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The psychology of XX century was mainly dominated by considerably narrow deterministic and reductionist theories regarding human cognition, as well as behavior. However, the field was substantially extended beyond the abovementioned constraints due to the work of many psychologists. Lawrence Kohlberg's efforts can be considered as primordial in these terms. He successfully mapped a comprehensive taxonomy of moral development; consequently, it made various psychologists reconsider the relationship between moral judgment and behavior essentially. Thus, Kohlberg managed to broaden the understanding of how presumably "ordinary people" can engage in doing unexpectedly awful things (Schwartz, 2004).

As a cognitively oriented developmental psychologist Kohlberg sees himself according to his own scholarly understanding within two academic lines of tradition.

  1. The first of these lines encompasses the heart of psychological thinking in Chicago at the time of his education, namely the Chicago functionalism, which then developed in the following order: John Dewey, James Rowland Angell, and Harvey A. Carr.
  2. The second line can be traced back to Darwin, who popularized the idea of an evolutionary development. This idea played a significant role in philosophy. Furthermore, it developed its systematic characteristics in Jean Piaget’s studies on the incremental development of cognition (Garz, 2009).

Lawrence Kohlberg was born on 25 October, 1917, in the family of a wealthy Jewish businessman. He attended prestigious schools, but after graduating he joined the Merchant Marines. Kohlberg was supposed to join a ship that was smuggling Jewish refugees through the British blockade from Europe into Palestine. Therefore, the emergence of a moral dilemma in terms of justifying the disobeying the law played a vital role and was, consequently, figured in almost every psychological research conducted by him (Garz, 2009).

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Later, Kohlberg entered the University of Chicago. Those were times when it was possible to get credit for a course by passing the final examination. Therefore, he took the necessary exams and got his BA in one year. Kohlberg wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1958. The topic concerned the moral judgment which was rather unusual in terms of investigations conducted at that time. However, it became the prominent topic of his works to which he dedicated the next thirty years of his life (Garz, 2009).

Kohlberg is mainly known for his researches concerning the development of moral reasoning in both children and adolescents. He did not only merely expand the work of Jean Piaget in the sphere of cognitive development, but he determined the universal stages of moral development, as well. Furthermore, Kohlberg conducted a research regarding hypothetical dilemmas requiring a moral choice. The respondents were boys aged 7 and through adolescence. Based on the findings, the psychologist concluded that adults and children are mainly progressing through 6 stages in the development of moral reasoning. Moreover, he found that moral development is directly related to cognitive development. Thus, children would significantly rely on increasingly abstract and broad ethical standards, when responding (Kohlberg, 2002).

Jean Piaget stated that children usually regard various rules as obligatory; therefore, they were mainly unquestionable and unchangeable. As a result, the staged development of moral reasoning was linked to cognitive growth, in accordance with his studies. Kohlberg considerably extended Piaget's theory. The respondents were asked to resolve a series of moral dilemmas; boys had to choose whether to obey the law or act in an antagonistic way while serving a human need. The psychologist was mainly interested in the underlying structure of the reasoning, regardless of the actual decision. As a result, Kohlberg defined three essential moral levels. Each of these levels consists of two stages, each representing a certain way of thinking (Kohlberg, 2002).

Preconventional Morality

Stage 0 - Egocentric judgement.

Judgments are based on what a child likes or want. He or she can also consider what helps them. Meanwhile, to the contrary, there is what repulses or hurts a child. There are no concepts of obligations or rules, to which he or she should obey.

Stage 1 - Obedience and Punishment.

This stage is mainly common among children; however adults can rely on this mode of reasoning, as well. Rules are unquestionable; therefore, in order to avoid punishment, it is crucial to obey these rules.

Stage 2 - Individualism and Exchange.

Individual points of view contribute towards judging actions in terms of need of an individual. In case reciprocity serves the interests of a person, then it becomes possible.

Conventional Morality

Stage 3 - Interpersonal Relationships.

This stage is mainly based upon social roles and expectations. Moral development relies on the concept of being nice. Since the choices have a significant impact on relationships, they are taken into consideration.

Stage 4 - Maintaining Social Order.

Society now becomes an integral unity in terms of an individual, especially when judgements are being made. Order and law are being maintained by respecting authority, following the rules and doing one’s duty, as well.

Postconventional Morality

Stage 5 - Social Contract and Individual Rights.

During this stage of moral development, diverse opinions, values and beliefs become noticeable for an individual. Society is maintained by rules, which are, therefore, crucial. However, there should be standards upon which members of society should agree.

Stage 6 - Universal Principles.

Eventually, there is the last level of moral reasoning. It is mainly based on universal ethical principles, along with abstract reasoning. Individual tends to follow these principles of justice, even in case there are certain conflicts of this person with rules and laws.            

According to Kohlberg, individuals can progress through the abovementioned stages only by taking one stage at a time. Therefore, they are not able to these "jump" stages. Furthermore, they can comprehend a moral rationale which is one stage above their current one. However, Kohlberg believed that it was highly significant to present individuals with various moral dilemmas in order to discuss and facilitate identifying the reasonableness of morality which is situated on a higher stage. These discussions are designed to encourage further development of an individual in a certain direction. The last notion refers to the moral discussion approach of the psychologist. He saw this approach as one of the ways in which formal education can promote moral development. Just like Piaget, Kohlberg asserted that social interaction is the base for most moral development. The discussion approach is mainly based on the insight of individuals, which they gradually develop as a result of various cognitive conflicts at the current stage of moral development (Kohlberg, 2002).

Is moral reasoning inevitably leading to moral behavior? Kohlberg's theory is mainly focused on moral thinking, although there is a considerable difference between knowing what people should do and how they act consequently.
Does justice represent the only aspect of moral reasoning people should consider? Critics have pointed out that the abovementioned theory overemphasizes the concept of justice to a considerable degree, especially when making moral choices. Caring, compassion, as well as other interpersonal feelings represent a number of factors that can be vital in terms of moral reasoning.

Does the theory of Kohlberg overemphasize Western philosophy? Meanwhile, collectivist cultures emphasize the significance of community and society, whereas individualistic cultures highlight the essential role of personal rights. Therefore, Eastern cultures may possess distinct moral outlooks which were not accounted in terms of Kohlberg's theory (Kohlberg, 2002).

Kohlberg's ideas represent the essence of debates of various psychologists on moral judgment. Kohlberg formulated a robust cognitive-social account of moral development, developed a set of developmental markers for identifying a person's stage of moral thinking, and published this as a scoring system and manual that have guided thousands of subsequent studies.

Lawrence Kohlberg has substantially amplified his cognitive-social theory of moral development for nearly thirty years. Thus, it became prominent in the analysis of moral development, which leads to its consequent application in terms of moral education. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of criticism since the emergence of the theory. However, Kohlberg’s findings are of unquestionable and paramount significance.


  1. Gartz, D. (2009). Lawrence Kohlberg: an introduction. Farmington Hill, MI: Barbara Budrich Publishing.
  2. Kohlberg, Lawrence. (2002). In Biographical Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from
  3. Schwartz, E. (2004). Why some ask why. Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 53(3-4), 230+.
Code: Sample20

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