The Philosophy of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

41lfZyI45vL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In his book Meno, Plato began with the question “Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue something that can be taught?” to which Socrates answered “You must think I am singularly fortunate to know whether virtue can be taught or how it is acquired.  The fact is that far from knowing whether it can be taught, I have no idea what virtue itself is.”[1]  Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of Moral Stage Development evolved from his initial consideration of that foundational question when writing his doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago in 1958.  He later wrote that moral development must be understood in context from a definitional baseline of virtue which he came to understand as justice.  He said “the only path to be taken is that taken by Plato and Dewey which ends with the writing of a treatise describing moral development in a school and society that to the philosopher seems just.”[2] Justice, for Kohlberg, was the only legitimate litmus test for morality.

This critique will examine the basics of Kohlberg’s theory with a specific view toward its implicit theological assumptions or implications.  It will also examine how the theory has been applied in an educational setting, and will finally conclude that Kohlberg’s power resides in an operable framework for developing practical and actionable steps for increasing positive sociological behavior, yet falls short of pinning man’s action to accountability to God and the furtherance of His kingdom.

Moral Stage Development Theory

The framework for Kohlberg’s Moral Stage Development theory originated with his doctoral dissertation in 1958 and was chiefly informed by the work of Jean Piaget ten years earlier.[3] Kohlberg’s goal was twofold.  He first attempted to extend Paiget’s moral judgement stages from childhood to adolescence and also to apply the implications more generally in a social environment.  He extrapolated six stages of moral development from Paiget’s two and “cautiously labeled them as development ideal types.”[4]   The stages progressed linearly through three maturation levels.

Kohlberg’s model and the definitional descriptions below are from his second volume, Essays on Moral Development published in 1984:[5]


Level I: Preconventional morality

Stage 1: Heteronomous morality (punishment-and-obedience)

Stage 2: Individualism and instrumental purpose (instrumental-relativist)

Level II: Conventional morality

Stage 3: Interpersonal expectations and conformity (good boy, good girl)

Stage 4: Social system and conscience (law and order)

Level III: Postconventional or principled morality

Stage 5: Social contract (legalistic)

Stage 6: Universal ethical principle

Kohlberg began his research with a control group of ninety-eight boys, ages ten to sixteen.  Over a span of thirty years he interviewed them in three year intervals to track their actual developmental maturation against their baseline information to validate his hypothesis.  This work was also supplemented with cross-cultural studies since his subjects were all heterogeneous of American descent.  The resultant findings became Kohlberg’s final operating model.[6]

The essence of Kohlberg’s model was his core belief that a child’s understanding of morality was an outcome of their innate ability to assimilate building blocks of sociological values based on individual cognitive development. This foundation stood in sharp relief to Sigmund Freud who asserted almost absolute passivity to children as recipients of moral values imposed on them by adults.  Kohlberg came to view his framework as interdisciplinary, affording later contributions by others such as James Fowler who sought to more fully develop a more holistic spiritual context.  Kohlberg himself agreed that “later I became aware of moral philosophic issues not answered by the idea of rational justice but dealt with profoundly by literature and theology.”[7]

Kohlberg’s Theology and Worldview

Assessing Kohlberg’s worldview is difficult absent inferential statements derived from his small body of published work.  Known primarily for his narrow research, he grew reputationally more from his professorship at Harvard than from his authorship.  That said, a significant body of secondary literature and research has emerged since his death in 1987, but the preponderance of material commenting on his individual theology is generally speculative.

Who is God?

Kohlberg was a Jew.  His view of God was shaped by strong nationalistic ties that developed from early experiences following World War II.  Kohlberg worked on a ship that smuggled Jewish holocaust survivors into Palestine past the British blockade.  He was arrested for this activity and later lived as a refugee in an Israeli kibbutz following his release.  Though Kohlberg referenced these experiences as contributory to his pragmatic connection between justice and morality, his personal view of the God behind “Divine Command” is unclear.[8]  Kohlberg cited a confrontation in Cambridge following one of his lectures where a man said “Professor Kohlberg…Before you engage in moral education, answer these questions: ‘is there a heaven? Is there a hell?”  Kohlberg dodged the direct questions and retreated into methodology.[9]  He acknowledged the existence of God and affirmed that “to be in harmony with God people must act morally and…must rely on God to live a moral life.”[10]

Who is Man?

Kohlberg’s view of man is somewhat easier to ascertain.  He took issue with researchers (specifically B.F. Skinner but also others) who advocated what Kohlberg called the “psychologist’s fallacy” of casting man into a purely behavioristic paradigm.  He said that it was wrong to assume that methods and aims of classroom learning could be derived from animal experimentation which drove outcome based models through positive and negative reinforcement.[11]  Kohlberg saw man as an independent moral agent, exercising integrated cognitive skills.[12] His perspective lacked the affirmation of an eternal soul and can best be classified as non-reductive physicalism.

What is Man’s Purpose?

The Moral Stage Development theory is based on Kohlberg’s hypothesis that man evolves socially up a linear process of (eventual) moral maturity by which he continues to become more sociologically sensitive to Kantian moral imperatives, specifically following John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice[13] and then John Dewey’s Democracy and Education[14].  Kohlberg said “the first virtue of a person, school, or society is justice – interpreted in a democratic way as equity or equal respects for all people.”[15]

What is Man’s Problem?

Kohlberg recognized that autonomous individualism precluded collective sociological enlightenment.  While his stage theory advocated a general framework for humanistic growth, Kohlberg acknowledged that a variety of factors contribute to plateauing through which individuals become frozen in various stages of growth.  According to Kohlberg, while the impetus of justice is man’s chief motivating factor, life is not just.  He pointed to this dilemma as beyond the scope of his work saying “this is the central issue theologians face when talking about religion or faith.”[16]

What is the Solution to Man’s Problem?

Kohlberg was forthright in saying his work does not try to answer the “deep questions” but rather points to education as an attempt to address “the justice element presupposed by these questions.”[17]  He taught that people enjoyed conversing at one level beyond their own and encouraged challenging students through ethical scenario based case studies.  His curriculum included social engagement outside of the classroom where academic learning would be augmented by seeing moral actions carried out at a stage beyond their own.

Educational Application

Kohlberg believed that in order to facilitate advancement from lower moral stages to higher, it was necessary to combine classroom education with actual moral good carried out in a societal environment. He therefore tested his theory by application to prison reform and to secondary education.  In the former, he received a government grant in 1971 to create what he called a “just community” in a women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut.  The experiment’s premise was that inmates would achieve more rapid readiness for release if they were given a more collaborative voice in their rehabilitation process.  The experiment was considered generally successful and Kohlberg’s influence thereafter extended into additional reforms in law enforcement.[18]  Emboldened by his success in the corrections system, Kohlberg then extended the application of his theory to alternative secondary education schools built on a democratic administrative model similar to the prison experiment where students and faculty shared decision making responsibilities.  These experiments were less successful as the students tended to misbehave when absolute authority was removed from the teachers and administrators.  Kohlberg was forced to adjust his laissez faire governance model and ultimately had to acquiesce to the need for more rigid administrative controls.[19]


Lawrence Kohlberg was not a Christian, or if he was, it was not reflected in his teaching.  While his Moral Stage Development theory has contributed to the advancement of educational curriculum development, his framework lacks both sin as man’s root problem and Christ as the solution.  As Alister McGrath wrote “We are lost; Christ has come to find us. We are ill; Christ has come to bind our wounds. We cannot see; Christ has come to illuminate our minds and the path ahead of us.”[20]  Kohlberg argued that advanced reasoning which approached faith and religion motivators occurred in his Level III Postconventional stages, but he also found very few people who could be classified as such before the age of twenty-four.[21]  Any framework that precludes the young and simple is categorically invalid to God’s comprehensive reach (John 3:16).  Kohlberg recognized that his model lacked an impetus to be moral and he acknowledged that it required a religious answer.[22]  He added a Stage 7 centered on agape, but unfortunately saw it as “above and beyond” his workable framework.[23]

The Moral Stage Development theory fails to assert that man’s chief aim is to love God with our entire being but is helpful in teaching us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:35-40).  It is therefore useful if incomplete.  Parents and educators will benefit from understanding age and stage based stratifications described by Kohlberg’s model and can leverage the framework of reasoning that creates an environment conducive to maturation.  Kohlberg’s model encourages patience as it recognizes the need for children to develop “ears to hear” messages that will spur them on to a higher degree of Christ-likeness (Mark4:9).  Most importantly, as educators guide students through scenario based case studies, Kohlberg’s assertion of action based applications of classroom learnings should spur people on to doing the work of God in the world in the furtherance of His kingdom.


Kohlberg, Lawrence. “The Development of Modes of Moral Thinking and Choice in the Years 10 to 16.” Thesis, University of Chicago., 1958.

_________. The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development. The Heinz Werner Lectures, 1979 = 13. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press, 1981.

_________. The Philosophy of Moral Development : Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. 1st ed. Essays on Moral Development, 1. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

_________. The Psychology of Moral Development : The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. 1st ed. Essays on Moral Development, 2. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Kuhmerker, Lisa, Uwe P. Gielen, and Richard L. Hayes. The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions. Birmingham, Ala.: R.E.P. Books, 1991.

McGrath, Alister E. Redemption. 1st Fortress Press ed. Truth and the Christian Imagination Series. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

Munsey, Brenda. Moral Development, Moral Education, and Kohlberg : Basic Issues in Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, and Education. Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1980.

Nucci, Larry P. Education in the Moral Domain. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Plato. Meno. The Library of Liberal Arts, no 2. New York,: Liberal Arts Press, 1949.

Sutton-Smith, Brian, John M. Roberts, Diana Baumrind, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Edward Frank Zigler. Studies of an Elementary Game of Strategy. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75, 1st half. Provincetown, Mass.: Journal Press, 1967.


[1]Plato, Meno, The Library of Liberal Arts, no 2 (New York,: Liberal Arts Press, 1949), 3.

[2]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development : Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, 1st ed., Essays on Moral Development, 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), xii.

[3]Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Modes of Moral Thinking and Choice in the Years 10 to 16” (Thesis, University of Chicago., 1958).

[4]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development : Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, xvii.

[5]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development : The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages, 1st ed., Essays on Moral Development, 2 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 170.

[6]Lisa Kuhmerker, Uwe P. Gielen, and Richard L. Hayes, The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions (Birmingham, Ala.: R.E.P. Books, 1991), 15.

[7]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development : Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, xi.

[8]Ibid., 311.

[9]Ibid., 312-13.

[10]Ibid., 321.

[11]Ibid., xii.

[12]Brian Sutton-Smith, et al., Studies of an Elementary Game of Strategy, Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75, 1st half (Provincetown, Mass.: Journal Press, 1967), 397.

[13]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development : Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, 101.

[14]Ibid., 29.

[15]Ibid., xiii.

[16]Ibid., xv.


[18]Larry P. Nucci, Education in the Moral Domain (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 154.

[19]Brenda Munsey, Moral Development, Moral Education, and Kohlberg : Basic Issues in Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, and Education (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1980), 67.

[20]Alister E. Mcgrath, Redemption, 1st Fortress Press ed., Truth and the Christian Imagination Series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 57.

[21]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development : The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages, 458.

[22]Lawrence Kohlberg, The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development, The Heinz Werner Lectures, 1979 = 13 (Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press, 1981), 322.

[23]Ibid., 351-52.