Lawrence Kohlberg


Throughout the course of the last two decades, scores of undergraduate psychology students have been introduced to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg in their Introductory Psychology courses and Lifespan Development courses. His research, and the research of several of his contemporaries and colleagues, such as Carol Gilligan, was the first of its kind to foster a contemporary understanding of how individuals develop as moral beings. Whether or not we have had the opportunity to learn about Kohlberg’s work, most of us have asked ourselves those fundamental questions about the ways we make decisions, particularly those decisions that cannot be linked to the reduction of a primary drive, or those decisions that do not reward us with a tangible, easily recognizable reward. As human beings living in societies, many of us have struggled with the ways decisions and policies are implemented in our justice system. Kohlberg’s work aids both our understanding of the ways in which individuals make moral decisions, and demands that we use a more discerning system to critique the systems of justice that are in place in our societies.












References: (This is a good place to acquire the moral dilemmas that Kohlberg used, it also has links to criticisms of his theory and additional details on his stages of moral development.)


Developed by Robyn Long for PSCY 6180: History of Psychology

Dr. Roger Thomas


Lawrence Kohlberg


Lawrence Kohlberg was born in 1927 in Bronxville, New York. Born into wealth, Kohlberg displayed an early concern for the welfare of others by volunteering as a sailor in World War II and, later, working to smuggle Jews through the British Blockade into Palestine. As a teenager, Kohlberg attended Phillips Academy, a prestigious private preparatory school, and later remarked that he had been better known for his mischief at Phillips than his scholarship. It was upon his graduation from Phillips, however, that Kohlberg first began to recognize his passion for the Zionist cause,  and, following his graduation, he enlisted as an engineer on a carrier ship. Kohlberg and his compatriots were successful in smuggling Jews from Europe to Palestine by placing beds inside banana crates. This illustration of a theorist’s personal choices in regard to a moral decision must surely have impacted his later work and the direction of his scholarship.

Upon return from the war, Kohlberg enrolled at The University of Chicago and completed his bachelor’s degree in psychology in just one year (1949). Electing to pursue his doctoral education at Chicago, Kohlberg grew increasingly fascinated by the cognitive development work proposed by Swiss theorist Jean Piaget, and focused his efforts on the moral development of children for his dissertation. Kohlberg’s primary work, his development of stages of moral development, was born out of his doctoral dissertation.

From 1958, upon the completion of his dissertation, until 1968, Kohlberg taught at The University of Chicago, primarily affiliated with The Committee on Human Development, cementing his identity as a developmental psychologist. In 1968, following his marriage and the birth of two children, Kohlberg accepted a position at Harvard University, where he taught both education and social psychology, a true melding of his interests in psychology, moral development, and social justice.

In 1969, Kohlberg visited Israel, and was stunned by the advanced moral development of the youths he met that had journeyed the kibbutz. This experience inspired Kohlberg’s decision to create “just communities”, primarily schools, (although he created a “just community” in a prison as well) upon his return from Israel. “Just communities” were school environments in which students were encouraged and supported to form relationships of basic trust and respect with one another, and these school communities provided students the opportunity to be self-governed, and encouraged a democratic form of government within each community. Kohlberg’s first “just community” was The Cluster School, upon which he modeled subsequent communities.

Sadly, it is Kohlberg’s untimely end that is oft-remembered, though it serves as a powerful reminder of how one individual makes moral decisions. In 1971, Kohlberg contracted a tropical disease while he was completing research in Belize. The effects of this disease included both physical pain and depression, which persisted for sixteen years. On January 19th, 1987, Kohlberg took a one-day leave of absence from the hospital where he was being treated for the illness, drove himself to the coast, and drowned himself. It is unclear whether or not January 19th was the official day of his death, but it is widely accepted that Dr. Kohlberg committed suicide. One year after they pulled Dr. Kohlberg’s body from Boston Harbor, 600 people gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and declared April 15th as Lawrence Kohlberg Day. William Damon, a scholar from Clark University, (now at Stanford University) summed up the sentiments of many, “It is going to take a long time to figure out what (Kohlberg’s) work meant in all of it’s implications.”


Lawrence Kohlberg


Kohlberg’s doctoral dissertation made him a star among psychologists when he proposed his six stages of moral development, which contrasted with the moral development theory of his primary influence, Jean Piaget, who had proposed only two stages of moral development. Kohlberg based his theory on interviews that he conducted in Chicago with 72 Caucasian male youths, largely lower and middle class. He later added more diversity to his sample, including delinquents, females, younger children and youth raised in other cultures. Each of the youth were asked to make moral decisions about “The Dilemma of Heinz”, a story about a fictional and financially strapped man who must make a decision about stealing medication for his dying wife. Whether than simply investigating a “yes” or “no” response from the youth, however, Kohlberg was interested in the reasoning that they youth employed in making their decisions. It is upon his empirical observation of this reasoning that Kohlberg based his theory, and identified six stages of moral development. Kohberg observed that young children felt they had no choice but to observe the rules handed down by a society, and would almost universally say “no” to Heinz stealing the drug. But as children aged, Kohlberg noted that the youth recognized that they had additional choices, the youth began to make choices based on self-interest, and, eventually, as they age, based on the interests of a moral society.

Kohlberg’s work began to view the “child as a moral philosopher” and broke from psychoanalytic traditions that viewed children simply as the recipient of their parents’ moral values and the behaviorist tradition that viewed moral decisions solely as a system of rewards and punishments. Kohlberg argued the children’s moral thinking was influenced instead by social relationships and emotions, such as empathy, love, respect and attachment.

The methods of research that Kohlberg employed earned him the due respect of psychology and education researchers alike. The Six Stages of Moral Development are as follows:


Level I:

Preconventional Morality (age 4 - 10) Moral value resides in a person's own needs and wants

Stage1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by a need to avoid punishment.

Stage 2: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by a need to satisfy own desires.

Level II:

Conventional Morality(age 10 - 13) Moral values reside in performing good or right roles, in maintaining the convention order, and in pleasing others.

Stage 3: "Good Boy/Nice Girl" Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by a need to avoid rejection, disaffection, or disapproval from others.

Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by a need to not be criticized by a true authority figure.

Level III:

Postconventional Morality (adolescence - adulthood) Moral Values reside in principles, separate from those who hold moral values in principles, separate from those who enforce them, and a part from a person's identification with the enforcing group. Most people never reach this last level.

Stage 5: Legalistic Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by community respect for all, respecting social order, and living under legally determined laws.

Stage 6: Universal, Ethical Orientation Individual's moral judgment is motivated by one's own conscience

Examples of Stages 1 Through 6

 The following are examples of each stage at each of Kohlberg's levels.

Stage 1: I do not say bad words because if I do, mommy will get mad at me.

Stage 2: For a cookie, I will pick up my toys.

Stage 3: I do not eat in class because my teacher does not like it.

Stage 4: I do not talk during a fire drill because that is one of the rules.

Stage 5: I pay taxes because it is the law.

Stage 6: I pay taxes not because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do.



Timeline of Kohlberg’s Life and Work


October 15, 1927:       Kohlberg born in Bronxville, New York


1948:                           After passing a number of exams with outstanding scores, Kohlberg enters The University of Chicago and completes his bachelor’s degree in Psychology in one year


1949:                           Kohlberg begins his doctoral work at The University of Chicago


1957-1958:                  Using the Dilemma of Heniz, Kohlberg completes his doctoral dissertation research on the moral development of children, and proposes his six stages


1958-1968:                  Kohlberg teaches at his alma mater, The University of Chicago


1968:                           As a result of his dissertation research, Kohlberg found professional

fame and was recruited by Harvard University, where he began teaching education and social psychology and expanded his professional research related to moral development


1969:                           Kohlberg travels to Israel where he is impressed by the moral development of youth participating in kibbutz, or a collective farm in Israel that once mirrored much of communist thought, today, they are often privately owned and operated because of changing forces in the economic climate. A secondary criticism of the kibbutz was the time that the youth who operated the kibbutz spent away from their parents, often spending as little as one night a week at home. The creator of this website conducted a phone interview with librarian Tamra Gershon; for more information on the kibbutz, see:


                                    Influenced by the kibbutz, Kohlberg returns to The United States and founds several “just communities”, his first being The Cluster School


1971:                           While conducting cross-cultural work in Belize, Kohlberg contracts a tropical disease that will plague him physically and mentally for the next sixteen years


1987:                           On leave from a Massachusetts hospital where he is seeking treatment for the above illness, Kohlberg commits suicide by drowning himself in Boston Harbor. He was 59 years old






Lawrence Kohlberg



Kohlberg conducted his doctoral research, as mentioned above, in Chicago, looking at the moral reasoning with which 72 youth addressed a number of dilemmas. Over the course of his career, Kohlberg diversified the population with which he conducted this research, and was deeply influenced by his colleague Carol Gilligan at Harvard, who challenged Kohlberg’s theory and its applicability to females. Much has been made of their professional rivalry, but in 1997, ten years after Kohlberg’s death, Dr. Gilligan addressed an audience, sharing her impressions of her colleague:


"Something of a false story had been circulating, that I was Larry's student, that we were involved in a war," she said. "So the news that, for example, we taught together about our disagreements, and that what was at stake were real and serious issues on both sides, came as a reminder to some people as to what both his work and my work were really about."


Dr. Gilligan shared that she welcomed the opportunity to honor Kohlberg, to quell rumors and revisit the past.


The following examples of moral dilemmas are frequently used to encourage a dialogue about moral reasoning, the first is the Dilemma of Heinz, which was the vignette employed by Kohlberg in his dissertation research.


The Dilemma of Heinz


In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. the drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from if." So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife.

1. Should Heinz steal the drug?

1a. Why or why not?

2. Is it actually right or wrong for him to steal the drug?

2a. Why is it right or wrong?

3. Does Heinz have a duty or obligation to steal the drug?

3a. Why or why not?

4. If Heinz doesn't love his wife, should he steal the drug for her? Does it make a difference in what Heinz should do whether or not he loves his wife?

4a. Why or why not?

5. Suppose the person dying is not his wife but a stranger. Should Heinz steal the drug for the stranger?

5a. Why or why not?

6. Suppose it's a pet animal he loves. should Heinz steal to save the pet animal?

6a. Why or why not?

7. Is it important for people to do everything they can to save another's life?

7a. Why or why not?

8. It is against the law for Heinz to steal. Does that make it morally wrong?

8a. Why or why not?

9. In general, should people try to do everything they can to obey the law?

9a. Why or why not?

9b. How does this apply to what Heinz should do?

10. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Heinz to do?

10a. Why?

Dilemma I

Joe is a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to go to camp very much. His father promised him he could go if he saved up the money for it himself. So Joe worked hard at his paper route and saved up the forty dollars it cost to go to camp, and a little more besides. But just before camp was going to start, his father changed his mind. Some of his friends decided to go on a special fishing trip, and Joe's father was short of the money it would cost. So he told Joe to give him the money he had saved from the paper route. Joe didn't want to give up going to camp, so he thinks of refusing to give his father the money.

1. Should Joe refuse to give his father the money?

1a. Why or why not?

2. Does the father have the right to tell Joe to give him the money?

2a. Why or why not?

3. Does giving the money have anything to do with being a good son?

3a. Why or why not?

4. Is the fact that Joe earned the money himself important in this situation?

4a. Why or why not?

5. The father promised Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money. Is the fact that the father promised the most important thing in the situation?

5a. Why or why not?

6. In general, why should a promise kept?

7. Is it important to keep a promise to someone you don't know well and probably won't see again?

7a. Why or why not?

8. What do you think is the most important thing a father should be concerned about in his relationship to his son?

8a. Why is that the most important thing?

9. In general, what should be the authority of a father over his son?

9a. Why?

10. What do you think is the most important thing a son should be concerned about in his relationship to his father?

10a. Why is that the most important thing?

11. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Joe to do in this situation?

11a. Why?


Dilemma II

Judy was a twelve-year-old girl. Her mother promised her that she could go to a special rock concert coming to their town if she saved up from baby-sitting and lunch money to buy a ticket to the concert. She managed to save up the fifteen dollars the ticket cost plus another five dollars. But then her mother changed her mind and told Judy that she had to spend the money on new clothes for school. Judy was disappointed and decided to go to the concert anyway. She bought a ticket and told her mother that she had only been able to save five dollars. That Saturday she went to the performance and told her mother that she was spending the day with a friend. A week passed without her mother finding out. Judy then told her older sister, Louise, that she had gone to the performance and had lied to her mother about it. Louise wonders whether to tell their mother what Judy did.

1. Should Louise, the older sister, tell their mother that Judy lied about the money or should she keep quiet? 1a. Why?

2. In wondering whether to tell, Louise thinks of the fact that Judy is her sister. Should that make a difference in Louise's decision?

2a. Why or why not?

3. Does telling have anything to do with being a good daughter?

3a. Why or why not?

4. Is the fact that Judy earned the money herself important in this situation?

4a. Why or why not?

5. The mother promised Judy she could go to the concert if she earned the money. Is the fact that the mother promised the most important thing in the situation?

5a. Why or why not?

6. Why in general should a promise be kept?

7. Is it important to keep a promise to someone you don't know well and probably won't see again?

7a. Why or why not?

8. What do you think is the most important thing a mother should be concerned about in her relationship to her daughter?

8a. Why is that the most important thing?

9. In general, what should be the authority of a mother over her daughter?

9a. Why?

10. What do you think is the most important thing a daughter should be concerned about in her relationship to her mother?

10a. Why is that the most important thing?

11. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Louise to do in this situation?

11a. Why?

The Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg

HGSE Honors Lawrence Kohlberg

"I'm here to speak about Larry. He cared about us and loved us all in a special way. If he was here now he'd be so proud of us, of the progress we have been doing, passing our classes and staying in school. Larry was a nice, sweet, gentle person." –Ann Higgins, Kohlberg’s fiancée at the time of his death

“Larry promoted the idea of a democratic, just-community school where each person—whether a student or staff member—had one vote in deciding school policies.” –Elsa Wasserman, former counselor at The Cluster School

"We have three members of our senior faculty alone whose intellectual work has a direct line to Kohlberg. I don't think there's another person, living or dead, about whom that could be said."—Bob Egan, Harvard Professor

For information on how Kohlberg’s research and theories can be applied, see links at:

Looking for information on Implications of Kohlberg’s theory for Education? See: