By Barbara Kevles
June 13, 1977 12:00 PM

Though society preaches that children have to be punished to learn right from wrong, Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg, currently director of Harvard’s Center for Moral Development and Education, disagrees. He believes children have an innate fairness that can be heightened through education. Kohlberg began thinking about complicated moral issues when, as a Merchant Marine seaman after World War II, he helped Jewish immigrants run the British blockade to Palestine. Afterward he returned to the University of Chicago for a doctorate in psychology. Kohlberg defines six stages of moral development that he has documented through additional studies in Taiwan, Mexico and Turkey. Now 49 and separated, Kohlberg rents a house in Cambridge where his sons David, 19, and Stephen, 15, can visit. There Dr. Kohlberg spoke about moral growth in children and young adults with Barbara Kevles for PEOPLE.

Do children make the same type of moral judgments as adults?

Yes, though children may draw different conclusions. For instance, when my eldest son was 4, he committed his first moral act and became a vegetarian. He refused meat at meals despite his parents’ pleas because he thought it was bad to kill animals. One night I was reading him a story about Eskimo seal hunts, and he remarked, “There is one type of meat I would eat—Eskimo meat—because Eskimos kill animals.”

Is that a moral judgment?

Yes, because such decisions are always based on a sense of empathy and just exchange. My son saw animals as being like himself. He believed that if people killed animals, they, in turn, could be killed. His fairness exemplifies the concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which is typical of early moral development.

What are the stages in moral growth?

In the early ’30s Jean Piaget, considered the world’s greatest living child psychologist, concluded there were two stages. The first is entered at about age 4 whereupon children view what is right as absolute obedience to their parents. At about 7, the second stage begins when self-interest dominates and children judge what is fair by what rewards or favors they get.

Do you differ from Piaget?

No, my work builds from Piaget’s. He tracked a child’s moral growth till the age of 12, and my work reveals four further stages. In fact, people’s moral awareness can continue to change well into their 30s.

How do children’s moral judgments change with maturity?

In early adolescence children move toward a stage where moral judgments gain them social approval. Lieutenant Calley’s testimony about Mylai, for instance, showed his desire to maintain fellowship with Army personnel. By the end of high school, teenagers may attain a fourth stage of conventional morality: making judgments out of respect for the law—be it their school’s, city’s or country’s. Mr. Nixon’s White House transcripts suggest that his judgments ranged from stage two to stage four.

What are the higher levels of moral judgment?

These are less conventional and more individualistic. In college some young people reach a fifth stage, represented, I feel, by President Carter. I consulted with him about prison reform when he became governor of Georgia. Rather than vengeance or saving money, Carter’s primary concern was reform that respected the rights of the prisoners as well as those of law-abiding citizens. That’s fifth-stage awareness. Then a very few, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, go further.

Can one break the law morally?

Yes. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” The question of when to do this—not on a whim but on a reasoned judgment of principle—is very difficult.

Are moral judgments relative?

In every country I’ve studied, people make the same type of moral decisions and go through the same levels of development, regardless of language or culture.

Have you ever tried to influence young people’s morality?

Yes. I had the chance to apply my theories when an alternative public school—the Cluster School—was started in Cambridge, Mass. five years ago. A group of students, teachers and parents consulted with me in its planning so as to test the theory that a community school can encourage more just behavior—which is the keystone to moral development.

How was this accomplished?

By creating a school government run by democracy—one man, one vote, whether the voter is a student or teacher—and through focusing on moral issues in history and literature classes.

Did this create anarchy?

Almost, at the beginning. But by having discussions among small groups of students and teachers precede the actual voting at meetings, students at lower levels of moral growth were forced to reason through decisions under the influence of older students. None of the decisions made by the student majority have been judged to be unfair or impulsive by the teachers.

Did the sharing of decisions among students and teachers impair the teachers’ effectiveness as an authority?

In the Cluster School, the teacher is still accepted as the intellectual expert on his subject, though disagreement is frequent when an issue of fairness arises—for instance, with grades.

Do students from poor neighborhoods progress at the same rate as students from Harvard professors’ families?

Students from more advantaged families have an initial edge. But within the school both groups seemingly progress at the same rate of moral growth, because Cluster duplicates the factors found in the families of the morally advantaged students—rational discussion of moral disagreements and shared decision-making.

Do children with religious training progress more rapidly?

Our research does not demonstrate that children who attend church or parochial schools attain higher moral levels more quickly. Religious education is important for the nurturing of faith, but it is not crucial to fostering a sense of what is right.

Are strong-willed children more moral?

It depends. If they are relatively advanced in their moral thinking, their willpower leads them to resist temptations such as, say, cheating. If they are less advanced, a strong will seems to promote wrongdoing.


Because at an early stage of moral development, strong-willed children can overcome their fear of punishment and parental disapproval. Some of the greatest evildoers in history, as well as some of the great moral heroes, have had strong wills. It’s their reasoning that differentiates them and their actions from each other.

What tangible influence has Cluster School had on its students’ lives?

At the start the school was chaotic. It took two months before the majority agreed to make a rule to discipline students for using or selling drugs. But once the rules were democratically enacted, students would follow them for the sake of the community without much threat of punishment.

What about cases of theft?

The students made a ruling against stealing as a result of a number of thefts early on. However, many students still took a casual attitude that expressed a second-stage level—”If someone is stupid enough to leave things unguarded, it’s their fault if it gets ripped off.” By the second year of the school, a strong sense of community prevailed. During this year $10 was stolen from a student’s pocket-book, which she reported at a community meeting. Many students said one couldn’t have a community without trust, which showed a higher level of moral development. They voted that each student would contribute 15 cents to help repay the victim her loss. There have been no thefts in Cluster since. However, a number of students continue to steal on the outside, because they don’t consider it their community.

Is American morality improving or weakening?

There seems to be a meandering, historical trend for American society to move closer to the long-range principles of justice on which this country was founded. So I’m optimistic. But we are still far from being able to leave our doors open at night in any city.