Birthplace: Eastchester, NY
Location of death: Winthrop, MA
Cause of death: Suicide
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Stages of moral development
American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is known for his research into the developing stages of moral judgment in youth. In his best known study, he conducted interviews about moral issues with 72 white boys in Chicago, presenting these children with a classic philosophical question called the Heinz dilemma, in which a man must decide whether to steal to obtain an expensive but life-saving medication for his wife.
From his interviews, Kohlberg concluded that children younger than 10 or 11 years tend to see moral dilemmas simplistically, believing that rules are absolute, while older children tend to consider more complex aspects of such thorny questions. He detailed six stages of moral judgment: Obedience, in which the boys simply responded that stealing was wrong; self-interest, wherein Heinz measures the consequences to himself; conformity, where the man measures what others would expect him to do in such a situation; law-and-order, which has Heinz questioning the legality and possibly penalties of theft; human rights, weighing Heinz's wife's right to live against the drugmaker's property rights; and universal human ethics, considering his wife's life against a hypothetical society where everyone stole what they needed.
Advancing Jean Piaget's theories of moral development in children and adolescents, he advocated a parallelism or convergence between psychological descriptive and philosophical-normative analyses of the moral stages, which he conceived as being created and re-created as individuals interact with and within their social environment. He maintained that higher levels of moral development must be justified on rational grounds, not merely by appeal to the order of nature, law, or religious authority. His interpretation of the boys' answers to the Heinz dilemma was sometimes considered controversial, and some psychologists still adhere to Piaget's theory, which offered only two stages of moral development. Still, Kohlberg's work helped reintroduce moral questions into the field of psychology, which in the years prior to his work had been almost entirely concerned with behaviorism.
Kohlberg contracted a parasitic infection while working in Belize in 1971, and spent the rest of his life in near-constant, debilitating pain. On 17 January 1987 he parked his car on a residential street in Winthrop, Massachusetts, then walked into Boston Harbor and intentionally drowned himself. His body was found four days later, in marshland near Boston's Logan Airport.
Father: Alfred Kohlberg (importer)
Mother: Charlotte Albrecht
Wife: Lucille Stigberg (m. 1955)
High School: Phillips Academy Andover
University: BS, University of Chicago (1948)
University: PhD, University of Chicago (1958)
Teacher: Assoc. Prof. Psychology, Yale University (1956-61)
Scholar: Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science, Stanford University (1961-62)
Teacher: Ass't Prof. Psychology & Human Development, University of Chicago (1962-67)
Professor: Education, Harvard University (1968-87)
American Psychological Association
Jewish Ancestry Maternal and Paternal
Author of books:
Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (1973)
The Philosophy of Moral Development (1981)
Essays on Moral Development (1981)
Moral Stages (1983, with Charles Levine, Alexandra Hewer)
The Psychology of Moral Development (1984)
Constructivist Early Education (a/k/a Programs of Early Education) (1987, with Rheta DeVries)
Child Psychology and Childhood Education (1987, with Rheta DeVries)
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