Lawrence Kohlberg (Psychologist Biography)

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Interested in learning about Lawrence Kohlberg? You're in the right place!  Kohlberg’s work has had a major impact in the fields of education and criminal justice.

Lawrence Kohlberg

Who is Lawrence Kohlberg?

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist, author, and educator. He is known primarily for his theory of moral development. In 2002, an empirical study by the Review of General Psychology ranked Kohlberg as the 30th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. 

Lawrence Kohlberg's Childhood and Family 

Laurence Kohlberg was born on October 25, 1927 in Bronxville, New York. His parents were Alfred Kohlberg and Charlotte Albrecht Kohlberg. Kohlberg was the youngest of his parents’ four children. His older siblings were Marjorie, Roberta, and Alfred.

Kohlberg was raised in a very wealthy family. His father was a Jewish German entrepreneur who operated an import business and his mother was a Christian German chemist. Although  their money afforded them privileges, Kohlberg's family was not very stable. The main reason for this was his parents’ troubled marriage.

When Kohlberg was four years old, his parents separated and established a 6-month custody rotation that lasted from 1933 to 1938. The custody order was eventually dissolved by a judge who told each child to choose the parent he or she wanted to live with. Although it is unclear when each child made his or her decision, Kohlberg and his older sister Roberta were living with their father in Bronxville in 1941.

Early Education

Kohlberg was an excellent student. When he graduated from junior high school, his yearbook prophesied that he would grow up to be a “great scientist and Nobel Prize winner.” Kohlberg’s father hired a tutor to teach him Latin and Greek to prepare him for enrollment at Phillips Academy Andover. His schoolmates there described him as a rebel, a lover of adventure, and an intellectual who enjoyed reading Plato.

During his time at Phillips Academy, Kohlberg began to focus more on his Jewish-German heritage. He closely followed the events of World War II, particularly how the Nazis treated the Jews in Europe. After he graduated from high school, an eighteen years old Kohlberg signed up for the United States Merchant Marines. He spent the next two years on board the USS George Washington traveling Europe, observing the aftereffects of World War II and meeting people who survived the Holocaust.


After his time with the US Merchant Marines came to an end, Kohlberg became a nonviolent activist to help World War II victims. He returned to Europe by ship in 1947 and helped the Haganah (the main paramilitary organization representing the majority of Jews in Palestine) to smuggle Jewish refugees through a British blockade and relocate them in Palestine. However, Kohlberg’s ship was intercepted by British military personnel and the entire crew as well as the Jewish refugees were detained in Cyprus.

Kohlberg was released from the detainment camp three months later after members of the Haganah submitted papers with false names to the British forces. He travelled to Palestine to support the Jews during the 1948 Palestine war against the Arabs, but refused to participate in the actual fighting. He lived in an Israeli kibbutz (a collective community that is traditionally based on agriculture) before returning to the United States in 1948.

Kohlberg’s wartime experiences cemented his Jewish identity and strengthened his resolve to pursue “social justice for all.” He changed his first name from “Laurence” to “Lawrence” perhaps to indicate his identity achievement. Although he played a part in helping many of the Holocaust survivors, questions of morality soon came to the fore. He strongly questioned whether helping the Jewish refugees justified the extreme means he and members of the Haganah had taken during the war.

Educational Background

Kohlberg entered the University of Chicago in 1948, soon after his return to America. As he received high marks on his examinations, he was excused from several required courses and was able to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology in less than a year. After completing his first degree, he was unsure whether to become a clinical psychologist or a lawyer in order to continue his fight to advance social justice. He spent much of his time reading the works of various philosophers and psychologists such as Plato, Socrates, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey.

Kohlberg was interested in finding the answers to great philosophical questions such as “What is justice?” and “What is virtue?” However, he was unable to find satisfactory answers in psychoanalysis, behaviorism, or humanistic psychology. As he continued his reading, Kohlberg eventually came across the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and was fascinated by Piaget’s research on the moral development of children. Kohlberg earned his PhD in psychology in 1958 after he presented his dissertation on the moral choices of adolescent boys.

Higher Education

In 1958, Kohlberg moved to New Haven, Connecticut to join Yale University as an assistant professor of psychology. He moved to Palo Alto, California in 1961 when he became a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. In 1962, Kohlberg accepted an offer from the University of Chicago to join their faculty as an assistant professor before he was promoted to associate professor of psychology and human development.

Kohlberg joined the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1968 and was appointed Professor of Education and Social Psychology. He founded the Center for Moral Education and Development in 1974, which soon attracted scholars from around the world and became a whirlwind of research, training, and educational activities. Kohlberg remained at Harvard for the rest of his professional life.

How Did Kohlberg Develop His Theory of Moral Development?

Influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development by asking boys between the ages of 10 and 16 to resolve a set of moral dilemmas. Each dilemma involved a choice between (1) obeying a general rule or authority figure, and (2) acting in a way that goes against that rule or authority figure in order to satisfy a human need.

Of Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas, the one most commonly cited involved a man by the name of Heinz whose wife was critically ill with a special type of cancer. Doctors believed there was only one drug that might save her, but the chemist who developed the drug was charging an exorbitant fee for the required dose. Heinz borrowed all the money he could but still did not have enough to cover the cost of the drug. He explained to the chemist that his wife was near death and pleaded with him to sell the drug at a lower price or allow him to pay later. The chemist refused saying that he developed the drug and was determined to make money from it. Out of desperation, Heinz broke into the store and stole the drug for his wife.

After reading the story, the boys were asked if Heinz should have stolen the drug. Kohlberg was particularly interested in the rationale for their answer so he followed up with a series of probing questions, such as: Does Heinz have an obligation to steal the drug? Is it important for people to do everything they can to save another life? Is it against the law to steal? Does that make it morally wrong?

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

After analyzing participants’ responses to a series of such dilemmas, Kohlberg concluded that moral development, or moral reasoning, progresses gradually through three levels, each consisting of two stages. According to Kohlberg, there is no variation in the order of the stages. Each successive stage develops from, and replaces the one, immediately preceding it.

How did Kohlberg Measure Moral Reasoning?

Although he suggests that moral reasoning becomes more sophisticated with age, Kohlberg did not attach fixed age ranges to his developmental stages. People move through the stages at different rates and many never reach the highest stage. The first two stages are typical of young children and delinquents, while stages three and four are characteristic of older children and adults.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

The levels and stages are as follows:

Level 1: Preconventional Morality

At this level, morality is externally controlled and decisions are made based on the rules of authority figures. Actions are judged based on their consequences—those that lead to rewards are viewed as good; those that result in punishment are considered bad.

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation - Children at this stage have a hard time considering more than one perspective in a moral dilemma. Moral decisions are based on obedience to authority and fear of punishment. People’s motives and intentions for acting tend to be ignored. (Example: “You shouldn’t steal the drug because you’ll be caught and sent to jail”).

Stage 2: The Instrumental Purpose Orientation - Children begin to recognize that a dilemma can be viewed in different ways. However, the decisions they make are based on self-interest. Actions are considered good and right if they result in benefits for the self or loved ones. (Example: “By stealing the drug, Heinz is running more risk than it’s worth”).

Level 2: Conventional Morality

Individuals at this stage still consider obedience to social rules and laws important. However, their reasons now move beyond self-interest. Conformity to social rules is seen as necessary for maintaining good relationships and societal order.

Stage 3: “Good boy” or “Good girl” Orientation - Moral decisions are motivated by a desire to maintain the affection and approval of significant others. The primary goal is to be seen as a “good person.” (Example: “If Heinz steals the drug, everyone will think he’s a criminal and he’ll bring dishonor on his family and on himself”).

Stage 4: The Social-Order-Maintaining Orientation - Moral decisions are not just based on maintaining close personal relationships, but on maintaining the wider social order. Individuals at this stage believe laws should be applied in the same way for everyone and that each individual has a personal responsibility to obey them. (Example: “Even if Heinz’s wife is dying, it’s still his duty as a citizen to obey the law. No one else is allowed to steal, why should he be?”).

Level 3: Postconventional Morality

This is the highest level of moral reasoning. Ideas about right and wrong are based on broad principles of justice, which may or may not coincide with laws and orders from authority figures. Kohlberg believed very few individuals actually progress to this level of morality.

Stage 5: The Social-Contract Orientation - Laws are viewed as a means of advancing human welfare and as social contracts which people are required to uphold because they bring about more good than if they did not exist. However, laws are deemed worthy of being challenged if they undermine basic human rights and dignity. At this stage, individuals begin to recognize that what is legally right may not necessarily be morally proper. (Example: Although there is a law against stealing, the law wasn’t meant to violate a person’s right to life, so Heinz is justified in stealing in this instance).

Stage 6: The Universal Ethical Principle Orientation - Moral judgments are based on self-chosen principles of ethics and justice. These abstract principles (e.g., respect for the worth and dignity of each individual) are universal in that they apply to all humans regardless of social norms and laws. They also supersede any concrete rules that may conflict with them. (Example: “If Heinz does not do everything he can to save his wife, he is putting respect for property above respect for life itself. People have a mutual duty to save one another from dying”).

How to Apply Kohlberg’s Theory 

In educational settings, Kohlberg’s theory gives teachers an idea of the level of moral decision-making they can expect from students based on their age. Such knowledge can help to guide behavior management strategies. For example, children at the preconventional level tend to focus on the consequences of their actions when making moral decisions. Teachers of such students should therefore establish clear guidelines for appropriate behavior and ensure that students are aware of the consequences of acting outside of the specified rules. This could help to prevent unwanted behaviors such as stealing and bullying.

In the Classroom

Teachers can also enhance the moral reasoning of students by engaging them in discussions of everyday moral dilemmas and encouraging them to consider multiple perspectives. These discussions may be based on issues that arise in the classroom, such as teasing and peer pressure, or may be related to the subject matter being taught (e.g., the subject of cloning during a science class). During such discussions, students at lower stages of moral reasoning will be exposed to the arguments of class members at higher stages, helping them to advance their own level of moral development.

In Correctional Institutions

Group discussion of moral dilemmas has also been included in some correctional treatment programs. The goal of such discussion is to raise the level of moral reasoning among delinquents and criminal offenders. Among this population, a large percentage has been found to operate at Stage 2 of the preconventional level, where self-interest is paramount. The hope is that through discussions of moral conflicts and their resolutions, offenders will gradually grow to the level of conventional moral reasoning where they begin to consider the perspectives and feelings of others. Existing evidence suggests that this type of moral education is indeed effective in improving moral reasoning and that enhanced moral development results in reduced criminal activity.

Criticisms of Kohlberg's Theory 

While Kohlberg’s theory did much to propel the study of moral development, his work has sparked numerous criticisms. Some of these are noted below:

Gender bias

Kohlberg only included male participants in his research on moral development and the main character in most of his dilemmas were male. As such, critics argue that his theory is biased toward males and does not provide an adequate description of morality in females. Carol Gilligan, one of Kohlberg’s foremost critics, noted that he focused primarily on issues of rights, justice and fairness as key components of morality. Other issues, such as care for others, compassion, and attachment, which play a greater role in female moral reasoning, are largely ignored.

Order of stages

According to some scholars, moral reasoning does not progress in as orderly and uniform a manner as Kohlberg’s theory suggests. Individuals may employ more than one level of moral reasoning at a given point in time, or may revert to a lower level of reasoning depending on the situation in which they find themselves. Moral reasoning is therefore not only age-dependent, as Kohlberg proposed, but context-dependent as well.

Predictive value

Another limitation of Kohlberg’s theory is that it often fails to predict moral behavior accurately. In many cases, discrepancies have been found between the way people reason on moral issues and the way they act when facing such issues in everyday life. It has also been found that individuals at different stages of moral development sometimes make similar moral decisions, while those at the same stage of reasoning may act in morally different ways.

Hypothetical dilemmas

One reason offered for the limited predictive value of Kohlberg’s theory is that it was developed on the basis of hypothetical and artificial dilemmas. Many of Kohlberg’s dilemmas, including the Heinz dilemma, would have been unfamiliar to research participants and the moral choices they make in a research setting would have no real consequences for them. People may reason and behave quite differently when facing real-life situations in which they actually have something to lose.

Postconventional morality

Kohlberg advocated for the type of autonomous reasoning that characterizes the postconventional level of morality. However, in the eyes of some critics, such reasoning ultimately amounts to a war against established rules and social order. If everyone acts according to self-chosen ethical principles, the result, they argue, would be chaos. Other critics contend that Kohlberg’s Stage 6 is a matter of speculation since there is no clear evidence to suggest that people actually move beyond Stage 5. If the stage does exist, it is perhaps only achieved by people who have very advanced levels of education, likely with some training in philosophy.

Social and emotional influences

Kohlberg has been criticized for minimizing the role of the family, school and culture in moral development. He also neglects the influence of personal motives and emotions such as pride, guilt, and shame which also affect the way people think and behave.

Cultural bias

Other critics argue that Kohlberg’s theory was developed on the basis of Western values and as such, cannot be applied to non-Western and tribal cultures that take a different approach to morality.

Lawrence Kohlberg's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

stack of books written by Lawrence Kohlberg

Kohlberg authored a number of groundbreaking books during his career. Some of his most well-known works include:

  • The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development, 1981
  • The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, 1981
  • The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages, 1984
  • Consensus and Controversy, 1986
  • Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Development View, 1987
  • A few of Kohlberg’s other awards and accomplishments are listed below:
  • Fellow at the Stanford University Center for the Advancement of Thought in the Behavioral Sciences
  • Received the Career Scientist Award, 1969-1974
  • Recognized for lifetime contributions to education and developmental psychology by the Society for Research in Child Development

Kohlberg also received honorary degrees from Marquette University in Milwaukee and Loyola University in Chicago.

Was Lawrence Kohlberg Married?

Kohlberg married Lucille Stigberg in 1955. They had two sons, David and Steven. While conducting research in Belize in 1971, Kohlberg contracted a severe and painful form of giardiasis. This parasitic infection as well as the demanding nature of his work eventually drained his physical health. Lawrence and Lucille Kohlberg separated in 1974 before completing their divorce in 1985.

Lawrence Kohlberg Death

In addition to his declining physical health, Kohlberg also experienced bouts of depression. He died on January 19, 1987 in what appeared to be an act of suicide. Kohlberg parked his car on a street close to the Boston Logan International Airport, left his identification on the front seat of his vehicle, and apparently walked into the icy waters of the Boston Harbor. His body was found some time after winter.


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, April). Lawrence Kohlberg (Psychologist Biography). Retrieved from

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