Lawrence Kohlberg is well-known theorist to modern psychology. Born in 1927 to a wealthy family, Lawrence Kohlberg lived a modest life, first as a sailor, and then helping to smuggle Jews into Palestine. He studied psychology at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s and 1950s, completing his dissertation in 1958. His dissertation outlined the theory that he is now quite well-known for: Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. He died in 1987 of a possible suicide.
Lawrence Kohlberg was influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, a psychologist who developed a stage theory for the cognitive development of children. Like the stage theorists who came before them, Jean Piaget – and, as a result, Lawrence Kohlberg – believed that each stage of development must be completed before an individual could move on to the next. In other words, children can’t skip the cognitive lessons learned in toddlerhood or preschool; they need to pass through those stages before they can enter each successive cognitive state.
The stage theory developed by Lawrence Kohlberg was somewhat different than other theories, for a couple of reasons. First, Kohlberg did not assign specific age spans to each stage; in fact, he hypothesized that many people never reach the final stage, no matter how long they live. Second, Lawrence Kohlberg didn’t deal with psychological or cognitive development, as previous stage theorists had. Instead, Kohlberg focused his theory on the development of moral reasoning in children and adults.
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Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral thinking progressed through a series of six stages, which could be grouped into three general stages. The first general stage is called pre-conventional. In this stage, moral reasoning starts out as being totally based on the notion of punishment and reward, and progresses toward a realization that acting according to the laws of punishment and reward benefits oneself. This stage of moral reasoning is found in young children.
According to Lawrence Kohlberg, the next general stage of moral reasoning is called conventional. In this stage, the individual’s focus is no longer trained solely on oneself, but on oneself as a part of society. Therefore, the first half of this stage is marked by an understanding of “right” and “wrong” as what will gain approval or censure from others. The second half of this stage moves beyond the quest for approval from one’s peers, and judges right and wrong by the laws of the society.
The third stage of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is called post-conventional. Unlike the first two stages, in which right and wrong are determined by self-interest or in relation to others, the post-conventional stage or moral reasoning is governed by ideals of right and wrong. The first half of this stage is marked by a genuine concern for others. The second half is governed by universal principles of right and wrong, and the need to satisfy one’s conscience. Lawrence Kohlberg believed that very few adults reach this point; in fact, his research provided so few people at this stage that he was unable to fully describe it in his theories.
Kohlberg’s method of research was unusual in that he looked for the process, not the product. In order to determine the moral stage a person was in, Lawrence Kohlberg presented every participant with a classic moral dilemma. However, it was not the person’s decision of what was right and what was wrong that Kohlberg was interested in. Rather, it was the reasoning that got the person there that determined what moral stage one was currently in – how one determined right and wrong. This process focus is at the heart of Kohlberg’s theory and ultimately sets it apart from other theories.