NUMBER 865 • 10 NOVEMBER • ethical development


D. Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1981a) immensely influential work on movement by the individual through stages of ethical reasoning, facilitated by the cognitive conflict induced by the discussion of moral dilemmas, has been particularly appealing precisely because it represents a well-argued attempt at resolving the objectivist/relativist problem. It seems to give objectivism a cloak of scientific respectability. The title of one of Kohlberg’s earlier and most famous papers (1971) – ‘From Is to Ought: how to commit the naturalistic fallacy and get away with it’ – attempts to do precisely this. Kohlberg describes six developmental stages of moral reasoning which are invariant in sequence, progressively more integrative and culturally universalizable in form if not in content. Here in the scientific proof of the existence of these six psychological stages is one’s objectivity, and here is the ‘is’ by means of which one moves to the ‘ought’ – what one must do to produce a ‘good’ person by moving the individual through these stages from the lowest to the highest. Kohlberg strenuously denies that this is a way of marking off one person as ‘better’ in the ethical sense than another. All that these stages do, he argues, is to present more adequate ways of resolving moral conflicts and of taking action in ethical areas. Kohlberg is playing to the anti-objectivist camp here and attempting to show that he is not prescribing so much as describing, As with Wilson, he is claiming that he is concerned with form and not with content, for he is dealing with the style of reasoning rather than the content which goes into a particular problem,

However, this surely does not solve the problem. If we ask Kohlberg what he means by the sixth stage being more ‘adequate’ than the fifth, then he must reply that it is in some sense ‘better’. But ‘better’ must mean better for somebody, and inevitably Kohlberg is drawn into making an ethical judgement, claiming that this stage is better than that stage in some absolute sense. He cannot avoid the issue. His 1983 publication does attempt to retract this ‘is’ to ‘ought’ assertion, but does so only at the expense of producing a less interesting account which in effect says that there are stages of ethical reasoning but that he is not going to make any comments as to their implications for morality and moral education. The thesis becomes safer but far less interesting. The problem of ethical objectivity and relativity cannot be avoided.

In his later work, Kohlberg became increasingly interested in the creation of a school ‘ethos’ – the ‘just-community approach’ – which would provide the kind of working atmosphere within which people could relate in a caring and responsive manner to others. To this end, two ‘schools-within-schools’, one at Cambridge High, Massachusetts, and the other at Roosevelt High in the Bronx, New York, have been initiated by Kohlberg and his colleagues, in which staff and pupils meet to democratically discuss issues of the running and management of the school. The attempts have been interesting and thought provoking (see, for example, Hersh et at., 1979 and Woodhouse, 1986), and suggest a variety of ways in which the school can more directly face and discuss its central values. However, there is no further movement on the validation of an approach, This being the case, the situation seems to be rather like that with the material of Peter McPhail – very interesting and almost certainly of use to the teacher and the school, but needing a theoretical underpinning.



Bottery, M. (1990). The Morality of the School: The theory and practice of values in education. London: Cassell pp.23-24



























Hersh, R.H., Paolitto, D.B. and Reimer, J. (1979). Promoting moral growth. New York: Longman

Kohlberg, L. (1981) The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row

Kohlberg, L. (1971). From Is to Ought: How to commit the naturalistic fallacy and get away with it. In Mischel, T. (ed.) Cognitive development and epistemology. New York: Academic Press.

Woodhouse, D. (1986) A View from the Bronx. Values 1(1) Exeter: Religious and Moral Education Press