Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter K - KOHLBERG, LAWRENCE

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

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The teacher in a just community school was not merely a facilitator, but also a Socratic dialogue partner whose advocacy functioned within the constraints of students' democratic participation. Through these methods, Kohlberg's approach stressed group discussions and the democratic sharing of responsibility for group decisions regarding issues of fairness.

On a larger societal scale, Kohlberg pointed out that some religious leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., functioned as public moral educators in that they created disequilibrium in their audiences to move them forward to more mature moral reasoning. Although King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail showed King as reasoning at postconventional Stage 6, Kohlberg observed, the letter also reached out to those at conventional stages of moral reasoning and offered them more adequate moral explanations, which could attract his readers to a higher stage of moral reasoning.


Although Kohlberg did not believe moral education should advocate a particular religious tradition, he thought that religion often played a key role in turning moral reasoning into moral action. Specifically, Kohlberg thought that religion dealt with questions that arise at the boundary of moral reasoning. He thought that the function of moral reflection was to resolve competing claims among individuals or peoples based on a social norm (such as keeping a promise) or ethical principle (justice). The function of religious reasoning was to affirm life and morality as related to a transcendent ground or sense of the whole. It addressed questions such as, "Why be moral in a world that is largely unjust?" A Judeo-Christian faith, for example, would affirm morality as being related to God and God's teachings to humanity.

How does moral stage development relate to moral action? How might religious faith impact moral action? To answer these questions, Kohlberg developed a model of the relationship of moral judgment to moral action. In this model, a person's moral stage influences and directs a person's moral judgment about what should be done in a given situation (deontic choice). This judgment is then filtered through a person's judgment about who is responsible for taking action in a given situation (aretaic judgment). If a person feels like she ought to act (deontic choice) and thinks she is responsible to act (aretaic judgment), then the person is much more likely to actually take moral action. For Kohlberg, moral stage development directly affects a person's deontic choice, but other factors such as religion affect a person's aretaic judgment. For example, a person with strong religious commitments, which provide strong models of moral action, may not only decide that she ought to help a stranger in difficulty (a deontic choice driven by moral stage development), but she also will be more likely to make the decision to actually help the other person (an aretaic judgment driven by religion).

While Kohlberg viewed moral and religious education as separable, he understood that one's response to the ultimate questions of religion could bear heavily on one's moral development. Kohlberg discussed personal religious faith, including mystical spirituality, in connection with a hypothesized Stage 7. Kohlberg esteemed Spinoza as an exemplar of Stage 7 because Spinoza's Ethics displayed the ability to integrate his Stage 6 universal moral principles with a spiritual or metaphysical perspective on life's ultimate meaning. Spinoza's discovery of the union of the mind with the whole of Nature gave rise to his rational mysticism, an attitude toward nature similar to that of a theistic mystic toward God. Although Stage 7 was never formally incorporated into Kohlberg's theory, he discussed the possibility of a Stage 7 as a way of acknowledging the way in which people at higher stages of moral development often ground their moral reasoning in a cosmic or religious perspective.


Kohlberg's work in the psychology of morality was groundbreaking. He made morality a central concern in psychology, and he remains the person most often identified as the father of the field of the psychology of moral development and education. Although his theory and method of measuring moral development have not escaped criticism, particularly in terms of possible gender and racial-cultural bias, they continue to be relied upon for further research and work in moral development and education. In terms of religious and spiritual development, Kohlberg pioneered the position that moral maturity, beyond a person's stage of moral reasoning, rests upon the answers to ultimate questions of life, questions that lie in the domain of faith. Such moral maturity requires both the capacity for principled reasoning about conflicts in normative values, such as life versus law, as well as the faith conviction that one should and must live according to these larger principles. Moral reasoning alone is not sufficient for genuine moral maturity. Although Lawrence Kohlberg died at age 59, his voice remains vital to the ongoing study and pursuit of moral development.