Lawrence Kohlberg is one of the most influential child development psychologists of the 20th century. He was born in 1927 in Bronxville, New York and was raised by his wealthy family there. In his theory of moral development Kohlberg argued that children do not necessarily internalize the values and morals of their parents or other adults, but construct their own particular values through maneuvering situations of moral conflict. This paper explores both the life of Kohlberg and his theory. It further examines the criticism level against Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.
At the end of World War II, Kohlberg dedicated his time by working as a “second engineer” where he smuggled Jewish refugees through Palestine which had a British blockade. In 1948, he commenced his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago and managed to graduate within a year because he had high admission test scores and managed to skip some of the required courses (Walsh, 2000). He stayed at the University of Chicago and published his doctoral dissertation in 1958. Kohlberg managed to develop this elaborate theory in his thirties, He moved to Harvard at the age of forty were he finally married and had two sons (Walsh, 2000). Kohlberg died in 1987 of suspected suicide by drowning at the age of 59. He had suffered from tropical disease for twenty years.
In the dissertation, he expanded Piaget’s two stages of moral development into six stages. His dissertation and its six stages broke rank with the traditional psychological approach to morality. For Piaget, morality was a not a concept that adults had to impose on children or something that pertained to avoiding guilt or anxiety. Morality in children came about as a result of self-exploratory behavior (Schrader, 1990). Children had the ability to create and generate their own form of morality. According to Kohlberg, children’s morality was a result of disparate emotions like love, empathy and respect. This research was a result of a longitudinal study that was carried out throughout a period of eighteen years. In this study, he tried to figure out the moral reasoning behind the subject of his study. In the process, he interviewed his subjects every three years and found out that at every interview, the moral reasoning of the child had changed and almost all of the subjects went through the same moral reasoning process (Kohlberg, 1958).
Out of the longitudinal study, Kohlberg came out with three states of moral development that was based on Jean Piaget and John Dewey’s research on moral development. The first level of Kohlberg’s moral development theory was called the pre-conventional level. At this level children do not internalize morals and values. This first level had two stages. The first stage is the punishment and obedience orientation whereby most children are motivated by the need to avoid any form of punishment (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). The child follows all rules that the adults develop and forces upon the child. At this stage, a child has no internalized moral or value system of their own. The second stage at the pre-conventional level pertains to the child’s being motivated by the need to follow rules and getting rewards from following particular rules. The child’s process of rule following is done so that the child can get some form of reward.
The second level of Kohlberg’s moral development is the conventional level. This has a child being able to internalize some morals and values, but they still can be influenced to abandon those morals by adults and those around them. The internalization process at this level is fragile. At this level, we get the third and fourth stages of moral development (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). The third stage is called concordance orientation. Children at this stage use their reasoning to gain approval from adults especially their parents. Children at the third stage know that playing by the parents’ rules reaps rewards. The fourth stage of moral development is composed of the child’s realization that there are laws to be following and they have duty to fulfil. This stage is called the law and order orientation. Children see an advantage in doing their duty and following the law.
The third and final level of Kohlberg’s moral development is called the post-conventional level. At his level, individuals possess the ability to create and internalize and follow their own values and morals. The values internalize may align or conflict with societal mores. At this level, we get the fifth and sixth stage of moral development. At the fifth stage, which is called the social-contract legalistic orientation, children or individuals can interpret and understand the laws. Individuals also see the importance of individual rights (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). They are also concerned with fair and democratic means of getting to conclusions about wrong and right. The sixth and last stage popularly known as the universal ethical principle orientation stage is the highest and final level of moral development. Individuals at this level do not follow rules just because they are told to do so, they follow them because they are part of the individual’s internalized value system. Equal treatment of other people is also an integral part of this last level of moral development.
Kohlberg’s theory of moral development has been sharply criticized for a number of reasons and chief among them is the assertion that moral development does not necessarily take a linear straight forward development process of stages. Gilligan, one of the notable critics of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development “wanted a stage description that allowed people to be seen and heard in their own life context, a more complex or soft stage description” (Jorgensen, 2006, p. 194). Children may learn their morality more from interaction with family at home than go through a somewhat natural process of moral development.
Kohlberg is also heavily criticized for justifying morality based on an inner compass where an individual might have just reasons based on the six stages. It sounds technical compared to moral reasoning that often comes naturally. In addition, to moral development not taking a linear path, Kohlberg’s theory is criticized for its treatment of women. Gilligan sought to criticize the male bias in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development since the stages had placed some of women’s concerns on the lower stages of moral development which in itself did not reflect high levels of morality but differences in men and women (Jorgensen, 2006). Gilligan argued that there existed morality that was different from the impartial, impersonal, rationalistic and universalistic morality. She maintains that care and responsibility constitutes an integral part of morality that is different from impartiality (Blum, 1988).
As Blum notes, the moral individual is “radically situated and particularized” (1988, p. 474). Attempting to remove the individual from this situated status aids in developing an impersonal morality. This also played into the debate on the relationship between moral judgement and moral behavior. Kohlberg and Hersh observed that moral judgement was a necessary but not key ingredient for moral action (1977). They considered the criticism such as the one made by Gilligan and noted that other variables were at play other than just moral judgement. These variables are emotions and ego.
In conclusion, Kohlberg’s theory helped revolutionize the field of child development psychology. It set to define the development of morality that was independent of environment, tradition and institutional set up. His theory has been criticized for its rationalist methods but it still is important for the study of morality in both children and adults. Variants of moral development have developed out of Kohlberg’s moral theory. These theories sought to address some of the loopholes in Kohlberg’s argument rather than dismiss the theory as a whole.
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