Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Kohlberg (1927 - 1987) - Moral development… overstated…

The Nazis and the Holocaust led Lawrence Kohlberg to focus on the moral dimension of education. Drawing on the Socratic interest in values and virtue, and John Dewey’s view of education as the development of the individual, he saw education not as moral instruction but as the development of moral judgment and behaviour. His inspiration was Piaget’s stages of development, which he applied to the moral development of children and adults. His theoretical work was matched by practical recommendations around the concept of a ‘just community’. These could be schools, professions, social groups, even prisons.

Three types of educational theory

For Kohlberg there are three movements in educational thinking:
1. Romanticism
2. Cultural transmission
3. Progessivism
Romanticism’s formative figure is Rousseau and this movement sees the child as a natural learner, with institutions that often inhibit their progress. Cultural transmission, the transfer of knowledge and values from one generation to the next, attempts to preserves cultural capital. He saw focus on the psychological aspects of learning, especially behaviourism, as well as the use of technology, as typical of this movement. Progressivism, exemplified by William James and John Dewy, sees education as an important contributor to society, especially its cultural and democratic dimensions. Kohlberg was a ‘progressive’.

Six stages of moral development

Building on Piaget’s (now discredited) stages of development:
Level 1 - Preconventional
1. Punishment and obedience orientation
2. Instrumental relativist orientation
Children think and behave egoistically, acting on potential consequences, such as punishment. This self-interest can then develop into a more instrumental outlook, where you see how others may help you promote your own interests, as in receiving rewards for good behaviour.
Level 2 - Conventional
3. Interpersonal concordance orientation
4. Society maintaining orientation
Adolescents mature into this stage by obeying society’s rules but without much reasoned reflection. Wanting to be liked or respected by others makes one behave in ways in which groups approve. Recognition of the ‘good’ and ‘bad in relation to adherence to the law also emerges.
Level 3 - Postconventional
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
At this level, individuals use their own ethical principles to make judgement and do not simply adhere to external norms. There is a recognition of diversity of moral perspectives and the resolution of moral issue through democracy or other mechanisms of agreement. This may move on to higher levels of abstraction about moral principles, such as justice and rights, where individuals see themselves as like others in mutually agreed action.
Individuals move through these stages, none are skipped, we hardly ever go back, we can hold back but not accelerate stage development. He used Piaget’s notion of changing schemata, mental constructs that make sense of experience, that determine the limits of moral reasoning. New experiences are either assimilated (integrated without major change) or accommodated (new schemata created). 
New stages are more complex and high-level. Cognitive disequilibrium forces change as new experiences cause cognitive conflict. The conflict is resolved by the creation of new cognitive schemata.
In addition to drawing upon theoretical ideas from Piaget and John Rawls, he researched the hypothetical stages using Moral Judgement Interviews (MJI) where moral problems are presented and the reasoning, not Influences, studied. Interviews were conducted every three years over twenty years and, he claims, confirmed his six-stage theory. Further research across forty countries also conformed, he claimed, its cross-cultural validity.


Many intuitionists reject the idea that moral reasoning lies at the root of, or plays the primary role in moral behavior. Many came to see Kohlberg’s interpretation as no more than that, the ‘interpretation’ of basically intuitive moral judgment. Subsequent research showed that both Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages were wrong, so wrong that the very idea of the Kohlberg framework had to be adjusted. However, the adjustments proved so extreme that the framework had to be abandoned in favour of other possible approaches. Elliot Turiel thought that the moral development process was also massively fueled by social convention. There was an amusing interlude when Carol Gillighan took a huge gender swiped at Kohlberg in her book "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development" (1982). She made the reasonable point that his research had only involved males and that Kohlberg was simply reinforcing stereotypical male character traits. She had a point but simply replaced Kohlberg with another set of character traits around a morality of care. It had all gone to pot. There is also the tricky issue that multiple stages can be observed in the same individuals. More recently Jonathon Haidt has undercut this whole approach by introducing social intuitionism. He brings emotion and evolutionary psychology into the game to show that morality is largely the servant of emotion.


Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development were highly influential and teachers were encouraged to use teaching tactics appropriate to these stages, curriculum recommendations were made and a real movement emerged around staged moral development. Indeed, Kohlberg’s developmental psychology, as applied to the moral sphere, brought an important, dynamic dimension into moral education but the effect was debilitating as it was used politically to denigrate authority and tradition. Like many staged processes, it proved to be too rigid and has crumbled due to subsequent research. The role of institutional education in the teaching of ethics remains problematic, as religious pressures and the roles of other agents claim precedence.


Kohlberg, L., 1994. Moral Development: Kohlberg's original study of moral development (No. 3). Taylor & Francis.
Power, F.C., Higgins, A. and Kohlberg, L., 1991. Lawrence Kohlberg's approach to moral education. Columbia University Press.
Kohlberg, L., 1986. Lawrence Kohlberg, consensus and controversy (No. 1). Routledge.
Haidt, J., 2012. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.

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