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Moral Development Models

Kohlberg’s model 2 If he’s caught and does some time His wife will probably die before
Kohlberg’s model is routinely used to gauge an individual’s moral maturity based on in jail, he will still have his wife to be he gets out, so it will do him no
their responses to a series of hypothetical dilemmas (see the example of the Heinz there for him when he gets out. good to steal.
3 If he lets his wife die, everyone will If he steals the drug, everyone
think he is a terrible person. will think he is a terrible person.

4 It is his duty to save her. It is against the law to steal –

He promised to look after her when people cannot just break the law
he married her. to suit themselves.

5 Life is more important than He must respect the doctor’s

property. right not to be stolen from.

6 He would always condemn himself He would condemn himself for

if he let her die, for not living up to stealing, even if others did not
his own standards of conscience. blame him.

Gilligan’s model
While Kohlberg’s model is quite prominent within the accounting literature,
there is a growing body of work that critiques his position. To begin with, there
A woman was near death from a unique kind of cancer. There was a drug is some debate as to whether a different level of moral reasoning necessarily
that might save her. The drug cost £4,000 per dosage. The sick woman’s results in different types of behaviour (Reiter 1996). However, at a more
husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried fundamental level, Reiter (1996) critiques the model itself. She contrasts
every legal means, but he could get together only about £2,000. He asked
Kohlberg’s conceptualization of moral devel-opment with that of Carol Gilligan.
the doctor who discovered the drug for a discount or to let him pay later.
But the doctor refused.

Should Heinz break into the doctor’s laboratory to steal the drug for his
wife? Why steal or why not steal?

Stage Why should Heinz steal? Why should Heinz not steal?

1 He will be in trouble if his wife dies. He will be caught if he breaks

He will be blamed for her death. into the laboratory.
He will end up in jail.

Kohlberg conceptualizes progress in moral thinking in terms of increased abstraction Culture

and autonomy, Gilligan’s ‘ethics of care’ presents a more embedded and empathic view
There is quite a considerable discussion within the moral philosophy literature regard-ing the
of ethical development. Gilligan was particularly concerned that Kohlberg’s model
influence of culture on the ethical predispositions of individuals. The question here is whether
appeared to be developed primarily from studies of male volunteers. different national value systems affect individual ethical behaviour. The evidence is mixed.
Both Gilligan’s and Kohlberg’s work is quite pertinent for exploring the ethics of Jakubowski and colleagues (2002) suggest that national differences are reflected in the ethical
accounting. Two issues are relevant here. First, their work encourages us to codes of accountants across different countries and Karnes and colleagues (1990) contend that
reflect on how we might conceptualize the moral development of the individual accountants of different nationalities do have disparate perceptions of what is and is not ethical.
Cohen and colleagues (1992) draw on Hofstede’s cultural studies to argue that there are
accountant. While we might all agree that we would like to see more ethical international dif-ferences in ethical values that could impede the effectiveness of the International
accountants, what exactly does this mean? For example, quite often accounting Federation of Accountants (IFAC) ‘Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants’.
scandals are followed by calls for new codes of conduct; however, Kohlberg’s
model would imply that simply following ethical codes would represent quite a Organizations and groups of individuals
low level of ethical maturity. Both models provide us with different ways of
A second issue relates to the observation that accountants are embedded within groups within
beginning to think about the kinds of attributes that could characterize ethical organizations. We would like to highlight two issues here that contribute towards understanding
maturity, so the notion of moral development is both complex and contested. the ethical behaviour of individual accountants. These issues are groupthink and organizational
Figure 2.4 Modelling professional ethics: contextual attributes.

Kohlberg’s model has also been used to explore the impact of personal character-istics
on ethical decisions. The characteristics of gender and age in particular have been
explored in some detail. While Stanga and Turpen’s (1991) work does not support the
existence of gender differences Arlow (1991), Meising and Preble (1985) and
Borkowski and Ugras (1992) all contend that females are more ethical than males.
David and colleagues (1994) also suggest that women have different kinds of attitudes
towards ethics and codes of ethics in particular. In fact some people have even
suggested that one way to resolve the ethical problems in large accounting firms is to
employ more women (Radtke 2008).

Moral intensity

Jones (1991; see also Leitsch 2004) suggests that the moral intensity of an issue
will be influenced by six factors.

Figure 2.3 Modelling professional ethics: individual attributes.


1 The nature of the consequences location might in some crude way remind management of the human impact of the
2 The social consensus decisions they were making!
3 The possibility of effect
4 Temporal immediacy Figure 2.5 Modelling professional ethics: empirical perspectives.
5 Proximity
6 The concentration of effect.

The nature of the consequences relates to the magnitude of the outcome of one’s
actions; consider for example the consequences of stealing a few pens from an
office cupboard in comparison to stealing a baby from a maternity unit. Social
consensus refers to the general social attitude towards the particular issue. The
possibility of effect relates to the probability that a particular set of consequences
will ensue from an individual’s action. Temporal immediacy relates to the speed
with which the consequences are likely to come into effect, whereas proximity
refers to the nearness to individuals who are likely to be affected by one’s
actions. The final element, concentration of effect, relates to the number of
people likely to be affected by a particular action (Jones 1991). The elements of
this model are quite readily applicable to accounting and business decisions in
particular. Social consensus in relation to environmental pollution, for example,
has changed considerably. It is also easy to see how it might be more acceptable
to advocate a particular investment project if any potentially negative impacts are
both uncertain and unlikely to materialize for many years.

Moral framing
The associated issue of moral framing suggests that individuals respond to ethical
dilemmas in different ways depending on the framework within which they are 1 Tansel (1994) explains that environmental problems have had a significant impact on
experienced. Two strands of research elaborate on this premise. First, linguistic the increasing concern with ethics within the engineering profession.
2 This concern is being expressed both within and outside the profession (see Smith
research suggests that individuals may respond to issues differently depending on the
1990, for example).
linguistic frames within which issues are discussed. The words (and numbers) used to 3 A schema is an abstract notion that refers to the knowledge structures which
frame the issue can quite literally affect our moral thinking about those issues. individuals may unconsciously employ in order to organize and make sense of social
and organiza-tional situations (Fiske and Kinder 1981, in Choo 1989).
A second strand of research explores the spatial influences in ethical thinking 4 The metaphor of the actors/actresses script may be helpful in explaining this argument.
(Bachelard 1994). While Jones, for example, discusses the potential impact of prox- Schemas can be thought of as a script that an actor would follow in a film. The script
imity, this emerging strand of research explores the influence of location and place provides the actor with an understanding of the situation and also with an idea of what
more generally on an individual’s ethical thinking. For example, some time ago, an she or he is expected to say and how she or he is expected to act.
architect we know was involved in designing a new hospital. Through discussions with
the client, the design team, of which he was a member, decided to position the
management suite in the same block as the intensive care unit in the hope that this