Lawrence Kohlberg


Lawrence Kohlberg is a philosopher that is famous for his theories of moral development. He was born into a wealthy family and was educated privately, but decided to stray away from that path and joined the Merchant Marines after high school. During this time he traveled the world. At one point during his travels, he worked on a ship that helped smuggle refugee Jews from Europe to Palestine. Here is where he had his first questioning of how one could deliberately disobey authority and law, which became the basis for his research (Rest, Power, & Brabeck, 1988).

After his time abroad, he became enrolled at the University of Chicago. Here, he attained his PHD, and began reading work by Piaget (Rest, Power, & Brabeck, 1988). Kohlberg was highly influenced by Piaget as well as John Dewey, and James Mark Baldwin, all of which argued that humans develop philosophically and psychologically in a progressive manner (Barger, 2000). From here, he became a professor at Harvard first as a developmental psychologist and then moved into the field of moral education (Barger, 2000).

During his work challenged the major popular assumptions of “socialization”, as he argued that people actively give meaning to the world around them through social cues (Rest, Power, & Brabeck, 1988). When he first began working in the field of cognition, the topic still was not widely accepted psychologist, and it took him five years to publish a dissertation (Rest, Power, & Brabeck, 1988). His work eventually began to gain popularity at the Harvard Center for Moral Education through his research (Barger, 2000). His work also gained popularity during the time of the Civial Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, when the ideas of justice and decision making were admired (Rest, Power, & Brabeck, 1988).

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development centers around the idea that “…we develop an ever-increasing moral sense as our notion of what constitutes justice evolves and expands” (Plaisance, 2014). This means that as we grow, our understanding of morals grows as well through our social experiences (Barger, 2000). He created six stages of moral development, claiming that we develop through these stages but not all at the same pace, and most people do not make it to stage six (Plaisance, 2014). The stages begin as we are self centered children concerned with nobody but ourselves, and as we grow our sphere of concern expands to include others (Plaisance, 2014). The six stages are as follows:

Stage 1: We act to avoid punishment
Stage 2: We act on the desire to be rewarded; actions are “right” if they serve our own interest
Stage 3: We are driven by a need for social acceptance
Stage 4: We have duties as a member of society which include upholding law
Stage 5: We are driven by our sense of social utility; that decisions ought to be made to benefit society and be impartial.
Stage 6: We recognize the universality of moral principles, that we have moral obligations to the human community regardless of law or culture (Plaisance, 2014)

Kohlberg explained that it is impossible to jump stages, that we must move through the stages progressively as we continue to learn through social situations (Barger, 2000).
Kohlberg’s theory can be used in the field of Journalism. For example, if a journalist were struggling with the decision of what to include in a story, and knew that including a certain piece of information would benefit society but would hurt the subjects involved in the story but chose to include the information to benefit society, they would be at stage 5. They are at this development stage because they have realized that their decision needs to benefit society, not the subjects involved in the story. They realize that they have a moral duty to society to uphold.


Barger, R. N. (2000). A summary of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.   Retrieved from:

Plaisance, P. L. (2014). Media ethics: Key principles for responsible practice. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications

Rest, J., Power, C., & Brabeck, M. (1988). Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987). American Psychologist, 43(5), 399-400. doi:10.1037/h0091958

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