Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter K - KOHLBERG, LAWRENCE

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

American developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) spent his life in pursuit of universal justice. He is best known for creating a stage model of moral development and a pedagogical model for moral education. He also developed a significant interest in religious faith, which he defined as the way that people find or construct ultimate meaning in their lives, and in how such faith might support moral reasoning and behavior. Kohlberg's joint pursuits originated in his life experiences as he responded to societal and personal tragedies.


Born in Bronxville, New York, on October 25, 1927, Laurence Kohlberg was the youngest of four children. His mother's background was Christian and his father was Jewish. His early years, despite his father's great wealth, were characterized by an unusual degree of family upheaval and dispersion. Perhaps it was this disorder that motivated a boyhood ritual, which he recalled as an adult to his friend, Jim Fowler, as follows: "I couldn't have been more than six. Alone, I took the Popsicle sticks I had been saving and placed them carefully in a stack meant to be a pyre. With a prayer to whatever indeterminate God there be, I took matches and lit the pyre in hopes of atonement and forgiveness." As a young boy, Kohlberg understood religion as a way of bartering with God, and thus, according to his own subsequent developmental research, was much like other similarly aged children.

As he entered adolescence, Kohlberg's peers recognized his intellectual and moral precociousness. When he graduated from junior high school, the class prophecy section of the yearbook forecasted that he would become known as "the great scientist and Nobel Prize winner." For high school, he attended an elite preparatory school in Massachusetts. His classmates there remembered him as a genuine intellectual who rebelled against arbitrary social conventions, such as rules against visiting girls on nearby campuses, and often found himself on probation. As a high school student during World War II, he knew of the plight of European Jewry and came to identify closely with his Jewish heritage.


After finishing high school in 1945, Kohlberg became an ardent Zionist and joined the U.S. Merchant Marines. He traveled to Europe, where he witnessed the end of the war and met concentration camp survivors. After his tour of duty, he returned to Europe as a crew member on a ship, the S. S. Redemption, which was outfitted to smuggle European Jewish refugees through the British blockade and land them in Palestine, then a British-controlled territory. He willingly broke British laws, which he saw as unjust, to assist desperate refugees. While en route to Palestine in 1947, he and his fellow crew members, along with refugees, were captured by the British and taken to a refugee camp on Cyprus. Three months later, he escaped and made his way to Palestine where he lived on a kibbutz until he was able to return to the United States. When he arrived home, his family learned that he had changed his first name from Laurence to Lawrence and his nickname from Laurie to Larry.


Larry Kohlberg took the questions raised by his wartime experiences to the University of Chicago where he enrolled in the fall of 1948. He studied the works of numerous psychologically inclined philosophers and philosophically inclined psychologists, including Socrates, Plato, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Jean Piaget, and John Dewey. At that time it was possible to receive course credit by passing the final examination, and Kohlberg took exams for 4 years of courses and completed his B.A. degree in 1 year.

Torn between pursuing graduate work in law or clinical psychology, Kohlberg decided to do neither. He chose academic psychology and embarked on his quest for the cognitive-developmental foundations of universal moral principles. In 1958, at the age of 31, Kohlberg completed an extraordinary doctoral dissertation. It was based on interviews he conducted with 84 adolescent boys in Chicago about several moral dilemmas. The most famous dilemma concerns a man named Heinz, whose wife was dying. The boys were asked, "Should Heinz steal a life-saving drug or let his wife die for lack of the drug? Why or why not?" As Kohlberg examined the boys' reasons, he discovered distinct age-related differences in the complexity of the moral reasoning they used to arrive at and justify their answers. His dissertation laid out six stages of moral development, in contrast to Piaget's two. Kohlberg's theory eventually initiated a new field of study-the psychology of moral development and education.

Kohlberg went to Yale University as an assistant professor in 1958, and then returned to join the University of Chicago's faculty in 1962. At Chicago he continued to take a bold stand for the validity of universal moral principles, at a time when moral relativism seemed more defensible, and for psychology as an inherently moral science, at a time when the world had been shaken by the moral horrors of the Holocaust. Noting that the Holocaust incongruously occurred in a country noted for its citizens' high level of education, flourishing arts, and complex culture, Kohlberg wondered what factors promote the development of people's moral maturity. After 6 years at Chicago, he moved to Harvard.