of moral reasoning. Moral dilemmas consist of short narratives or stories where a character finds himself in a complicated situation, involving a conflict of values; that is, the character must choose, usually between two comparable alternatives.

      According to Lawrence Kohlberg, the progression and advancement of morality does not occur if the person has not previously experienced a cognitive conflict that breaks the security of his reasoning. Thus, through these conflicts, we develop our own morality, according to the 6 stages it proposes.

      The moral stages

      At each of these stages, there is an interaction between two components: the social perspective and the moral content. In addition, the author assumes that moral development it arises from cognitive growth and the result of certain relevant social experiences.

      Another characteristic of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory is that the accommodation process proposed by Piaget is necessary to move from one stage to another. Piaget accommodation refers to the change of cognitive structures to integrate new experiences, when the incoming information becomes too different or complex.

      On another side, each step forms a structured whole. The sequence of steps is invariant and the progression of these is universal.

      Levels and stages of morality

      Let’s look at the 6 stages suggested by the author, where everyone goes during the development of our morale. These 6 stages are organized around 3 moral levels (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional); that is, each level has 2 stages. Let’s see the levels and their corresponding stages:

      1. Pre-conventional level

      The first level proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg includes the age of 4 to 10 years, Where the child presents an egocentric point of view (according to Piaget’s theory). This level is subdivided into two stages: stage I, heteronomous morality, and stage II, hedonistic.

      1.1. Stage I: heteronomous morality

      In the first stage, where young children are found, orientation is given to punishment or obedience. In other words, that is to say the child avoids breaking the rules for fear of being punished.

      1.2. Stage II: hedonistic

      Also called instrumental relativism, at stage II proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg, rules are only followed when they are of personal interest (That is, when their breakup affects oneself), and when that interest is immediate (eg, “don’t steal because if they can’t, they’ll steal from you”).

      2. Conventional level

      The conventional level appears in the ages of 10 to 13, where the point of view of the other is taken into account. Includes stages III and III:

      2.1. Stage III: interpersonal agreement

      Here the orientation is given to being a “good boy”; in other words that is to say, we live according to the expectations of our loved ones. For example: “Don’t steal because children are not supposed to steal”.

      2.2. Stage IV: upholding the law

      Also called the stage of social order, here the agreements that have been made are fulfilled, that is, it is worked out thinking that “the laws must be fulfilled”.

      3. Post-convention level

      Lawrence Kohlberg’s third and final level is the most advanced and appears in early adolescence, early adulthood, or may never even reach this level (depending on the person). It includes stages V and VI:

      3.1. Stage V: orientation towards the social contract

      The orientation of the person is given towards individual rights and towards democratically accepted law. Rules are considered group-related for the existence of a variety of value systems, and must be observed because they constitute a “social contract”.

      3.2. Stage VI: universal ethical principles

      The last step, step 6, which, according to Lawrence Kohlberg, only a few arrive, would be like the supreme morality; at this stage, self-chosen ethical principles are followed. Agreements are based on these principles, which are generally equality, justice and peace.

      Death and inheritance

      Lawrence Kohlberg died on January 19, 1987 at the age of 59. However, his intellectual heritage persists. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development remains a benchmark and is still valid today. Thus, their knowledge continues to be passed on, as their contributions were of remarkable importance and very useful in understanding how morality develops and in terms of what we consider to be moral or non-moral.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Ardila, R. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). Latin American Journal of Psychology, 21 (1): 107-108.
      • Carrillo, I. (1992). Discussion of moral dilemmas and the progressive development of moral judgment. Communication, language and education, 15: 55-62.
      • García Madruga, JA, Delval, J. (2010). Developmental psychology I. Cognitive and linguistic development. A D. Madrid.

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