History of Kohlberg, Power and Fowler Collaboration // Kohlberg’s Suicide Explored

Chronology of the Lawrence Kohlberg, F. Clark Power and James Fowler Collaboration


1971:  James Fowler writes that this was when his friendship with Kohlberg began.  He remembered how Kohlberg’s seminars in 1973 drew crowds of students as they explored the issues of moral development as revealed in the Nixon Watergate scandals.

1980: Power writes a paper with Kohlberg for Towards Moral and Religious Maturity (the First International Conference on Moral and Religious Development) Silver Burdett Co., 1980:  Religion, Morality and Ego Development (pp. 343-372).  At the same conference, Fowler writes a paper for the same conference,  Faith and the Structuring of Meaning (pp. 51-85).

1980:  Fowler writes an article for Moral Development, Moral Education, and Kohlberg (Religious Education Press, ed. Munsey, 1980):  Moral Stages and the Development of Faith (pp. 130-160).  In this paper, Fowler encourages Kohlberg to broaden and deepen his cognitive perspective on moral development.

1981:  Kohlberg writes a paper with Power published in Kohlberg’s volume The Philosophy of Moral Development (Harper and Row):   Moral Development, Religious Thinking, and the Question of a Seventh Stage (pp. 311-372).  In this paper, Kohlberg and Power use Fowler’s work to hypothesize a Stage 7 of moral development that addresses existential questions.

1984:  Kohlberg writes a paper with Levine and Hewer in his volume The Psychology of Moral Development (Harper and Row):  The Current Formulation of the Theory (pp. 212-320).  In this paper (pp. 236-250), Kohlberg argues that the “Stage 7” is a “soft’ and “metaphorical” stage that does not have the same status as the “hard” stages.

1987:  While helping edit a two volume collection Adult Development (Praeger, 1989 and 1990 respectively), Kohlberg commits suicide.  The final article in the second volume includes Kohlberg’s last published writing, Which Postformal Levels are Stages?  (pp. 263-266).  In this paper, Kohlberg reiterates his objections to the “soft” Stage 7, claiming that it did not have enough cross-cultural evidence and lacked “universality.”

1987:  After Kohlberg’s body was found, Fowler hosted a memorial and kaddish on May 20, 1987 with the presentations published as Remembrances of Lawrence Kohlberg (Center for Research in Faith and Moral Development, 1988).

The next section is on why Kohlberg committed suicide.  It is part of a theme I am developing on chronic pain as an impediment to spirituality — link here.


Why Did Kohlberg Commit Suicide?

And What happened to Kohlberg’s “Stage 7”?


Some contributing factors to the suicide:

Chronic pain:  Kohlberg suffered from a debilitating disease, giardia, starting in 1971, apparently contracted while doing cross-cultural studies in Belize.  He was out on a day pass from the hospital when he committed suicide in 1987.  The chronic pain and discomfort, including the increasing amounts of medication and depression, probably hindered him from generating and maintaining the feelings of gratitude necessary for continued spiritual growth and maintenance.

Empire building:  Kohlberg wanted to establish a standard for moral development curriculum in the schools, requiring that he claim to have an unassailably rational and verifiable method of assessing developmental level and generalized means of stimulating growth to the most rational standard.  But empire building can be treacherous, especially when an “iconoclast” such as Loevinger gets in the way.  A couple of times Kohlberg rallied his associates to try to belittle Loevinger’s work.  In my humble opinion, she always got the better of them.

Sexism:  Kohlberg studied males only and clashed with both Loevinger and Carol Gilligan in ways that didn’t set well with either of them.  Loevinger’s model was not gender specific (although she started with young mothers), whereas Gilligan felt compelled to develop a specifically female development perspective.

Loyalty to Piaget and Kant:  the “pre-operational” child is the only individual in the Piagetian universe that lacks the dignity of being “operational.”  Infants have “sensori-motor operations,” school-age children have “concrete operations,” and adolescents and adults have “formal operations.”  “Post-formal operations” was appearing to Kohlberg to be too irrational by standards of deductive logic for him to admit into his universalistic rationalistic agenda.

And what happened to Stage 7?

Many of those at Kohlberg’s memorial spoke of their fondness for the man whose optimism led him to believe in progress and even spiritual reality.  After he disappeared and before his body was found, friends of his thought that he might have driven off unannounced as he had done a few times before, enjoying the beach and the wonders of nature:

As did many of you, I experienced many different emotions when the news of Larry being missing reached me.  First came anger:  Why did Larry do this to us?  Why didn’t others (I) do more to help him when he needed it most?  Then denial:  I – and many of you — had been sure that Larry was drinking a martini and pondering Stage 7 on a Portuguese beach…Peter Scharf, Remembrances of Lawrence Kohlberg, Fowler (ed.), 1988, pg. 27.

Kohlberg’s sister spoke about the personality change Kohlberg went through as the disease progressed.  Here is how she characterized “Laurie four”:

And somewhere along the line Laurie four crept in.  Probably when giardia took residence in his digestive system, and it and the many medications prescribed by many doctors (and a few self-prescribed) began undermining his physical and mental outlook.  Laurie four kept on working, sometimes frenetically, but he became less predictable, less sanguine.  It pained me to see his enthusiasm and humor wane, to see him age so rapidly.  Marjorie Kohlberg Chilcoat, Remembrances, pg. 13.

Two people who were not at the memorial who might still have comments to contribute to this question are F. Clark Power and Robert Kegan.  I will be interested in their perspectives.

Regarding this, Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter wrote to me (6/25/16):

Indeed, I was part of the early days with Kohlberg.  While he had his serious issues and struggled with his chronic illness that led to his voluntary death.  He must have been in a deep funk when he did it as he was engaged at the time to a lovely woman.  He was part of the generation who first paid attention to adult development.