Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Editor: Kristine Krapp. Volume 1, Gale, 2005.
Lawrence Kohlberg was regarded for many years as a leader in the field of moral education and development. Trained in an institution identified with the progressive education ideals of American philosopher John Dewey, Kohlberg came to be regarded by his colleagues as more of an educator than a psychologist. Dissatisfied with the traditional character formation, behaviorist, and psychoanalytic models of moral behavior that were available to educators in the 1960s, Kohlberg worked out an approach to moral development known as cognitive structuralism, or cognitive developmentalism. This approach focuses on the growing child’s processes of moral reasoning and the changes that take place in the structures of a person’s thinking as he or she matures from childhood into adult life. Cognitive developmentalists regard children as independent agents capable of thinking for themselves about moral issues, as contrasted with the Freudian view of children as passive recipients of moral values imposed on them by adults. Kohlberg is best known for his stage theory, which postulated that human moral development progresses through a series of cognitive stages defined as total ways of thinking about moral issues rather than as attitudes toward specific situations.
Kohlberg regarded his work as interdisciplinary, insofar as he believed that moral education must combine psychological research with the insights of moral philosophy. He named John Dewey and Émile Durkheim as his predecessors in the “grand tradition” of unifying these two disciplines. Kohlberg believed that he had succeeded in meeting four requirements that he considered essential to a satisfactory system of moral education:
- It should be based on “the psychological and sociological facts of moral development.”
- It should make use of educational methods that stimulate moral change.
- It should be based on a “philosophically defensible” definition of morality.
- It should be compatible with a system of government that guarantees freedom of religious belief.
Although cognitive developmentalists dominated moral education programs for a number of years—Kohlberg’s stage theory has been outlined in every college-level psychology textbook published in the past three decades—their approach has been partially supplanted since the early 1980s by character education models. Because of Kohlberg’s interest in the practical application of his educational theories as well as their relationship to other disciplines, he did not have extensive influence within the field of psychology itself. In addition, he did not leave behind a large collection of writings or major institutional foundations. Kohlberg’s publications were almost entirely in the form of journal articles or book chapters, many coauthored with colleagues, rather than book-length, single-author manuscripts. And although he founded the Center for Moral Education at Harvard shortly after he came to the university, the Center survives as of the early 2000s only in the form of the Risk and Prevention program within the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Moreover, Kohlberg’s theories drew considerable criticism from psychologists as well as educators, even during his lifetime. He was, however, widely admired as a teacher, and it may well be that his most important legacy to psychology is the number of former students that he inspired to enter the field.
- Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 1, The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
- Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 2, The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
- With Anne Colby. The Measurement of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- With F. C. Power and Ann Higgins. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Education. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Lawrence Kohlberg was born on October 25, 1927, in Bronxville, New York, an affluent suburb of New York City. His family was well-to-do. Kohlberg’s father, Alfred Kohlberg, was an importer of Asian merchandise, while his mother, Charlotte Albrecht, was an amateur chemist. She was his father’s second wife. Kohlberg was the youngest of four children; he had two older sisters and one older brother. His parents separated while Kohlberg was still a child. The family’s religious background was Jewish, which influenced Kohlberg’s later emphasis on justice as well as his commitment to putting his theories into practice.
Kohlberg completed his secondary education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a private boarding school. Although the school has always been known for its rigorous academic standards, Kohlberg was not particularly interested in intellectual matters during his high school years. A recent appreciation of his life noted that his classmates remembered him “far more for his sense of mischief and forays to nearby girls’ schools than for his interest in academic theories.” Kohlberg was placed on probation at one point for violating the school’s regulations. He later recalled that he had tried to compete in that regard with the school’s most famous alumnus—Humphrey Bogart—who had been expelled from Phillips Academy for disciplinary reasons. Kohlberg added that if anyone had predicted at that time that he would specialize in moral education, he would not have believed them.
Kohlberg graduated from Phillips in 1945, but he did not go on to college until the fall of 1948. Although he was too young to serve in the armed forces, he became committed to Zionism—the establishment of the state of Israel. After World War II ended in August 1945 with the surrender of Japan, Kohlberg took advantage of the end of hostilities to go to Europe, where he interviewed survivors of the Holocaust. He then joined the merchant marine and served as second engineer on a South American freighter. The connection between this employment and the Zionist cause was that the freighter smuggled European Jews into Palestine past the British blockade. Kohlberg’s participation in this smuggling was a dangerous activity in the late 1940s, as it was considered an international crime. He maintained a well-developed sense of humor, however; he recalled with glee in later years that he and his shipmates fooled government inspectors by telling them that the ship’s improvised beds for its passengers were really containers for storing bananas. When the freighter’s true operation was discovered, Kohlberg was arrested and imprisoned for a time in a British internment camp on the island of Cyprus. After his release, he lived as a refugee on an Israeli kibbutz, or agricultural collective. His experience led him to ponder the moral dimensions of disobeying authority, a question he phrased to himself as “When is it permissible to be involved with violent means for supposedly just ends?” Kohlberg eventually returned to Israel in 1969 to study the moral development of young people living in a left-wing kibbutz. This visit proved to be a critical turning point in his later professional career.
Kohlberg returned to the United States in 1948 and applied for entrance to the University of Chicago. His scores on the admissions examinations were so high that he was exempted from most of the university’s course requirements. As a result, he was able to complete his bachelor’s degree in one year. Although his first interest had been philosophy, he remained at Chicago to do graduate work in psychology. Kohlberg’s explorations of such philosophers as Plato, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey did, however, exert an ongoing influence on his thinking about moral education.
Doctoral Research and Early Teaching Career
Kohlberg had the good fortune to study under some of the most outstanding American psychologists of the 1950s during his graduate school years, including such well-regarded researchers as Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), Robert Havighurst (1900-1991), Carl Rogers (1902-1987), and Anselm Strauss (1916-1996). When Kohlberg began his graduate work, he initially assumed he would become a clinical psychologist rather than a researcher, but he was captivated by the writings of the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980)—particularly Piaget’s account of the moral development of children. Piaget maintained that children’s processes of moral reasoning changed as they grew older. In 1955 Kohlberg began a research project for his doctoral dissertation that involved interviewing 72 male children and adolescents about moral issues. Kohlberg used the now-famous dilemma of “Heinz,” reprinted in the accompanying sidebar, to draw out his subjects’ patterns of moral reasoning, as well as to elicit their specific answers to the dilemma. Kohlberg discerned six stages of moral development, divided into three levels, in the material that he outlined in his dissertation. These stages ranged from a preconventional stage, characterized by self-interest, to higher stages associated with subscription to conventional moral standards for the good of society, as well as a specific stage that Kohlberg defined as “postconventional morality.” Kohlberg identified postconventional morality with moral reasoning based on the principles underlying ethical rules and norms, rather than on uniform applications of rules. When the dissertation was published in 1958, Kohlberg received his choice of job offers from several prestigious institutions.
Kohlberg first accepted an assistant professorship in the psychology department at Yale University in 1959, but he returned to teach at the University of Chicago in 1962. In 1968 he moved back to the Northeast as a full professor of education and social psychology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he remained until his death in 1987. Kohlberg left Chicago in part because his developmental approach to the psychology of moral education was not well received by some of his colleagues. After his arrival at Harvard, Kohlberg founded the Center for Moral Development and Education, which, however, did not long survive his death. The establishment of the center, however, indicated that Kohlberg was increasingly concentrating his research and writing on psychology in relation to education, rather than on so-called “pure” psychology. In addition, he published several of his most frequently cited articles during his early years at Harvard, particularly “Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive Developmental Approach to Education,” which appeared in 1969, and “Development as the Aim of Education,” which was published in 1972.
Starting in the late 1960s, some of Kohlberg’s students began to put his concepts of moral education into practice. They started with discussions of moral dilemmas among high-school students in order to find out whether the students matured more rapidly as a result of the conversations. One of these studies was published as the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1973. In 1971, another group of Kohlberg’s students started a similar discussion program at the women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut. Kohlberg was intrigued by these projects and became involved with the establishment of alternative schools and what he called “just communities” or “cluster schools” elsewhere. Most of these were located in Massachusetts or New York, but one was set up inside a high school in France. Kohlberg’s expectation was that these “just communities” would serve the moral development of their members by allowing everyone, students as well as teachers, to have a voice in articulating and deciding the community’s moral norms. Many of these schools, unfortunately, dissolved within a few years of Kohlberg’s death. One exception is the Scarsdale Alternative School, described as one of the case studies below. Another just-community school that was founded after Kohlberg’s death is the Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, a private Jewish day school that was founded in 1992 by one of Kohlberg’s former students. The school’s Web site states explicitly that its approach to education “is based on the Harvard model of moral development, pioneered by Professor L. Kohlberg and supplemented by Carol Gilligan’s emphasis on relationships and carings [sic].”
Controversy with Carol Gilligan
In the years since Kohlberg’s death, he has become better known in some quarters as the educator who provoked Carol Gilligan’s challenge to his theories and method rather than as a major figure in his own right. One of Kohlberg’s colleagues has estimated that Gilligan has had a greater impact on moral education than Kohlberg himself. Gilligan did not feel free to discuss publicly her personal friendship as well as her professional relationship with Kohlberg until 1997, when she delivered the Kohlberg Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the Association for Moral Education. While Gilligan had never been one of Kohlberg’s students or postdoctoral fellows, having completed her own doctorate in 1963, she agreed to teach a section of an undergraduate course that he offered in 1970 on moral and political choice. She then coauthored a paper with Kohlberg that appeared in Daedalus in 1971 as “The Adolescent as a Philosopher,” an article that is still regarded as a classic statement of Kohlberg’s approach to moral education.
Gilligan’s experience in teaching the 1970 course, however, was a turning point for her in that she was struck by the reluctance of the young men in the class “to talk about the draft, aware that there was no room in Larry’s theory for them to talk about what they were feeling without sounding morally undeveloped … finding no room for uncertainty and indecision, they chose silence over hypocrisy.” Gilligan had initially planned to follow these students to their graduation to study their choices regarding military service, but she chose instead to study women considering abortion as an example of a real-life dilemma. At that point she was confronted by what she termed a “dissociation,” or a split in consciousness, between women’s sense of self and their concern for their relationships. Although Gilligan continued to teach courses with Kohlberg, over time their views grew further and further apart. In her words, “It became very hard to have a conversation, and I felt that I was not being heard.” To some extent, their professional disagreement reflected differences in their educational backgrounds; Kohlberg had come to psychology through the study of philosophy, while Gilligan had majored in English literature as an undergraduate. Whereas Kohlberg was committed to an ideal of an objective moral good, Gilligan began to introduce the methods of literary analysis into what she has called “a voice-centered relational method of research.” She has described her methodological innovations in detail in a book she coauthored with Lyn Mikel Brown, Meeting at the Crossroads, which was published in 1992.
In spite of the intellectual friction between Gilligan and Kohlberg, she as well as others who worked with him remarked on his genuine interest in views that differed from his own. Far from being an intellectual dictator, Kohlberg encouraged the School of Education to hire faculty who represented a variety of different positions on human development. One of his postdoctoral students later remarked, “The people that [Kohlberg] brought in did not necessarily agree with him. He would bring in critics. You never felt an ‘us/them’ or ‘either/or’ approach with him.” Gilligan remarked in her 1997 lecture that “…it is extremely important to remember that [Kohlberg] would invite in people who differed from him to talk with him in the public space of his class about these differences.” Gilligan went on to state, however, that while Kohlberg thought that her position could be contained within his basic moral paradigm, she was convinced that the paradigm itself was defective.
Marriage and Family
Kohlberg married Lucille Stigberg in 1955, while he was still in graduate school. The couple had two sons, David and Steven. The marriage was not a happy one, and the Kohlbergs separated in the mid-1970s. They were finally divorced in 1985. Kohlberg began a relationship with Ann Higgins, a developmental psychologist, during his separation. They became engaged after Kohlberg’s divorce, but were not married at the time of his death.
Some of Kohlberg’s associates remarked after his death that his family life as well as his health was affected by his unusual degree of openness and availability—to visitors as well as to his students. According to one of his Harvard colleagues, Kohlberg was in the habit of inviting people to visit his home on Cape Cod at any time. The colleague recalled “digging in the sand for oysters and clams with Kohlberg on the Cape, talking about ideas all the while.” Another remarked that Kohlberg “got used by people,” but added, “I think he knew this went on, but he was so impassioned about his work that he didn’t mind.”
Last Years and Death
Kohlberg’s work deteriorated after the mid-1970s, in part because of a parasitic illness that he contracted during a research trip in 1971 to Belize in Central America. The infection was eventually diagnosed as giardiasis, which is caused by an intestinal parasite, Giardia lamblia. Giardiasis is not a rare disease; it is a common cause of diarrhea throughout the world, often resulting from drinking contaminated water, and its causative organism is the most frequently identified intestinal parasite in the United States. Most adults recover completely after a few weeks of treatment with antimicrobial and antibiotic medications; however, a minority of patients develop chronic giardiasis. Kohlberg was unable to build up immunity to the parasite, and suffered from intermittent episodes of diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue for the next sixteen years. His physical symptoms were accompanied by emotional depression, which necessitated turning over most of his teaching and research projects to younger associates. In addition, his frequent need to excuse himself during classroom lectures gave him a reputation for “flakiness” and unpredictability.
In addition to his physical illness, Kohlberg experienced professional setbacks in his later years. His six-stage theory of moral development included the premise, described more fully below, that moral development is unidirectional; that is, that people do not move backward to earlier stages of moral maturity once they have attained higher levels. This premise, however, could be tested only by conducting long-term studies of Kohlberg’s subjects. He had planned from the outset to retest the subjects he had interviewed for his dissertation every three or four years. A follow-up study of the boys at the 12-year point, however, produced some data that conflicted with Kohlberg’s notion that people do not regress to lower stages of moral development after they have moved to higher levels. Specifically, the 12-year follow-up study indicated that some of the subjects had moved from stage four, characterized by adherence to social norms of morality, to stage two, which Kohlberg had defined as essentially self-centered. Kohlberg and his associates responded to these findings by reworking their coding of subjects’ responses during interviews. In the revised coding manual, which did not appear until 1987, Kohlberg explicitly defined each stage of moral development as higher than its predecessor.
In the last several years of his life, Kohlberg experimented out of desperation with a variety of alternative treatments for his disease; some of his friends thought that these therapies might have also damaged his health. In early January 1987 he had a major depressive episode, during which he attempted suicide and was taken to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. On January 17, he obtained a day pass from the psychiatric unit of the hospital. He then drove his car to nearby Winthrop, parked on a deadend street, and walked into the ocean. His body was not discovered until April 6, when it washed up on the shore of Boston Harbor near Logan Airport.
Nature of Virtue
Main points Kohlberg’s approach to human moral development was shaped by his studies of the classical Western philosophers as an undergraduate; his remarks on the nature of virtue and the goals of moral education often took the form of a dialogue with the tradition that began with Plato and Aristotle. The English words “virtue” and “morals” are derived from classical Latin rather than Greek: “virtue” from virtus, which originally meant “manliness” in the sense of adult moral excellence, and “morals” from mores, which is a plural noun meaning “customs” or “usages.” Kohlberg was swimming against the current of mainstream academic psychology by beginning with Plato rather than Freud or Skinner as his “most relevant source,” as he put it in a book chapter that was published in 1970. He continued, ” … as I have tried to trace the stages of development of morality and to use these stages as the basis of a moral education program, I have realized more and more that its implication was the reassertion of the Platonic faith in the power of the rational good.”
Kohlberg’s reference to “good” in the singular was not accidental, as one of his objections to moral education as it had been traditionally practiced was the “bag of virtues,” his term for the notion that personality can be divided up into “cognitive abilities, passions or motives, and traits of character. Moral character [in the older view] consists of a bag of virtues and vices.” Kohlberg then went on to point out that a major problem with the traditional account of virtue is that no two observers agreed on the contents of the bag. He began with Hartshorne and May, the authors of a landmark study of American character in the 1920s.
Their bag of virtues included honesty, service, and self-control… Havighurst and Taba added responsibility, friendliness, and moral courage to the Hartshorne and May bag. Aristotle’s original bag included temperance, liberality, pride, good temper, truthfulness, and justice. The Boy Scout bag is well known, a Scout should be honest, loyal, reverent, clean, brave.
Kohlberg did not, however, suggest throwing out the concept of virtue along with the bag metaphor. He argued instead, “like Plato, that virtue is not many, but one, and its name is justice.” Kohlberg then proceeded to point out that justice is neither a character trait nor a concrete rule of action. He described justice in words that echo German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Justice is not a rule or a set of rules, it is a moral principle. By a moral principle we mean a mode of choosing which is universal, a rule of choosing which we want all people to adopt always in all situations…. Because morally mature men [sic] are governed by the principle of justice rather than by a set of rules, there are not many moral virtues but one.”
Explanation Kohlberg’s search for a unitary definition of virtue was intended to address several concerns. First, it was a protest against so-called “value-free” psychology, or the notion that virtues and vices are no more than “labels by which people award praise or blame to others.” Kohlberg did not want the history of disagreements over the content of the “bag of virtues” to end in the establishment of value neutrality, which he defined as “the view that all value systems are equally sound,” in public education.
The school is no more committed to value neutrality than is the government or the law. The school … is an institution with a basic function of maintaining and transmitting some, but not all, of the consensual values of society. The most fundamental values of a society are termed moral, and the major moral values in our society are the values of justice.
Second, Kohlberg maintained that his concept of justice as a moral principle was applicable across the full range of human societies, thus answering the question of moral relativism raised by some cultural anthropologists. He referred to research carried out by his students on adult as well as child subjects in Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, as proof that “in all cultures we find the same forms of moral thinking … concepts of the good are culturally universal.” In a later article on religious education, he repeated his contention that “… liberty and justice are not the particular values of the American culture but culturally universal moral values which develop regardless of religious membership, education, or belief.”
Third, Kohlberg’s emphasis on a foundational moral principle, identified as justice, rather than on sets of rules to be followed or character traits to be cultivated, was inseparable from his method of moral education. What is important to state at this point, however, is that Kohlberg saw moral education as a process in which the ethical formation of individuals leads to a higher level of justice in the society as a whole. “… while the bag of virtues [approach] encapsulated the need for moral improvement in the child, a genuine concern about the growth of justice in the child implies a similar concern for the growth of justice in the society.” Otherwise put, Kohlberg maintained that his concept of virtue had a corporate as well as a personal or individual dimension.
Fourth, Kohlberg’s emphasis on justice reflected his belief that moral standards and principles are independent of other fields of thought, and cannot be reduced to purely religious (or political) attitudes or principles. He stated in 1981,
The starting point of rational discourse about the relation of morality and religion, then, is the recognition in some degree of the autonomy of morality and moral discourse from any other form of discourse, whether religious, scientific, or political.
One consequence of his notion that morality is independent of religious beliefs is that he considered moral education to be the province of the schools rather than of churches or synagogues. Kohlberg based his position on the claim that his cross-cultural research showed that “a morality of justice evolves in every society or religious group … [and] cannot be said to represent the beliefs of a religious sect … or even to represent the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition.'” He concluded that religious education has at best a “very limited influence” on moral development.
I am not attempting to argue that that religious education may not be capable of playing a role in moral development. I am arguing that religious education has no specifically important or unique role to play in moral development as opposed to the role of the public school and the family…. the mark of success of [religious] teaching is that it helps the child to make his religious and his moral beliefs and sentiments an integrated whole, not that it leads to the formulation of basic moral values not found elsewhere.
Nature of Human Moral Development
Main points Consistent with Kohlberg’s emphasis on justice as the foundational moral principle, he regarded moral development as largely a cognitive process. In this regard he was a follower of Jean Piaget, whose studies of children focused as early as 1932 on questions of moral development. As has already been mentioned, Kohlberg’s selection of a topic for his doctoral dissertation research was prompted by his interest in the Swiss psychologist’s work. Kohlberg’s high regard for Piaget was reflected in the fact that he devoted three full pages of an 11-page encyclopedia article that he wrote in 1968 on moral education to Piaget’s research and theories. Piaget had concluded from his observations of children playing games that they underwent a process of moral as well as intellectual development. He maintained that young children begin with a heteronomous stage of moral reasoning—that is, they accept rules laid down by others (i.e., adults) as well as the duty of strict obedience to authority. Piaget saw the heteronomous stage as the product of two factors: the limitations of the young child’s cognitive structure, which is fundamentally egocentric; and his or her relative powerlessness compared to adults.
Piaget thought that children made the transition to what he called autonomous moral reasoning through their interactions with the environment—specifically, their peer group. As older children play, they sometimes find strict interpretation of the rules of their games problematic. They learn through working out these problems to regard rules more critically, and to selectively apply the rules in the interest of cooperation and mutual respect. Piaget believed that this transition from heteronomy to autonomy was associated with changes in children’s cognitive structures that allow them to look at situations from the perspectives of other people as well as from their own. In sum, Piaget thought that moral development among the members of a group arises from interactions that lead to outcomes considered to be fair by all members. He therefore urged educators to encourage cooperative decision-making and problem-solving among school-children that would lead to rules for the whole group based on fairness. This approach transformed the teacher’s role in moral education from one of indoctrinating students with social norms to one of fostering children’s personal growth through undertaking cooperative tasks with others.
Kohlberg’s 1968 article took issue with Piaget in two major respects. First, Kohlberg argued that cross-cultural research did not support Piaget’s assumption, taken from French sociologist Émile Durkheim, that children in the heteronomous stage regard rules as having a “sacral” character that can never be changed; rather, he maintained, the children’s acceptance of rules is based “on a more or less pragmatic concern for consequences,” i.e., punishment. Second, Kohlberg thought that Piaget was wrong in predicating a general movement from an authoritarian stage of moral development based on submission to adults to a more democratic ethic based on membership in a peer group. “Postulated general age shifts from obedience to authority to peer loyalty, from justice based on conformity to justice based on equality, have not been generally found.”
Where Kohlberg agreed with Piaget is telling, though, as he believed his dissertation research supported his position. “… however, Piaget is correct in assuming a culturally universal age development of a sense of justice, involving progressive concern for the needs and feelings of others and elaborated conceptions of reciprocity and equality.” Kohlberg moved beyond Piaget in carrying his research into older age groups than those that Piaget had studied, concluding that “adult institutions [as well as children’s peer groups] have underpinnings of reciprocity, equality of treatment, service to human needs, etc. The last-mentioned conclusion is derived primarily from cross-cultural research by this writer and his colleagues….” The implication of Kohlberg’s extension of the age groups under consideration to include adolescents and young adults was that moral development is both a longer and more complex process than Piaget had described.
Explanation It is useful to contrast Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental perspective on moral maturation with other models that were being used by American educators in the 1960s. Three of these were the traditional character formation model, the Freudian psychoanalytic model, and the social altruism model. They all emphasized the non-rational dimension of human moral development, coupled with an absence of a definitive pattern or schedule of moral development. In traditional character education, the child’s parents or teachers acquaint the child with the contents of their particular “bag of virtues,” in Kohlberg’s phrase, and impart these virtues to the child through direct discussion of them and by exemplifying them in their own conduct. The child is then given opportunities to practice these virtues and is rewarded for so doing. Kohlberg quotes an example of this approach from one of American author Jonathan Kozol’s books in his article “Education for Justice.” Kozol was describing a curriculum guide for character education published by the Boston public school system:
The section on self-control begins by [mention of] the necessity for self-control by all people. The teacher is then advised to give examples of self-disciplined people, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindbergh, Robinson Crusoe, Florence Nightingale, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Presumably the teacher underscores the content of the lesson by maintaining his or her self-control in dealing with disruptive classroom behavior.
According to the psychoanalytic model, however, moral development is in essence a process of internalization, in which the child acquires the culture’s norms and values through identification with the parents and other adult authorities. Freud referred to the part of the personality that represented the conscience as the superego, or über-ich in the original German. The superego is formed through the resolution of the child’s Oedipal complex, in which the child gives up his or her infantile wish to possess the parent of the opposite sex, and identifies through fear of retaliation with the parent of the same sex. The superego thus functions as a kind of inner censor that regulates external behavior through the arousal of guilty feelings. The essence of moral conduct in the Freudian view is that people follow their consciences in order to avoid guilt. An example of a psychoanalytic account of problem behavior in children is one psychiatrist’s explanation of schoolyard bullying. Bullying, according to Freudian theory, represents a combination of rage at having to renounce one’s mother, fear of the mother’s all-pervasive influence, and revenge against the mother for putting the child in this predicament. Although Freud did identify five stages in childhood development (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital), related to specific age groups, these stages refer to psychosexual maturation rather than to growth in moral reasoning.
The third model is usually identified with the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), who regarded moral rules as social products rather than the pronouncements or convictions of individuals. The mere fact that a moral rule exists lends it a sacral quality, according to Durkheim. The “group mind” thus logically as well as chronologically precedes the individual’s development. The psychological roots of a person’s moral attitudes lie in his or her respect for the group, the convictions held in common by the group, and the leaders or authority figures of the group. An individual’s core values will then be those that are most widely shared by other members of the group and serve to bind the group most closely together. In other words, people behave morally because they have internalized their society’s collective conscience, not because they are afraid of external social restraints or sanctions. Durkheim’s position has sometimes been described as moral collectivism; he not only regarded society as the sole determinant of moral rules, but he also believed that society has a moral reality of its own apart from the existence of its individual members. Kohlberg acknowledged his intellectual debt to Durkheim regarding the social origins of moral norms, but disagreed with the French scholar’s tendency to think of moral education as “the promotion of collective national discipline” instead of the development of individuals guided by principled morality.
Examples The examples of moral development that will be given in this section are taken from Piaget’s Moral Judgment of the Child, first published in 1932, to give the reader a basis for comparison with Kohlberg’s six stages.
Piaget maintained that younger children do not take a person’s intention into account in evaluating a situation, but only the objective outcome. In one example, the interviewer tells two anecdotes about the breakage of household items and asks the child to compare the behavior of the children in the anecdotes. ” … I am going to tell you two more stories. A little girl was wiping the cups. She was putting them away, wiping them with the cloth, and she broke five cups. Another little girl is playing with some plates. She breaks a plate. Which of them is the naughtiest [sic]?” The child answers, “The one who broke the five cups.”
Piaget used a more complex story to illustrate the difference between younger and older children in placing loyalty to the peer group over unquestioning submission to adult authority. The story is as follows:
Once, long ago … there was a father who had two sons. One was very good and obedient. The other was a good sort, but he often did silly things. One day the father goes off on a journey and says to the first son: “You must watch carefully to see what your brother does, and when I come back you shall tell me.” The father goes away and the brother goes and does something silly. When the father comes back he asks the first boy to tell him everything. What ought the boy to do?
Piaget found that younger children (between the ages of six and seven) almost always said that the father should be told everything. Children over the age of eight, however, usually replied that “nothing should be told, and some even [went] so far as to prefer a lie to the betrayal of a brother.”
Stages of Moral Development
Main points Kohlberg divided his six stages of moral development across three levels, with two stages at each level. His descriptions of each stage changed somewhat over the three decades of his teaching career. The descriptions that follow are taken from the second volume of his Essays on Moral Development, published in 1984.
Level I: Preconventional morality:
- Stage 1: Heteronomous morality, or the punishment-and-obedience orientation. What is right: Avoidance of breaking rules backed by punishment and obedience for its own sake. Reasons for doing right: Fear of punishment and the superior power of authorities. Social perspective: Egocentric; actions considered from a physical rather than a psychological point of view; cannot take viewpoints of others into account.
- Stage 2: Individualism and instrumental purpose, or the instrumental-relativist orientation. What is right: Acting to meet one’s own interests or needs and allowing others to do the same; right defined as “what’s fair” or “what’s expedient.” Kohlberg sometimes summarized the morality of Stage 2 as “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Reasons for doing right: To serve one’s own needs in a world in which one is forced to recognize that others also have needs. Social perspective: Concrete individualism, defined as the awareness that people’s interests and needs sometimes conflict.
Level II: Conventional morality:
- Stage 3. Interpersonal expectations and conformity, or the “good boy, good girl” orientation. What is right: Living up to what is expected by people close to oneself; “being good” is important and implies trust, loyalty, and gratitude in interpersonal relations. Reasons for doing right: The need to be a good person in one’s own eyes and those of others; the Golden Rule. Social perspective: Centered on relationships with specific other individuals.
- Stage 4. Social system and conscience, or the “law-and-order” orientation. What is right: Fulfilling duties to which one has agreed; doing “what is right” includes upholding the laws and contributing to one’s group or to society as a whole. Reasons for doing right: To meet the demands of one’s conscience, and to keep society going. Social perspective: Takes account of society as a whole and understands personal relationships as situated within the larger social system.
Level III: Postconventional or principled morality:
- Stage 5. Social contract or legalistic orientation. What is right: Awareness of the variety of perspectives and opinions within the larger society; duty defined as general avoidance of arbitrary violations of the rights of others. Reasons for doing right: A sense of obligation to laws that uphold the social contract; concern for the protection of all people’s rights. Social perspective: Considers rights and values as entities that exist prior to social contracts and relationships.
- Stage 6. Universal ethical principle orientation. What is right: Following self-chosen ethical principles and obeying specific laws only insofar as they rest on such principles. Reasons for doing right: Belief as a rational person in the existence and validity of universal moral principles, and personal commitment to them. Social perspective: Based on a moral principle from which particular social arrangements are derived.
Explanation In addition to defining the stages themselves, Kohlberg had clear-cut views about the trajectory of moral development through the six stages. To begin with, he assumed that while moral development is age-related in a broad sense, it is not age-dependent; in other words, in any group of children or adolescents of the same age, some will have achieved higher levels of moral maturity than others. Kohlberg thought that the two stages of preconventional morality are most commonly seen in children younger than nine, although some adolescents and many criminal offenders remain at this level. Conventional morality he regarded as characteristic of most adolescents and adults in Western societies. By contrast, postconventional or autonomous morality is found only among a minority of adults, and is usually attained only after the age of 20.
Second, Kohlberg argued that moral development is unidirectional; that is, people do not fall backward to lower levels of moral development after they have progressed to higher ones. He also maintained that people usually prefer to solve their moral dilemmas at the highest level of moral development that they have reached. Moreover, Kohlberg did not believe that it is possible for people to skip stages, although he sometimes allowed that they might be able to gain a purely intellectual understanding of moral reasoning two stages above their current level of development.
Kohlberg did, however, remain open to the possibility that his stages might require redefinition or renumbering. Although he was convinced that empirical research proved the existence of his first five stages, he allowed in his later years, following intense criticism of his research, that his sixth stage might be more hypothetical than real. He removed it from the scoring manual he had compiled for his moral development test, but retained it as “a theoretical construct in the realm of philosophical speculation.” In addition to his original six stages, he and some of his associates postulated that there might be “a high seventh stage,” which would include individuals whose moral reasoning transcended the principle of justice, deriving its meaning from a cosmic perspective that might be explicitly religious, pantheistic, or agnostic. Kohlberg spoke in 1983 of some older adults whose post-postconventional moral principles were “in harmony with the evolution of human nature and the cosmic order.” In sum, his seventh stage was an attempt to explain more precisely the relationship between morality and religion.
Examples Stage 1. Kohlberg cited the following statements of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann at his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961-62 as examples of Stage 1 morality.
In actual fact, I was merely a little cog in the machinery that carried out the directives of the German Reich…. Where would we have been if everyone had thought things out in those days? You can do that in the ‘new’ German army. But with us an order was an order…. If I had sabotaged the order of the one time Führer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler, I would have been not only a scoundrel but a despicable pig like those who … join[ed] the ranks of the anti-Hitler criminals in the conspiracy of July 20, 1944.
Stage 2. Kohlberg once used his own son as an example of Stage 2 moral development, as well as proof that the children of moral educators are not necessarily models of virtue at an early age.
… my son moved to an expedient Stage 2 orientation when he was six. He told me … “You know the reason people don’t steal is because they’re afraid of the police. If there were no police around everyone would steal.” Of course I told him that I and most people didn’t steal because we thought it wrong… My son’s reply was, “I just don’t see it, it’s sort of crazy not to steal if there are no police.”
Stage 3. Kohlberg cites an Israeli boy’s response to the Heinz dilemma as an instance of Stage 3 conventional morality focused on interpersonal relationships.
In one way, if everyone were to break in [to a store] when we need something, where would we get to? But [Heinz] wants to save [his wife] and his feelings would make him do it. He should do it for his wife, after all he wants to save her. Maybe he won’t get caught and everything will go all right. This little [bit of] radium wouldn’t make such a big difference for the druggist and it would save his wife’s life.
Stage 4. Kohlberg gives a sixteen-year-old child’s response to a moral dilemma regarding euthanasia—whether a physician should administer a lethal dose of a drug to a woman in extreme pain who wants to die—as an instance of Stage 4 moral development.
I don’t know. In one way, it’s murder, it’s not a right or privilege of man to decide who shall live and who should die. God put life into everybody on earth and you’re taking away something from that person that came directly from God… . it’s in a way part of God and it’s almost destroying a part of God when you kill a person. There’s something of God in everyone.
Stage 5. An example of Stage 5 morality is the statement of a Vietnam veteran with a doctorate in chemical engineering who was interviewed when he was thirty.
Morality is a series of value judgments. For me to say something is morally right means that in my own conscience, based on my experience and feelings, I would judge it right. But it is up to the individual … to determine if something is right, it need not be right all the time. I guess what I am saying is, I don’t think I have a moral right to impose my moral standards on anyone else. Society … gets together in groups primarily for the good of themselves in general, but at the same time they then recognize that there is a certain benefit to do things for the good of society, according to a certain set of standards.
Stage 6. Kohlberg regarded one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statements about civil disobedience as proof that King had progressed to Stage 6:
One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws, just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Any law that uplifts human personality is just, any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Methods of Moral Education
Main points Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental approach to moral education was focused on the child or adolescent’s processes of moral reasoning rather than on his or her mastery of abstract concepts, emotional self-control, or outward behavioral conformity to moral norms. As a result, Kohlberg regarded progress from one moral stage to the next as a transformation in the person’s overall pattern of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, at any given stage in the sequence a person can make moral decisions only within the cognitive limits of that stage. He or she then acts according to his or her understanding of the social environment. At some point, however, the child or adolescent encounters a new situation that does not fit into their present picture of the social world. The young person must then adjust their view to account for the new information. Kohlberg called this cognitive read-justment “equilibration,” and he saw it as a necessary stimulus to moral development. He and his students then sought to assist children’s progress to higher stages by three specific means: presentation and discussion of moral dilemmas; the establishment of alternative schools or “just communities”; and what Kohlberg described as “exposure to moral reasoning above one’s own stage of reasoning.” While exploration of moral dilemmas might facilitate the maturation of individual students, Kohlberg maintained that participation in a democratic school community was also necessary for moral growth because it allowed students to “learn by doing.” In addition, Kohlberg remarked that “because democratic [school] meetings deal with real-life problems and resolutions, they may more effectively promote moral development than discussions of hypothetical dilemmas.”
One should note, however, that Kohlberg’s work with just communities was not built into his early research; rather, it emerged from his recognition in the late 1960s and early 1970s that his stage theory of moral development had definite limitations. This recognition was forced on him partly by researchers in educational sociology (as distinct from educational psychology), and partly by his own experiences with actual communities. The specific observation that unsettled Kohlberg was the catchphrase “hidden” or “unstudied curriculum,” coined by Philip Jackson, at that time chair of the Elementary Education Council of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Jackson’s 1968 book, entitled Life in Classrooms, defined “90 percent of what goes on in classrooms” as a form of social education unrelated to the subject supposedly being taught in class. Jackson thought of the school’s hidden curriculum as a “way station” between a child’s experience of personal relationships in his or her family and the impersonal achievement orientation of adult life. Jackson summarized the three chief “lessons” of the hidden curriculum as “the crowds, the praise, and the power.” “Crowds” refers to the fact that the school-age child must adjust to living and learning among a “crowd” of others of the same age and status. “Praise” and “power” refer to the child’s learning to accept the power of and take orders from an impersonal authority figure rather than parents.
Kohlberg’s addition to Jackson’s sociological analysis was the claim he made in an article on “The Moral Atmosphere of the School” that “… the only integrated way of thinking about the hidden curriculum is to think of it as moral education.” One of the implications of the hidden curriculum is that children often develop a split between their moral thinking and their actual conduct; for example, they may say what they think the teacher wants to hear during a classroom discussion of justice, for example, yet act as if the competitive practices needed to succeed in school are the real “rules of the game.” Kohlberg concluded, however, that the task of the moral educator was not to do away with “the crowds, the praise, and the power,” but rather to incorporate the principle of justice within the hidden curriculum itself. “The teaching of justice requires just schools. The crowds, the praise, and the power are neither just nor unjust in themselves…. The problem is not to get rid of [them], but to establish a more basic context of justice which gives them meaning.”
The next event that stimulated Kohlberg’s thinking about just communities was his visit to an Israeli kibbutz. In 1969, a year after the publication of Jackson’s book, Kohlberg accepted an invitation from the Youth Aliyah organization to observe and conduct interviews on a left-wing kibbutz that had attracted his interest. This particular collective farm was unusual in that it educated some lower-class urban adolescents alongside teenagers who had grown up on the kibbutz. Kohlberg conducted a study of these youth in order to test the effectiveness of the kibbutz’s educational program in fostering moral development; he found that the young people from the kibbutz scored significantly higher on his tests than a sample of Israeli urban youth. Kohlberg was particularly impressed by the way the Madrich, or educator in charge of the high school program, dealt with the tension between the kibbutz’s commitment to the values of justice and equality, and the need for strong cohesion among the members of the group. Kohlberg regarded the kibbutz’s educational program as having a dual focus: to maintain collective discipline while doing so in a way that respects democratic process and individual differences or dissent.
Kohlberg did not return from his visit to Israel with a fully worked-out model of group educational practice. Over the next few years, however, he put together a list of characteristics that he considered essential to a model program of moral education through group membership:
- The student’s social identity should be defined by the group, and the group should define normative standards of appropriate behavior.
- The group should discipline its members—informally at first, and then by the group as a whole if necessary.
- The members should become emotionally attached to the group, and to other members of the group, both as individuals and because they share a common social identity.
- Group members should be expected to develop a sense of collective responsibility, such that each member recognizes that he or she is in a sense responsible for the behavior of the others.
- Discussions of values and value conflicts should be conducted to promote the group’s improvement as a social unit as well as serve the moral development of individual members.
- The educator’s role should include introducing the group to the values of the larger society as well as facilitating moral discussions and decisions within the group.
Interestingly, Kohlberg’s first experiment with forming a just community in the United States did not take place in a high school or other educational setting but in a prison. This turn of events came about in part as a result of prison riots at Attica and elsewhere in the late 1960s, which made correctional officers more open to new approaches to prison reform. Kohlberg had two colleagues who were interested in prison work. The three researchers obtained a two-year grant and began conducting discussion groups inside a state prison for men located in Cheshire, Connecticut. They quickly discovered that any positive influences they had on the inmates’ levels of moral reasoning could not be put into action within the prison environment. Kohlberg’s group then looked for a setting in which they could set up a small model community that would embody the kind of group cohesion that Kohlberg had seen in the Israeli kibbutz. They discovered that the women’s prison at Niantic, Connecticut, was organized into small group cottages housing 20-30 women apiece. In 1971 Kohlberg’s team received permission to set up a model just community in one of the cottages. The Niantic prison project is described in further detail in the section on case studies; its significance here is that it encouraged Kohlberg to try out his educational theories in schools outside prison walls.
Explanation Kohlberg’s approach to moral education was intended at least in part to account for two phenomena that have confronted researchers in the field of moral education since the 1920s. The first is the gap between what people say about their moral standards and the way they actually behave in various situations. The pioneering study by Hartshorne and May in the 1920s was a landmark because of its finding that moral behavior could not be attributed to permanent character traits that shaped the person’s conduct in all circumstances; rather, it was influenced by situational factors that included the likelihood of punishment or reward, pressure from the peer group, and the values held by other members of the child’s social class. Hartshorne and May found that there was surprisingly little correlation between what children had learned about the virtue of honesty, for example, and the likelihood of their cheating during experimental tests of their moral conduct. Philip Jackson’s sociological analysis of the hidden curriculum also touched on this disjunction between children’s professed moral values and their actual behavior.
The second phenomenon that Kohlberg hoped to account for is the fact that two individuals at the same stage of moral development may take different positions regarding the proper course of action when a real-life dilemma presents itself. During Kohlberg’s teaching career at Harvard, the military draft was the moral dilemma that most frequently preoccupied his students, but their responses took a number of different forms. Kohlberg maintained that his emphasis on the process of moral reasoning itself allowed for a variety of responses without having to exclude some decisions as automatically “immoral.”
With specific regard to the use of forced-choice moral dilemmas as an educational technique, one should note that it did not originate with Kohlberg; Piaget is usually credited with its introduction. One important addition that Kohlberg made to Piaget’s use of dilemmas in investigating the moral reasoning of children was the development of a scoring system and coding manual for evaluating subjects’ responses. A second difference in the two psychologists’ use of dilemmas is Kohlberg’s emphasis on interpersonal conflict in his stories. Whereas many of Piaget’s examples simply involve comparisons of two hypothetical situations, all of Kohlberg’s dilemmas involve conflicts between different people’s perspectives, needs, and wishes.
Examples Kohlberg’s “Heinz” dilemma is reproduced in the accompanying sidebar. Two of the just communities that he served as a consultant are described in more detail under “Theories in Action.”
Loss of a Universal Moral Framework
Kohlberg and other twentieth-century educational theorists had to work out notions of moral development against a dark backdrop, namely the loss of a universally agreed-upon framework for posing and answering ethical questions. Although the dissolution of what had been the Western moral consensus was noticeable enough to disturb some observers as early as the eighteenth century, the process accelerated with increasing rapidity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charles Taylor has described this sense of loss as follows:
What Weber called “disenchantment,” the dissipation of our sense of the cosmos as a meaningful order, has allegedly destroyed the horizons in which people previously lived their spiritual lives…. What is common [at present] is the sense that no framework is shared by everyone …
Taylor goes on to say that the defining moral predicament for contemporary people is not a sense of guilt based on failing to meet an unchallengeable set of moral demands, but rather a feeling of meaninglessness resulting from the sheer variety of competing religious as well as nonreligious traditions and philosophies.
Kohlberg’s theories about moral education can be regarded from Taylor’s perspective as a search for a method of moral education that would maintain a core of objective ethical principles while excluding traditional methods of moral education that relied on indoctrination. This search was particularly important to Kohlberg because of interviews he conducted with survivors of the Holocaust in 1945. Carol Gilligan remarked that much of Kohlberg’s resistance to her questioning of the universal adequacy of his stage theory was rooted in his fear of the consequences of widespread moral collapse. “… to him, to let go of the notion that there was a universal, objective moral truth was to fall into a stance of moral relativism, or even worse, moral nihilism, and therefore to have no place to stand against moral outrages such as genocide, the Holocaust, slavery.”
John Dewey’s Educational Theories
Another important historical factor underlying Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was the influence of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey favored educational reform that would allow schools to be “major agencies for the development of free personalities.” Since Dewey regarded truth as an instrument that human beings use to solve problems rather than an unchanging reality, he thought that schools should teach students how to exercise judgment rather than imparting rote knowledge of facts, so that the children would learn “to pass judgments pertinently and discriminatingly on the problems of human living.” Thus he regarded the teacher’s role as not “to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but … to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him [sic] in properly responding to those influences.”
Dewey considered democracy by itself to be a primary moral value, and the schools to be the necessary foundation of a democratic society. He stated in 1897, “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform… . I believe … that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.” Since Dewey maintained that the school “is primarily a social institution” and that education is “a social process,” he argued that it is the proper locus of moral as well as academic instruction.
I believe that the moral education centers upon this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of work and thought.
He sometimes referred to this principle as “learning by doing.”
Dewey first taught at the University of Michigan (1884-1894); later, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago (1894-1904) and Columbia University (1904-1952). Dewey’s most influential publications include School and Society (1889), “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897), and Democracy and Education (1916). In addition to his writings, however, Dewey led the movement for progressive education in the United States through his influence on actual educational practice. The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago was founded in 1896 in response to Dewey’s ideas; it expanded over the years to include four schools (nursery/kindergarten, lower, middle, and high) that had enrolled a total of 1,600 pupils annually as of the early 2000s. Thus, Kohlberg performed his undergraduate and doctoral work in the institution that was identified with both the theory and the practical application of Dewey’s ideas.
Kohlberg himself was quite explicit about his indebtedness to Dewey’s concept of education. In his early essay on the Platonic roots of his concept of justice, he was careful to note that he had “… discussed [his] views within John Dewey’s framework. In speaking of a Platonic view [of justice], [he was] not discarding [his] basic Deweyism.” In a well known article that Kohlberg coauthored with Rochelle Mayer, he echoed Dewey’s insistence on the importance of democratic values:
In regard to ethical values, the progressive ideology adds the postulates of development and democracy to the postulates of liberalism. The notion of educational democracy is one in which justice between teacher and child means joining in a community in which value decisions are made on a shared and equitable basis.
Social Climate of the 1960s and 1970s
Kohlberg’s rise to a kind of academic stardom in the early 1970s had much to do with the political and social upheavals in the United States toward the end of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the political scandal of the Watergate hearings brought moral issues to the forefront of public attention; these conflicts gave the question of moral education in the schools a new urgency. In addition, Kohlberg’s emphasis on the importance of bridging academic theory and educational practice led a number of psychologists and educators to become political activists. Most of the just communities and cluster schools studied by Kohlberg’s graduate students were founded during this period.
Some historians of American education have suggested that the general atmosphere of social unrest and disruption in the 1970s favored widespread acceptance of Kohlberg’s ideas because he was regarded as a protestor against the academic status quo. His notion of conventional morality as a lower stage of moral development also attracted those who wished to see themselves as morally justified as well as intellectually sophisticated opponents of the current social and political system. Kohlberg’s popularity was in part a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Many of his critics complained that his tendency to ascribe higher ratings on his scale of moral maturity to student protestors amounted to implicit endorsement of their left-wing political views. An example of the political bias that these critics perceived in Kohlberg’s ratings occurs in a book chapter that he coauthored in 1971. Discussing the 1964 free speech sit-ins at Berkeley, Kohlberg maintained that
… willingness to violate authority for civil rights required Stage-6 principled thinking… . a Stage-5 social-contract interpretation of justice (which was held by the university administration) did not lead to a clear decision [on the part of students at that level]…. about half of the Stage-5 subjects sat in, while eighty percent of the Stage-6 subjects sat in. For students at the conventional levels—Stages 3 and 4—such civil disobedience was viewed as a violation of authority and only ten percent of them sat in.
It should be added that some graduates of Kohlberg’s high school programs did not perceive him as a neutral figure. The phrase “moral intimidation” was used by a graduate of the Scarsdale Alternative School described below, who published an article in 1980 regarding Kohlberg’s work as a consultant at the school. The student argued that Kohlberg’s emphasis on the form rather than the content of moral reasoning did not exclude the potential for teachers to pressure students in their applications of moral education theory.
The feeling of being pushed toward “higher stages” was very intimidating to many students. They perceived that every issue was presented with a “right” side and a “wrong” side and that there was tremendous pressure to choose the “right” side, despite what they really thought… This I saw happening in our school especially with a big shot Harvard professor in addition to the entire staff supporting certain ideas which they called better. With the notion that there exists a hierarchy of reasoning and values in the air … discussions [turn] into battles of who’s right and who is wrong based on stages.
Critiques of Kohlberg’s Stage Theory
Many of Kohlberg’s critics have pointed to what they regard as weaknesses in his stage theory of moral development. Some of these concern the number of stages. As was noted earlier, the existence of Kohlberg’s sixth stage was questioned by researchers who could not find subjects who seemed to have attained it. In addition, Kohlberg’s eventual hypothesis of a seventh stage of moral development, which he called a “soft stage,” represented a later modification of his original position.
Other critics question the interrelationship among the stages. Kohlberg’s early work described the stages as “hard,” in the sense that the stages were not only sequential but relatively separate from one another; that is, people would generally function in all areas of moral decision-making at the highest level of development that they had attained. In 1979, James Rest, one of Kohlberg’s associates, proposed a so-called “mixed stage” or “layer cake” model of moral development, according to which a person might use an earlier and less complex level of moral reasoning in certain specific situations. For example, a person who scores at Stage 5, which is considered “postconventional,” might well reason at Stage 3 or 4 when dealing with such commonplace obligations of citizenship as registering to vote or serving on a jury. In other words, Rest’s “mixed stage” model allows for the simultaneous coexistence of higher and lower stages within a person’s cognitive repertoire.
Related to Rest’s modification of Kohlberg’s stages is domain theory, usually identified with the work of Elliott Turiel. Turiel came to distinguish between children’s moral development and other domains of social knowledge in order to account for anomalies in the data from Kohlberg’s long-term follow-up studies of the subjects from his dissertation research. Turiel’s domain theory holds that children’s conceptions of morality and social conventions develop as a result of different social experiences associated with these two domains. Actions in the moral domain have certain effects on other people that occur without regard to social rules that may or may not be associated with the action. An example would be striking another person for no apparent reason. The moral domain is structured around the concepts of fairness, harm caused to others, and the welfare of others. Conventions, by contrast, are agreed-upon rules that smooth social interactions within a group; they are structured to meet the needs of social organization rather than considering the members’ harm or well-being. An example might be the convention of addressing a physician in public as “Doctor” rather than using his or her first name; the use of the professional title is a matter of conventional etiquette rather than a moral issue. Domain theory helps to explain why people often appear to be inconsistent in applying moral reasoning across different social contexts. It has also been applied by teachers at the high school level to help students distinguish between moral issues (e.g., cheating on tests or stealing from other students) and matters of convention (e.g., dress codes).
One of the most frequent criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is that it draws universal implications from the life histories of a relatively privileged stratum of Western society, namely well-educated Caucasian males. As Carol Gilligan put it, Kohlberg’s scheme
hid the thoughts and feelings of all people who were considered to be lesser, less developed, less human, and we all know who these people are: women, people of color, gays and lesbians, the poor, and the disabled…. the only way you could be different within a hierarchical scheme was, you could be higher or you could be lower, and all the people who had historically been lower turned out—surprise, surprise—to be the people who did not create the scheme.
Gilligan herself is best known for her work in comparing Kohlberg’s emphasis on justice and rationality to what she defined as an ethic of care. In a frequently cited example from In a Different Voice, Gilligan contrasts “Jake,” an 11-year old who scores at Stage 4 on Kohlberg’s scale, with “Amy,” a girl of the same age who is rated a full stage lower on the grounds of her apparent “cognitive immaturity.” “… her responses seem to reveal a feeling of powerlessness in the world, an inability to think systematically about the concepts of morality or law, a reluctance to challenge authority.” Gilligan proceeds, however, to analyze “the different logic of Amy’s response,” based on the girl’s concern to protect a network of relationships rather than to set up a hierarchical order of concepts regarding laws or duties.
To the question, “What does he see that she does not?” Kohlberg’s theory provides a ready response, manifest in the scoring of Jake’s judgments a full stage higher than Amy’s in moral maturity; to the question, “What does she see that he does not?” Kohlberg’s theory has nothing to say.
Gilligan’s later work represents a departure from standard methods of psychological research as well as a rejection of Kohlberg’s specific theories.
Others have noted that Kohlberg’s stage theory relies heavily on the verbal and conceptual skills of test subjects, to the disadvantage of younger or less well educated persons. Jerome Kagan, one of Kohlberg’s colleagues at Harvard, thought that Kohlberg simply “didn’t make sense” in maintaining that children below the age of four do not possess any moral reasoning abilities. Kagan attributed Kohlberg’s position to his reliance on children’s ability to respond verbally to moral dilemma stories. He said, “I could imagine a child who could not put into words, or into coherent sentences, his or her take on a moral problem, thus scoring at a lower stage [on Kohlberg’s scale] than is actually the case.” A similar problem surfaces with adult members of ethnic or racial minorities, in that some cultures do not place a high premium on verbal communication, abstract thought, or self-reflection; however, these characteristics hardly justify evaluating members of these cultures as morally underdeveloped or inferior. Anthony Cortese, a professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University, has pointed out that the scores of ethnics in the United States on Kohlberg’s tests reflect their degree of assimilation into mainstream society rather than their level of moral development. “As ethnics enter middle and upper class in Western societies, they become more mainstream and their ties to [their] old culture tend to weaken.”
Lastly, some studies of the moral development of educated professionals indicate that Kohlberg’s scoring system favors those with some training in philosophy as well as highly developed general verbal skills. A study of Canadian medical students that was initially interpreted as suggesting that medical school actually hindered moral development was criticized for its overreliance on Kohlberg’s stage theory. The critic remarked, “[According to Kohlberg], post-conventional stages are a rarity requiring philosophical sophistication. Is it fair or reasonable to expect medical education to provide a philosophical training as well?”
Character Formation Issues
Kohlberg has been criticized by representatives of two other contemporary philosophies of moral education, which may be roughly categorized as communitarian and character education approaches. Both groups of theorists point to several developments in American society since the early years of Kohlberg’s career that have led to a revival of interest in moral education:
- The accelerating breakdown of family structure, reflected in the rising divorce rate and the number of children living in single-parent households.
- The growing influence of the mass media and their emphasis on materialism, violent behavior, immediate self-gratification, and deliberate violation of social standards, i.e., “pushing the envelope.”
- An increased awareness that certain ethical values, such as respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, and the like, have objective worth in maintaining civilized societies.
- Troubling behavioral trends among young people, reflected in medical and psychiatric as well as criminal justice statistics.
Communitarian educators disagree with Kohlberg on the starting point of moral education; they begin with communication through language and social interactions rather than with reasoning ability. Communitarians also stress the importance of the specific religious, linguistic, ethnic, national, and other communities to which a child belongs in the formation of his or her identity. Helen Haste, a British educator in this group, has said, “Cultural narratives, traditions, and stories feed directly into our identity, signaling valued attributes and behaviors, and giving an explanation for our past and present.” Beyond the child’s sense of identity, communities are also sources of morality. “Social order rests on people’s interdependence, and society only functions if people recognize and act upon their community responsibilities.” From the communitarian perspective, Kohlberg’s emphasis on rationality is built on an unrealistic concept of human nature, leading to “selfishness and egoism … a failure to see the individual as part of a whole, and the lack of subjective feeling of being part of something larger that would give the self meaning.” The results of a Kohlbergian approach to parenting were summarized by a writer living in New York City:
Since reason is so clearly ineffective when kids are being most kid-like, often my neighbors resort to a studied nonchalance in the face of a child’s unruliness, refusing (so it seems to suffering bystanders) to train their children in public etiquette. We have all seen children careening around a crowded waiting room at the doctor’s office, straining to get out of the shopping cart at the grocery store, or banging their spoons on the table in a restaurant…. In such situations one often notices on the parent’s face an ironic smile, hiding…equal mixtures of rage and incompetence. It is the price you pay when you don’t want to appear unreasonable.
The communitarian critique points to three specific gaps in Kohlberg’s account of moral development: the gap between individual moral autonomy and deep commitment to a specific community; the gap between reason and such other aspects of human personality as emotion and imagination; and the gap between verbal expressions of moral conviction and actual behavior. With regard to the first issue, some observers have remarked on a noticeable tension between the individualism underlying Kohlberg’s stage theory of development and the collectivist notions embedded in his concept of just communities. With regard to emotion, Kohlberg himself was compelled to acknowledge that in order for just communities to function adequately, individuals had to form emotional attachments to them as well as accept them on an intellectual basis. In terms of the gap between standards and conduct, some researchers found that some juvenile delinquents scored at higher stages on Kohlberg’s tests than children who did not get into trouble with the law. This apparent anomaly was attributed to the fact that the lawbreakers had to develop a certain degree of cognitive sophistication in order to “con” authority figures.
Character education, which has received increasing attention since the early 1990s, is often associated with the work of Thomas Lickona, a professor of education who specializes in early childhood development. Lickona published a book in 1991 entitled Educating for Character, which urged cooperation among parents, schools, and local communities in teaching two aspects of moral character that Kohlberg deemphasized, namely the affective and moral action dimensions of character. Lickona retained Kohlberg’s concept of the cognitive side of character—”Good character consists of knowing the good”—but added, “desiring the good, and doing the good.” Lickona defines the affective side of character as including conscience, self-respect, empathy, loving the good, self-control, and a willingness to correct one’s moral failings. Moral action, in his view, requires the three qualities of competence in listening, communicating, and cooperating; a will capable of mobilizing one’s judgment and energy; and moral habit, understood as “A reliable inner disposition to respond to situations in a morally good way.”
Some observers object to Kohlberg’s theories of moral development because they disagree with his definition of goodness. Critics of Kohlberg have noted that his stage theory implicitly values questioning, challenging, and self-assertive behavior over conformity, obedience, and compliance. One commentator has stated that
No one goes further than Kohlberg in rejecting traditional moral education…. The whole moral inheritance of social norms and religious codes has nothing to offer the growing child; to the contrary, they run the risk of stifling his moral autonomy. Asked by parents and teachers why so many of his recommended lessons seemed to lead to the conclusion that children should resist authority, he scoffed, ‘Such teachers do not believe moral behavior should be based on reasoning….’ [In Kohlberg’s system] the healthy individual is the one who does not submit readily to his parents or rules. To become moral, the child has only to retreat in solitary meditation to the private monastery of his mind.
Another question in the minds of some of Kohlberg’s critics is the source and stability of human moral goodness. Some maintain that it comes from within; that is, goodness is a basic human predisposition or potential. Others argue that it comes from the outside and must be imposed on a human nature that is innately flawed or vulnerable to its baser instincts. In their opinion, Kohlberg failed to offer an adequate account of moral evil. Kohlberg’s faith in the civilizing power of education was contradicted by the recent history of Germany, which showed that scholars and other “reasonable people” could coexist quite comfortably with radical evil. Carol Gilligan said in 1993,
There was an embarrassing fact—really embarrassing because I always think it was Larry who raised it. The fact that the Nazi Holocaust happened in the middle of Europe meant that the assumption that civilization led to … moral development could no longer be held. Education, social class, culture and civilization were not necessarily associated with higher stages of moral reasoning… . The Holocaust should not have occurred in Germany, according to the assumptions about development that Larry incorporated into his theory.
A third area of philosophical debate related to Kohlberg’s theories is the centrality he accorded to the principle of justice and the way he defined that principle. Kohlberg explicitly took his definition of justice as fairness from the work of John Rawls (1921-2002), a political philosopher who also taught at Harvard. Rawls’ best-known work, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971. While Rawls’ combination of Kantian and utilitarian lines of thought in his description of the social contract has been intensively discussed, his ideas are far from being universally accepted. For example, Kohlberg subscribed to Rawls’ notion that justice is a “rationally objective moral principle” that any morally responsible adult would freely adopt. This premise, however, has been questioned by moral philosophers as well as political scientists.
Still another area of controversy is Kohlberg’s view of the distinction between morality and religion insofar as it applies to specifically religious education. Few American religious educators, whether Christian or Jewish, have difficulty with the concept of a civic morality based on natural law, defined as the “law written on the hearts” of all people, in the words of St. Paul (Romans 2:15). Their critiques of Kohlberg are based partly on what they perceive as flaws in his research method, and partly on their views of the educative dimension of religious practices. For example, one commentator noted that Kohlberg failed to distinguish between “religion” and “religious affiliation” in defining morality as autonomous with respect to religion.
Social scientists investigating religious behavior typically draw a sharp distinction between religiosity and religious affiliation. It is surprising and disappointing that … Kohlberg did not acquaint himself more assiduously with the corpus of empirical data and theorizing on the social-scientific study of religion.
In addition, this critic observed that Kohlberg’s separation of morality from religion is incompatible with his notion of “the whole person developing as a whole.” “Kohlberg … states that all human development is of a piece. Thus [religious practice] is intimately bound up with other areas of human development, including morality.”
Another group of religious educators take issue with Kohlberg’s theories from a communitarian perspective. Barry Chazan, a Jewish scholar, argues that Kohlberg’s model of moral development is inadequate from the standpoint of maintaining Jewish identity in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society. “The Kohlberg model is ultimately too Platonic, too individualistic, and too traditionless to be applicable to the Jewish educational world, past, present, or future.” Craig Dykstra, a Christian educator from a Dutch Reformed background, points out that such faith-related practices as prayer, worship, study of the Scriptures, giving hospitality to strangers, working for social justice, and similar actions are cooperative activities that form moral character in religious communities as well as in individuals. In addition, Dykstra maintains that the nature of faith itself distinguishes Christian religious education from other forms of education, because faith is not a human achievement; rather it is a “turn away from achievement and mastery toward receptivity and responsiveness.”
In addition, some researchers in the field of religious education have compiled data suggesting that Elliott Turiel’s domain theory offers a more adequate explanation of children’s moral development in the context of specific religious communities than does Kohlberg’s model. One study of children and adolescents from three distinctive religious traditions (Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Mennonite [Anabaptist Protestant]) found that the young people distinguished between basic moral concerns (justice, compassion, and human well-being) and rules or practices specific to their respective faiths (fasting, keeping kosher, head coverings or prayer shawls, Sabbath observances, attendance at Mass, etc.). For example, one of the interviewers asked a nine-year-old Jewish girl whether it is all right for Christian boys not to wear kippot (head coverings worn by Jewish males). The girl answered that it is acceptable, “because that’s not one of their rules. They don’t show respect for God in the same way.” “Is it okay that they respect God in a different way?” “Yes. The religion is different. What they do is not our business, and if they want to do that they can.”
Theories in Action
Kohlberg’s interest in field research Kohlberg’s theories not only unfolded from his doctoral research, but they were also field-tested by his Harvard graduate students. In fact, it was the work of one of these students, Moshe Blatt, which was credited with turning Kohlberg away from pure research toward applying his theory of moral development to actual educational practice. Blatt was the first to hypothesize that children could be stimulated to move more rapidly through the successive stages of moral development through systematic exposure to moral reasoning one step above their own. To test this hypothesis, Blatt interviewed a group of sixth-graders in a Jewish Sunday School over a period of 12 weeks. The students were tested at the beginning of the project to determine their current stage of moral development. Blatt then met with the students once a week to present a moral dilemma for discussion. In his own words, he then took “the ‘solution’ proposed by a child who was one stage above the majority of the children … and elaborated this solution until the children understood its logic and seemed convinced that its logic was reasonable or fair.” At the end of the 12 weeks, Blatt retested the sixth-graders and found that 64% of them “had developed one full stage in their moral reasoning.” Although Kohlberg was initially skeptical about the “Blatt effect,” he later stated that “Blatt’s venture launched cognitive-developmental moral education.” In the period between 1975 and 1989, Kohlberg’s students published seven reviews of “a large number” of studies that claimed to replicate Blatt’s findings.
Although other educational psychologists question their findings, cognitive developmental theorists maintain that the body of research based on Kohlberg’s work has proved three major contentions regarding moral education:
- A child’s moral development can be influenced by educational interventions. Specifically, his or her progress through the various stages of moral development can be compressed into a shorter period of time.
- This accelerated development is not a temporary effect, but is maintained in the same way as “natural” moral development. In addition, the child is able to extend his or her progress to cover real-life moral dilemmas not discussed in the classroom.
- The educational interventions that have been shown to be most effective in promoting moral development include “providing opportunities for cognitive conflict,” role-playing, and exposure to moral reasoning at the stage above one’s own.
Measurement instruments Kohlberg was frequently criticized in the 1960s and 1970s for psychometric weaknesses in the original version of his Moral Judgment Interview, or MJI, which he used in his dissertation research. As of the early twenty-first century, the MJI consisted of three forms, each containing three moral dilemmas. The test was administered as a 45-minute semi-structured interview recorded on tape. Subjects were presented with the three moral dilemmas included in their form. The interviewer then asked a series of open-ended probe questions intended to uncover the logical structure of the subject’s moral reasoning. The MJI yields two scores: an overall score measuring the subject’s moral maturity, and a stage score. In response to his critics, Kohlberg worked on standardizing his scoring system, which he then referred to as the Standard Issues Scoring System, or SIS. In 1987 The Measurement of Moral Judgment was finally published, shortly after Kohlberg’s death. The scoring procedures for the MJI are time-consuming and require considerable training and sophistication on the interviewer’s part; the scoring manual alone runs to 975 pages.
Another frequently administered test of moral reasoning based on Kohlberg’s theories is the Defining Issues Test, or DIT, first published by James Rest in 1979. It incorporates Rest’s “mixed stage” modification of Kohlberg’s stage theory. The DIT-1 is a multiple-choice self-administered test containing six moral dilemmas that require the subject to prioritize as well as agree or disagree with a set of questions following each dilemma. The DIT-1 short form contains only the first three dilemmas of the full DIT-1. The DIT-2 consists of five dilemmas related to contemporary social problems. To compare Kohlberg’s instrument with Rest’s, the MJI is more comprehensive, but the DIT is considerably easier to use and better documented. Another difference between the two tests is that the MJI can be used with children as young as seven, while the DIT cannot be used with subjects younger than 13. An excerpt from the DIT is included in the accompanying sidebar.
Prison reform Kohlberg’s experiment with setting up a just community in a prison began in June 1971, when he and two colleagues started training and orientation meetings with line staff at a minimum-security prison for women in Niantic, Connecticut. The training sessions with the staff consisted of moral development theory, what Kohlberg described as “simple clinical practice,” and group discussions. The researchers quickly found that the line staff felt hampered by having to enforce purely bureaucratic rules on the inmates, but they had no role definition as counselors or helpers. It was then decided to set up a model cottage in one of the cottages at the institution. The researchers selected a group of 20 women for the model program, along with six line staff, a supervisor trained in moral development theory, and a parole agent. The role of the line staff was redefined as one of helping the inmates through counseling and leading discussions. The inmates were divided into two groups of 10 each to participate in discussions of their personal issues and dilemmas.
The model cottage was to have some autonomy in determining parole and work release as well as in defining its own rules and policies. The researchers had some difficulty in persuading the staff and inmates to overcome their suspicions of each other, but eventually a workable form of self-government emerged. Kohlberg described its structure as follows:
The entire discipline process of the cottage is handled through community meetings…. In these meetings, members are free to say anything they like. Occasionally, staff are put on the spot, as are inmates. The inmates generally make a great effort to explore all aspects of an incident (personalities, circumstances, etc.). A community meeting may be called at any time by any member of the community…. Both staff and inmates have a single vote.
What was innovative about the Niantic program, from Kohlberg’s perspective, was that it conceived of the inmates’ treatment in terms of moral justice rather than psychological or psychiatric categories and approaches. An article that he published in 1972, a year after the beginning of the program, was quite optimistic in its assessment:
We have accomplished much. We have created a fair self-governing community which operates within the constraints of a larger total institution and correctional system. Half the original women have been placed in either work-release or parole programs… None have failed as of this writing…. At present, two women are doing well in a local community college and others, hopefully, will enroll.
The participants in the Niantic model cottage program were not systematically tested on the MJI until several years after the beginning of the program; however, most staff and inmates felt that they learned important skills of moral reasoning, group discussion, and decision making. The inmates in particular felt that they were better prepared to return to the world outside the prison.
Secondary education Following his work at Niantic, Kohlberg then began to introduce his theories regarding the role of just communities in moral education into several alternative high schools in New York and Massachusetts. Alternative high schools in general were a product of the so-called free-school movement, which reached its peak of popularity in the United States in the early 1970s. The free-school movement, which was influenced by the wider countercultural trends of the period, was largely led by followers of John Dewey. Alternative schools, which are also referred to as democratic schools, may be either public or private institutions. Some public alternative high schools are offered as a choice to local students, while others are designed for students at risk of dropping out of school. Although there is no universally agreed-upon definition of a democratic school, most share the following characteristics:
- Decision-making is shared among the students and faculty.
- Staff and students relate to one another as equals.
- Learning is student-centered, allowing students to choose their daily activities.
- The surrounding community is regarded as an extension of the classroom in terms of providing further opportunities for learning.
An illustrative example of Kohlberg’s approach is the second just community that he helped to establish within an alternative school, namely the Scarsdale Alternative High School (also known as SAS or the A School) in Scarsdale, New York. The A School was founded in 1972 as a democratic alternative to the public high school. As Scarsdale is a wealthy community in which students are pressured to do well in school in order to gain admission to prestigious colleges, some parents wanted their children to be able to attend a high school with a less competitive atmosphere. Unlike many alternative schools, the A School has its own building separate from the main high school. As of the early 2000s, SAS had 75 students and five full-time staff.
The A School declared itself a just community school in 1978, one year after the principal and two teachers attended a summer institute at Harvard. They were having difficulty building a sense of community within the school, and they asked Kohlberg to serve as a consultant at the end of the summer. One of the major issues that emerged during the first year of the A School’s adoption of the just community model concerned the tension between personal freedom and membership in a community. The use of drugs and alcohol during a school retreat provided the occasion. While most of the students responded to the faculty’s request not to use drugs during school hours or at school functions, they raised the question as to whether a majority in a participatory community has the right to make rules that limit the personal freedom of the minority. Eventually the students came to a position that Kohlberg described as follows:
In the just community school the majority cannot, in general, limit personal rights of students; it can only limit them where the personal right cannot be held to be a moral right because it violates the more essential obligation to participate in a voluntary community. Smoking pot is not a basic right, like freedom of speech, but is rather a personal habit that can be restricted for the sake of the community and the individuals in it.
Another major issue that arose during Kohlberg’s work as a consultant at the Scarsdale school was cheating. Cheating is a problem in many schools because it is harder to develop peer-supported opposition to it than to offenses like stealing. Whereas students can readily perceive that their peers are victims of unfairness when personal possessions are stolen, teachers appear to be the only victims of classroom cheating. Students, in other words, often regard themselves as a “we” group, with the teachers as a “they” group. As Kohlberg put it, “Strong collective norms against cheating can usually only develop if the peer and teacher groups are seen as parts of a common community with norms that are fair to teachers as well as students.” What happened in A School community discussions when two incidents of cheating came before the group was that the students accepted the responsibility of confronting those among them who cheated; in other words, they instituted an honor code in which honesty became a rule, not simply a vague expectation, and students as well as teachers felt responsible to the community as a whole for enforcing the rule.
Kohlberg’s involvement with high-school education was significant in that it led him to modify some of his early views on the process of moral development. In particular, his first writings emphasized the separation of form and content in moral reasoning; that is, he argued that the structure of the student’s moral reasoning was more important than his or her specific answer. As Kohlberg dealt with adolescents at the stages he identified with conventional morality, however, he could no longer keep a safe academic distance from the content of their reasoning; in other words, the rules that a school community decides to institute and enforce are as important as the reasons guiding the decisions. At a minimum, life in any community requires adherence to some conventional moral norms. In Kohlberg’s words,
… if students decide—even democratically—that they can leave class whenever they feel bored, the teacher is not as likely to focus on the reasoning behind their decision as on how to impress upon them the virtues of patience and consideration for others.
In addition, the moral conventions that Kohlberg thought he could take for granted in the 1960s were more fragile than he recognized at the time; even a decade later it was obvious to most observers that commonly held beliefs had lost much of their force and authority.
The second major modification that Kohlberg made as a result of his experiences with alternative high schools was to rethink the distinction between making a moral judgment about a situation and assuming personal moral responsibility for one’s actions. Some describe this distinction in terms of two questions: “What is right to do in this situation?” and “What should I do?” Kohlberg and a colleague reexamined the famous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1974, in which some subjects recruited as “teachers” were instructed to administer electric shocks to “learners.” The experiment was designed to test the extent to which subjects would obey the experimenter’s orders rather than their own conscience when the “learner” expressed pain. Kohlberg’s reanalysis of Milgram’s data indicated that very few of the subjects thought that it was “right” to continue administering the shocks. The experimenter, according to Kohlberg, “did not influence their determination of what was right as much as excuse them from taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.” Although Kohlberg speculated that attaining higher stages of moral development is necessary for accepting personal moral responsibility, he came to recognize that it is not a sufficient condition.
Professional ethics and law enforcement One area in which Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development has received increased attention since the 1980s is the field of professional ethics, followed by that of law enforcement. In response to a number of much-publicized scandals, such professions as medicine, accounting, journalism, public relations, and business are making use of Kohlberg’s tests of moral maturity for self-policing and self-evaluation. In some cases, the effects of professional education itself on students are investigated. For example, an article published in a Canadian accounting journal reported on recent research concerning the moral development of accounting students and professional accountants relative to that of other groups in Canadian society. The article mentioned such findings as the fact that women in the profession generally scored higher on Kohlberg’s measures of moral development than did men. In addition, the researchers reported surprisingly high rates of ethical conflicts affecting their subjects; 66% told the researchers that they had experienced at least one moral conflict at work while 46% reported more than one.
In law enforcement, Kohlberg’s stages are sometimes used to evaluate the motivations of lawbreakers. An interesting example of this application is an analysis of four identified categories of people (99% of whom are male) who write computer viruses, namely adolescents, college students, adults, and former virus writers. An analyst at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center reported that of these four groups, only the adult virus writers “appeared to be ethically abnormal, appearing below the level of ethical maturity which would be considered normal [for their age group] on the Kohlberg scale.” The analyst mentioned an additional disturbing finding, however; although early studies done of virus writers in 1994 had indicated that they tended to “age out” as their moral development continued, “… mixed messages from many different sources appeared to make virus writing appear ‘less wrong,’ pushing up the age of aging out, if the process occurred at all.” Another area of research within law enforcement is the use of Kohlberg’s stages to evaluate the level of moral development of police officers.
Relevance to Modern Readers
As of the early 2000s, Kohlberg’s work was more directly relevant to educators than to psychologists. In addition, the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and the rise of the home schooling movement have tended to polarize educators; in general, Kohlberg’s views are more congenial to teachers or parents involved in progressive education or alternative school programs than they are to those who regard themselves as traditionalists or neoclassicists. Some researchers aligned with the character education movement have attempted to reconcile their approach with Kohlberg’s, but others consider cognitive developmentalism to be fundamentally incompatible with character education in terms of underlying assumptions and basic philosophy. Moreover, feminist educators have little patience with what they regard as the built-in sexism of Kohlberg’s stage theory.
The area of research in which Kohlberg’s contributions are most likely to affect contemporary readers outside the field of education is ethical analysis. Kohlberg’s stage theory and his Moral Judgment Interview are still used to evaluate the moral maturity of students and practitioners in occupations ranging from finance and journalism to law enforcement and health care. Given ongoing concern about the trustworthiness of people in positions of public trust, one can predict that ethics research has a productive future.