Lawrence Kohlberg was a Jewish-American psychologist from Bronxville, New York. He was born on October 25, 1927. He was famous for his work on moral education, reasoning and development, but is probably best known for his theory on the stages of moral development. He was married and had two children.
Kohlberg was the youngest of four siblings from a wealthy family. His parents had a bitter public divorce, trading accusations in the New York Times. After World War II, Kohlberg joined the Haganah and helped Holocaust survivors break the British blockade of what was then Palestine (now modern Israel), by smuggling them ashore in crates of bananas. He was arrested by the British and imprisoned until he escaped.
Kohlberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1958, 10 years after he received his bachelor's degree from the same institution. He then taught at Yale as an associate professor of psychology from 1959-1961. In 1962, he returned to the University of Chicago to teach as part of the Committee of Human Development. In 1968, he was appointed professor of education and social psychology at Harvard University.
In 1958, Kohlberg published his doctorate on the development of moral reasoning, and it is probably this work that gained him the most recognition. He theorized that moral reasoning, considered the foundation of ethical reasoning, has six specific developmental constructive states. In each of these stages, the person is more capable of making a moral decision than at the previous stage. An individual is also incapable of skipping a stage, as each stage is in itself an important part of the process. The six stages are divided into three levels: pre-conventional stage, conventional stage and post-conventional stage.
In the pre-conventional stage, which is common among children, most moral questions are concerned with the self, i.e. "what's in it for me?" In the obedience- and punishment-driven phase, referred to as stage one, the question of how "bad" an action is, is correlated with how severe the punishment is. The only consideration is the negative impact the action will have on the individual, without regard for anyone else.
In the second stage, or self-interest stage, moral reasoning extends to having some interest in how the actions might help someone else, though it is only limited to how an action ultimately affects the individual, not how it helps society as a whole. This stage is essentially based on an "if I scratch your back, you'll scratch mine" mentality.
In the interpersonal accord and conformity-driven stage, or stage three, individuals realize there is inherent value in being good within the confines of society, and therefore they choose to be good as they know this will be more beneficial to them than being bad. At this point, intentions gain more significance, with actions no longer being the only consideration. This stage usually involves teenagers and adults.
In the authority and social order obedience-driven stage, stage four, individuals begins to obey laws and authority within the context of society as they realize this is important for maintaining social order. Moreover, people realize that if they do not comply with society's moral laws, they will be caught. They are not enlightened enough to move beyond this stage, where morality comes from within. At stage four, morality still needs to be enforced be an outside body – i.e. the police. Most adults in society do not move beyond this stage.
In the post-conventional, or principled, level, people realize that they are individuals and separate from society and therefore can act as individuals. Because the focus is placed back on the individual, this stage may be confused with the earlier stages. In stage five, or the social contract stage, individuals offer their opinions and values to other individuals within the society. Democratic decisions are made based on the philosophy of the "greatest good for the greatest number of people," so that situations can quickly change.
In the last stage, or the universal ethical principles stage, moral reasoning is based on universal ethical principles. People are able to break laws, but they are judged as being unjust according to the universal ethical principles. At this stage, people act morally because they know it is the right thing to do. They also take into account other people's views, and because everyone comes to the same universal conclusions, consensus is reached. Actions are taken because they are right and not for any other reason. Very few people ever reach stage six, although Kohlberg does insist that it exists.
In 1971, Kohlberg contracted a tropical disease that caused him great pain. As a result of his illness, he suffered severe depression. On January 19, 1987, he committed suicide in Boston Harbor.