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Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was a developmental psychologist, moral philosopher,

and student of child development. As director of Harvard’s Center for Moral Education,
Kohlberg’s research interest focused upon the moral development of children and, in
particular, how they develop a sense of right, wrong, and justice. Kohlberg observed that
children advance through what he believed to be definite stages of moral development in a
manner similar to their progression through Piaget’s (1977) two-stage theory of cognitive
development which Kohlberg studied as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
In addition to Piaget, Kohlberg’s speculations concerning the moral development of
children was influenced by the American philosopher, John Dewey (1956) as well as by
James Mark Baldwin (1906), both of whom argued that human beings develop in a
developmentally progressive fashion.

An overview of the stages of moral development...

Instead of viewing morality as a concept that adults impose on children (the

psychoanalytic explanation of morality) or as something based solely on avoiding bad
feelings like anxiety and guilt (the behaviorist explanation of morality), Kohlberg believed
that children generate their own moral judgments. Motivated primarily by social
relationships—including, but not limited to, parents, siblings, peers, friends—and
secondarily by a variety of emotions—including, but no limited to love, respect, empathy,
and attachment—children develop into moral agents. Kohlberg’s observations and
psychometric testing of children and adults led him to theorize that human beings
progress invariantly and consecutively in their power of moral reasoning (i.e., in their
bases for moral behavior) through a series of six clearly identifiable stages which can be
more generally classified into three levels. These six stages of moral thought processing
imply qualitatively different modes of thinking and of problem solving at each stage.


PRECONVENTIONAL 1............ Punishment and obedience

2............ Instrumental exchange
CONVENTIONAL 3............ Interpersonal conformity
4............ Law and order
POSTCONVENTIONAL 5............ Prior rights and social contract
6............ Universal moral principles

Kohlberg believed that individuals could only progress through these stages one stage at
a time. This view contrasted with Maslow’s (1943, 1968, 1972) hierarchy of prepotent
needs because human beings, according to Kohlberg, could neither skip stages nor return
to any previous stage. Human beings could not, for example, move from an orientation of
punishment and obedience to an orientation toward law and order without first passing
through the stages of instrumental exchange and interpersonal conformity. Neither would
human beings return to an orientation of punishment and obedience from an orientation
toward law and order. Hence, human beings come to a comprehension of a moral
rationale one stage superior to their own. But, once human beings achieved a superior
stage, they also no longer will be motivated to utilize an inferior stage of moral reasoning.

For Kohlberg, then, human beings develop in response to cognitive conflicts at the current
stage of their moral development. But, someone (e.g., parents, educators, friends,
religious figures, lovers, business or political leaders) must present human beings with
moral dilemmas for discussion which not only help these individuals to recognize the
reasonableness of a superior stage of moral thought but also encourage moral
development in that direction. Kohlberg believed it was primarily social interaction and
moral discourse that foster and promote the moral development of human beings. In this
way, for example, parents, friends, and teachers—and for the purposes of this course,
leaders—promote moral growth in others as they recognize the stage from which others
operate and appropriately challenge them to consider reasoning about the moral dilemma
by using the arguments and principles associated with the next stage of moral

During his tenure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Kohlberg inspired a

generation of academics to become moral activists. He sought to put theories of human
development into practice by encouraging the formation of democracies or “just
communities” inside of schools and prisons as well. His believed moral education would
flourish in any environment in which every individual possessed decision-making power.

Kohlberg became physically and mentally ill in the late-1960s and, as his health declined
and his world fell apart, some assert, so did much of his work. Toward the end of his life,
Kohlberg appeared increasing disheveled and even distraught. While on a day pass from
a local hospital on January 19, 1987, Kohlberg drove to Winthrop, Massachusetts, parked
his car on a dead-end street, and plunged himself into the frigid waters of the Atlantic
Ocean where he died. He was only 59 years old with potentially many productive years of
scholarship ahead of him.
After his death, some of Kohlberg’s colleagues questioned whether his agenda had died
with him. Had his pursuit of practical applications of his theoretical construct undermined
his research? Others insisted—and continue to insist—that Kohlberg’s legacy lives on at
the Harvard Graduate School of Education in programs such as its “Risk and Prevention”
program. And, although Kohlberg’s conclusions have been replicated in cross-cultural
studies completed in Turkey, Taiwan, Yucatan, Honduras, India, United States, Canada,
Britain, and Israel, whether Kohlberg’s theory has any basis in fact continues to be a much
disputed topic.

Details concerning each stage of moral development...


[Orientation: Behavior is motivated by anticipation of pleasure or pain]


What could be called a "premoral" stage, what an agent will do is determined by

calculating the immediate physical consequences that might ensue not the moral
value of an action. By deferring to power, the agent's overarching goal is to avoid
physical punishment. Thus, at stage one, obedience not moral sentiments or
compunction characterizes decision making.



An individual does what is necessary and makes concessions to superiors but only as
required to satisfy one’s self-interest. Thus, right conduct consists of that which
instrumentally satisfies one’s self-interest which, in turn, likens moral decision making
to a marketplace where a moral agent seeks to maximize personal rewards and
minimize punishments. At this stage, an agent is not worried so much about
obedience to one's superiors but more so how to accrue rewards from one's
superiors. Perhaps the rationale, once again a pre-moral rationale, is best stated by
the aphorism “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours" and justice is “Do unto others
as they do unto you.” At stage two, a moral agent values people solely in terms of
their utility and revenge is viewed as a moral duty.


[Orientation: Behavior motivated by the acceptance of the rules and standards of

one’s group]


A moral agent acts not from any personal moral sensibility but in order to gain
approval from valued others because what is “good” and “right” is defined as
conformity with the behavioral expectations of one’s society or peer group. The moral
worth of conduct is irrelevant. What counts, morally speaking, is that one's conduct
gratify or help others or simply that “Everybody is doing it” because the moral agent's
goal is to earn approval from these others. A “sin” or "bad" conduct is a breach of the
conventional expectations of the social order. Retribution at this stage is collective—
for example, the group will shun an individual—and punishment is intended to deter
other members of the group from engaging in similar conduct. A failure to punish is
believed to be “unfair,” the rationale being, “If she can get away with it, why can’t I?”


Morality involves respecting rules, laws, and duly-constituted authority as well as

defending the given social and institutional order for its own sake. A moral agent's
responsibility is directed toward the welfare of others by upholding the status quo.
Right behavior consists of maintaining the social order for its own sake as, for
example, one receives “a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.” Authority figures are
seldom questioned because, the moral agent asserts, “He must be right. After all, he’s
the Pope (or the President, or the Judge, or God).” Consistency and precedent must
be maintained because, at this level of moral reasoning, the failure to uphold law and
order is viewed a threat to fabric of society if not society itself. At stage four, “justice”
normally refers to criminal or forensic justice, with the demand that wrongdoers be
punished by “paying a debt to society,” what is called "retributive justice."
Furthermore, law abiders must be rewarded because of the strict requirements of
justice. Injustice, then, is the failure for one’s merits to be rewarded or for others’
demerits to be punished.


Between the conventional stages and the post-conventional stages, Kohlberg posited
a transitional stage evident, for example, in college-age students who have come to
see conventional morality as relative and arbitrary, but have not yet discovered
universal moral principles. Rather than moving in the direction of using universal
moral principals to make moral decisions, however, moral decision making can
become a hedonistic ethic of “do your own thing,” as Kohlberg believed the hippie
counter-culture of the l960’s evidenced. Disrespect for conventional morality is
especially infuriating to the stage four mentality, and is calculated to be so. Counter-
cultural behavior is itself a conventional form of moral self-expression as counter-
culturalists form social groupings of like-minded individuals.


[Orientation: Universal moral principles]


Moral agents act out of a sense of mutual obligation and the public good and right
conduct tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of
standards critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society (e.g., the
U.S. Constitution). While the moral agent's freedom can be limited by society, it can
only be limited when one individual's freedom infringes upon another’s. Moral
conduct in a specific situation is not defined by referencing a checklist of rules,
policies, or contractual obligations but is dependent upon logical application of
universal, abstract, moral principles to the concrete exigencies of the situation at
hand. At the same time, moral agents possess natural or inalienable rights and
liberties a priori to society and must be protected by society. Because retributive
justice does not promote the rights and welfare of the individual, retributive justice is
repudiated because it is neither rational nor just. The statement, “Justice demands
punishment,” a self-evident truism to the stage four moral agent, is self-evident
nonsense to the stage five moral agent. Thus, justice must be distributed
proportionate to circumstances and need. Only legal sanctions which fulfill that
specific purpose can be imposed, for example, the protection of future victims,
deterrence, and rehabilitation.


An individual who reaches this stage acts out of universal principles based upon the
equality and intrinsic worth of all human beings who are never means to an end, but
are ends in themselves. Possessing inalienable “rights” means more than individual
liberty; it means that every individual is due consideration of his interests in every
situation, those interests being of equal importance with one’s own. This is the
“Golden Rule” model of moral decision making. A list of rules inscribed in stone is no
longer necessary because the individual is motivated by universal moral principles.

Kohlberg's further observations concerning moral development...


One must progress through the stages in order, and one cannot get to a higher stage
without passing through the stage immediately preceding it. A belief that such a leap
into moral maturity stands in sharp contrast to the facts of developmental research.
Moral development follows natural development, and like all growth, takes place
according to a pre-determined sequence. According to Kohlberg, to expect someone
to grow into high moral maturity overnight would be like expecting someone to walk
before he crawls. Though such behavior is conceivable, it is highly improbable.



If an individual is oriented to see good almost exclusively as that which brings

satisfaction, how will that individual understand a concept of good in which the
“good” may bring him no tangible pleasure at all? For example, the moral maxim “It is
better to give than to receive” reflects a high level of moral development. The
individual who honestly asks why it is better to give than to receive does so because
that individual does not and cannot understand such thinking. To that person,
“better” means better for him. How can it be better for him to give than it is to get?



The person has questions and problems for which the solutions are less satisfying at
his present level. Since reasoning at one stage higher is intelligible and since it makes
more sense and resolves more difficulties, it becomes a more attractive option.
According to Kohlberg, an adult who consistently functions at level one moral
reasoning will end up in prison or dead.

Consider Rawls’ (1999) example of the two brothers and the last piece of cake. While
Rawls focuses upon justice, Kohlberg is interested in moral reasoning. Based upon
level one moral reasoning, the bigger, stronger brother will probably get the cake. But,
what if the little brother, thinking at level two, suggests they share the cake? This
solution is, for him, more attractive, namely, getting some cake is better than getting
none at all. At the same time, the little brother introduces cognitive dissonance into
his brother’s reasoning process, challenging him to examine the dilemma from a
higher level of moral reasoning.



The human being who is growing will look for more and more adequate ways to solve
problems. If this person has no problems or no dilemmas, it is not likely that this
person will look for solutions and, hence, will not grow morally. Again, in Rawls’
(1999) example, the big brother—who can just take the cake and get away with it—is
less likely to look for a better solution than the younger brother who will get none and
probably suffer a beating in the struggle.



If a child is spoiled and never has to accommodate for others’ needs, or if is raised in
an environment where level two thinking by others (for example, parents, teachers,
siblings, friends) predominates and gets the job done adequately enough, the child
may never generate enough questions to propel him to a higher level of moral


Examples include Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Operating from a
universal principles orientation, each promoted higher-order moral development not
only in others but also in their societies and cultures and, in particular, as each
advocated nonviolent resistance to immoral regimes. The universal principles for
which each died continue to stimulate moral development in those who study their

Applying Kohlberg's theory of moral development to leadership ethics...

Kohlberg’s theory explaining the moral development of human beings provides a

perspective to consider how organizations might develop into “ethical communities”
(Maclagan, 1998) as well as how leaders and their followers might build these

Adapting Kohlberg’s thought to daily life in organizations, the basic concept would be that
leaders would not focus exclusively upon the organization’s functioning from a structural
frame perspective (Bolman & Deal, 1997) or that of a machine bureaucracy (Morgan,
1997). That is, leaders would not be consumed by thinking about what must be done and
how to do it better within a functional bureaucracy. Instead, leaders would also—and
perhaps, more crucially—direct their focus upon how the members of the organization
might adopt a more self-critical, organizational learning perspective (DiBella & Nevis,
1998) albeit at one developmental stage superior to where members of the organization
currently make moral judgments.
This broader perspective would take into account not only the issues but also the value
conflicts evidencing themselves in organizational problems (McWhinney, Webber, Smith,
& Novokowsky, 1997). More importantly, this perspective would also take into account
how the members of the organization would envision their organization as an ethical
community and how they might contribute their human resources toward the more
substantive goal of building that ethical community.

Thus, the concept advocated by adapting Kohlberg’s theory of moral development to

organizational functioning is not an “either/or” proposition asserting that leaders forget
about organizational functioning and focus exclusively upon building an ethical
community. Rather, the concept being advocated by adapting Kohlberg’s theory to
organizational functioning is a “both/and” proposition where leaders would remain
focused upon organizational functioning while, at the same time, they would also direct
their attention to a larger, more substantive purpose, namely, building an ethical
community within their organization through its functioning.

Envisioning and building an ethical community…

Maclagan (1998) utilizes Kohlberg’s theory to formulate a five-step paradigm by which

leaders might envision their organizations as ethical communities as well as how they
might direct their efforts toward building these communities. The five steps of Maclagan’s
paradigm include: a) judgment; b) dialogue; c) ethical development; d) work as “service”;
and, e) responsibility.

For Maclagan, judgment is not simply making decisions. More to the point, judgment
requires leaders to make a reasoned choice—a “good,” “virtuous,” or “moral” choice, as
Aristotle (1958) would define it—given their particular organization and its idiosyncratic
circumstances, the particular people involved in and who will be impacted by a decision,
as well as how the decision might be implemented in the best way possible given all of
these variables (1998, p. 42).

This judgment—what could be called a “J1” judgment—requires leaders to apprehend the

organizational dysfunction evidencing itself and to gather factual data which substantiate
whether or not this indeed is the case. Armed with this apprehension and these data,
leaders can then conceptualize the situation and consider different perspectives about it.
A reasoned judgment, then, is a decision about how to proceed, given what theory
suggests and the skills possessed by the leaders (what Aristotle calls “practice”
[i.e., φονήσιs]). In these “practice episodes” (Sergiovanni, 1986) leaders decide upon a
course of action—that is, they make a J1 judgment—which initiates the unfolding of a
larger process whereby leaders begin constructing the foundation upon which they and
their followers will eventually build an ethical community.

The second step of Maclagan’s paradigm requires dialogue between leaders and their
followers. However, taking into account Kohlberg’s theory of moral development,
dialogue is not simply “talking” or even “expressing opinions.” Instead, dialogue exposes
the relevant issues manifesting themselves in the problems causing organizational
dysfunction from a variety of processes, approaches, or methodologies (1998, p. 47). The
exposition of these issues by leaders and their followers, in turn, illuminates the conflict of
values held by various members of the organization which are embedded within the issues
(McWhinney et al., 1997). Dialogue, then, provides a forum in which leaders and followers
can understand better the value-laden content of the dilemmas confronting them and
which is the root of the problems causing organizational dysfunction.
What actually transpires in this dialogue—and is crucially important to the process of
constructing an ethical community—is that leaders move their followers gingerly in the
direction of overcoming their “moral muteness” (Bird & Waters, 1989) so that all parties
might learn to make collective judgments about how they might proceed, given the
differences in and conflicts between the values exposed by this dialogue.

Thus, by fostering this particular type of dialogue, leaders are actually overcoming what
otherwise would lead to conflict as they broker and forge a more broadly-held consensus
about how people will move forward, aware that the consensus being brokered will
oftentimes be an imperfect consensus. But, at the same time, this imperfect consensus is
superior to achieving no consensus at all because it provides a foundation for building a
shared moral purpose (Barnard, 1938) and values among leaders and followers which, in
turn, solidifies this foundation and makes it possible to build an ethical community.
Absent a shared purpose and values, fissures will continue to expand and broaden the
gaps among leaders and their followers as well as among followers themselves.
Ultimately, the foundation will collapse and the people in the organization will resort to
tactics that resemble a “streetfight” more than an “arena” (Bolman & Deal, 1997, p. 326).

Maclagan also notes that dialogue makes it possible for leaders to demonstrate their
interest in and willingness to listen to and to appreciate the diversity of viewpoints present
within the organization. Sharing a purpose and values enables leaders and followers to
develop “ethical rationality” as people listen to and to appreciate a variety of processes,
approaches, or methodologies which not only assist in managing conflict but also in
overcoming the pressure to respond to other views by constructing counter-arguments
(1998, p. 47). In turn, followers can recognize that the leader possesses and is motivated
by a higher level of moral reasoning and, thus, followers are capable of reframing
“problems” as “issues” and examining the value conflicts embedded in these
organizational issues from a higher level of moral reasoning. This is the linchpin of
Kohlberg’s theory, as he argues that moral development can only occur as one person
challenges another to consider matters from a higher level of moral reasoning. To achieve
this outcome, then, there must first be a relationship between the leader and followers,
one characterized by trust, that enables the latter to be challenged by the former to
consider the issue from a superior level of moral reasoning.

Leaders who are not interested in listening to, do not listen to, or fail to appreciate the
diversity of viewpoints and, hence, to examine the value conflicts embedded in
organizational issues, demonstrate lower levels of moral reasoning than those followers
who are capable of considering alternative points of view. And, because of this, these
leaders are incapable of challenging the followers’ moral reasoning beyond that level.
Oftentimes, this becomes evident as leaders busy themselves constructing counter-
arguments in response to arguments asserted by their followers rather than listening to
the arguments being asserted and responding to them from a higher level of moral

Thus, dialogue enables leaders to initiate the third step in Maclagan’s paradigm, namely,
to promote ethical development within followers (1998, pp. 175-176). That is, dialogue
provides leaders multiple opportunities to raise for the consideration of all parties
involved in the ethical dilemmas—those fundamental value conflicts at the heart of
arguments—embedded in organizational dysfunction. In turn, dialogue assists followers
to be challenged by the reasonableness of a superior level of moral reasoning. In this
way, leaders encourage their followers’ development in the direction of a higher level of
moral decision making. As Kohlberg argued, social interaction and moral discourse not
only foster but also promote moral development.
As noted earlier, the fact should not be overlooked that followers may operate at a higher
level of moral reasoning than their leaders do.

In this scenario, followers must exercise discretion by inviting or, depending upon the
circumstances, challenging their leaders to consider the value conflicts embedded in
organizational issues—what the leaders believe are “problems” evidencing organizational
dysfunction—from the next higher level of moral reasoning. Balancing one’s insight into
the more substantive aspects of organizational dysfunction with one’s role in the
organizational hierarchy is not easy, however, and can be fraught with frustration.
Followers should remember, however, that in order for their leaders to be successful,
followers must not only “stand up to” but also “stand up for” their leaders (Chaleff, 1995).
The ability to engage leaders in this form of dialogue gives evidences that ethical
principles are not only being introduced into discussion about organizational issues but
also that, by overcoming moral muteness (Bird & Waters, 1989), leaders and their
followers are building an ethical community within the organization.

Judgment, dialogue, and ethical development solidify and broaden the consensus about a
shared purpose and values upon which leaders and their followers can make collective
judgments about how they will proceed individually and collectively. Rather than focusing
exclusively upon solving conflicts in the false belief that this is what makes organizational
problems disappear, the ethical consensus being forged—a judgment made not by leaders
or by their followers as individuals but by leaders and their followers as a collectivity
(what might be called a “J2” judgment)—represents the recognition on the part of leaders
and their followers that every member of the organization bears personal responsibility for
promoting the organization’s well-being.

As an ethical community, leaders and their followers identify a pathway to resolve not only
the value conflicts embedded in organizational problems but also to translate the
organization’s shared purpose into their own projects (McWhinney et al., 1997). In this
sense, then, the organization’s purpose and the shared values implied in it through this
ethical consensus now transcend partisan interests as leaders embark upon this pathway
with their followers as fellow travelers. Work in the organization, then, is viewed less as a
“job” and more so as “service” in support of a shared purpose. Envisioning “work as
service” rather than “compensation for services provided” is the fourth step of Maclagan’s
paradigm (1998, p. 157).

More importantly, however, the collective judgments forged at the fourth stage specify
the responsibility leaders and their followers now bear to promote good organizational
functioning (pp. 72-80). Objectively, responsibility results from a formal process of
dialogue within which leaders and followers collectively identify goals, tactics, and
projects need to be accomplished and, as such, the definitions are not governed by
legalisms and contracts but, instead, are shaped and given form through a process of
dialogue that involves others than those who are specifically responsible for
accomplishing all of these activities. At the same time, however, responsibility requires
individuals to exercise discretion about how they will complete the particular projects
assigned to them. Subjectively, then, responsibility involves an informal process of
reflection within which an individual specifies how to complete one’s projects, given one’s
understanding of how one will contribute to the larger organizational effort, that is, its

As an organization and its members learn to function more as an ethical community than a
functional bureaucracy, these formal and informal processes specify the “two sides” of
the coin of responsibility. Responsibility, then, is not an “either/or” proposition in an
ethical community, but rather a “both/and” proposition.
At this fifth stage of Maclagan’s paradigm, a covenant of shared values—evidenced in
trust and discretion in decision making authority rather than suspicion and
"snoopervisory" inspection of a subordinate's decisions—as well as collective
responsibility for the common good rather than contractual obligations characterize the
organizational decision-making process. This covenant provides evidence indicating that
leaders and their followers have come to understand themselves and their responsibilities
for the organization’s transcendent purpose as well as their roles of service within the

According to Kohlberg’s theory, responsibility for promoting the common good on the
part of leaders and followers gives evidence, in ethical communities, of the deeper trust
that leaders and followers have developed through dialogue and, moving forward, as they
define and carry out their projects as “service” in furthering a transcendent moral
purpose. In addition, responsibility gives evidence of the ethical development of leaders
and their followers as well as the formation of an organization which now functions more
capably as an ethical community than as a functional organization. Whereas Barnard
(1938) identifies this as the "moral factor" of executive leadership, it guides both leaders
and followers as they share and uphold a transcendent moral purpose in the
organizational decision-making process.

Leaders will oftentimes find themselves acting upon their antecedent core assumptions,
beliefs, and values in organizations where the culture requires leaders to justify decisions
which either support or dismiss partisan interests and demands asserted and justified
solely by lower-level moral reasoning (e.g., pre-conventional and conventional moral
reasoning). The snare leaders must avoid as situations like these arise—if leaders are to
direct their efforts toward constructing an organization which operates as an ethical
community—is becoming mute and acceding to the organization’s cultural norms which
inhibit the inculcation of responsibility through discourse. Instead, as McWhinney (1992)
argues, leaders must exhibit the virtue of courage and defend their position by challenging
followers to consider positions that have derived from higher-level moral reasoning (e.g.,
post-conventional moral reasoning).

As numerous philosophers, ethicists, and organizational theorists have asserted, the

virtue of courage is what makes it possible for leaders and their followers to consider and
to dialogue about the value conflicts embedded in organizational dilemmas from a higher-
level of moral reasoning. Then, gradually and as a consequence of the trust that builds up
through dialogue, leaders and followers will let go of those personal and organizational
“teddy bears” that have provided so much comfort and security (Winnicott, 1971) yet have
also served to inhibit both personal ethical development and the development of an
organization into an ethical community whose members all accept and bear responsibility
for the choices they make.

Some moral challenges for leaders...

In an ethical organization characterized by a post-conventional or principled decision-

making process, leaders and followers place a premium upon independent ethical thought
rather than conformity, what Srivasta and Cooperrider call a “chain of consent” (1986, p.
707). Leaders and followers exhibit this capacity as they examine the salient features of
the issues confronting the organization and, through careful deliberation, identify and
resolve the conflicts of values embedded in those issues. This ethical consensus honors
the responsibilities borne by each member of the organization as together they forge a
pathway to resolve the organizational issues confronting them.
At the same time, an ethical organization characterized by a post-conventional or
principled decision-making process presents leaders and followers several ethical

For leaders, the temptation to manipulate followers in order to impose one’s will upon
them presents perhaps the most serious temptation, one Machiavelli (1985) so astutely
noted in his book, The Prince. To deal adequately with this temptation, Maclagan
identifies three rules leaders be aware of.

First, leaders must be sufficiently mature enough to place their espoused values into
question and to engage in dialogue with followers. This is the behavior Argyris and Schön
(1974) have called “Model II” behavior. As Maclagan notes about this first rule, “managers
should seek to increase the awareness of possible manipulation by making explicit their
own values and encouraging reaction from employees” (1998, p. 83). Not only does
making one’s own values more explicit provide one’s followers the opportunity to offer
feedback about the congruence (or lack of congruence) between one’s espoused values
and actual values in practice episodes (Sergiovanni, 1986). In addition, the ability to make
explicit one’s values enables leaders to model the type of dialogue that they are
attempting to foster among the followers and throughout the organization.

Second, Maclagan notes that if leaders are to overcome the temptation to manipulate
others, the values held by followers should receive at least an equal of a hearing as those
espoused by leaders (p. 83). To this end, leaders might envision their organization more
as a “web of inclusion” (Helgesen, 1995) than as a structurally configured hierarchy
(Mintzberg, 1979). Through this airing of differences leaders give their followers tangible
evidence of a willingness to listen and to respond to a diversity of viewpoints. And, as
already noted, this dialogue enables leaders to challenge their followers to examine these
differences from higher levels of moral reasoning (and vice-versa) as well as to forge a
more broadly held consensus. This consensus—which, however, may not be a perfect
consensus—is grounded in ethical principles not extrinsic coercion (for example, rewards
and punishments) or intrinsic organizational norms (for example, conformity).

Third, to overcome the temptation to manipulate followers, leaders must complicate their
followers’ understanding by engaging them in developing alternative scenarios based
upon their values (Maclagan, 1998, p. 83). While each scenario possesses its idiosyncratic
strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and discussing these makes it possible
for leaders and their followers to consider a panoply of alternatives that might not
otherwise be considered, Maclagan notes that encouraging the followers’ freedom of
choice also makes it possible for leaders to overcome the temptation to manipulate their
followers. How? As leaders and followers consider the full range of options or policies
that should be brought forward and explored and, then, engage in dialogue about each,
leaders allow a collective “chain of consent” to emerge rather than re-assert a hierarchical
“chain of command” (Srivasta & Cooperrider, 1986, p. 707).

Conflict will always be present in organizations if only because leaders and their followers
possess a diversity of interests and needed resources are oftentimes scarce (Bolman &
Deal, 1997, p. 163). In addition, genuine concern for these interests may require
subordinating functional requirements to personal and/or collective needs. However, in
transforming an organization into an ethical community, leaders need to manage these
differences in a way that encourages every member of the organization to bear personal
responsibility for the collective judgments made as well as to ensure the good functioning
of the organization. It may well be that leaders must do this by attending to the presence
of bias and prejudice in the decision-making process. However, by doing so, leaders are
seeking to ensure that these forces do not become institutionalized in the organization’s
culture, procedures, or practices.
Kohlberg's stages of moral development
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Kohlberg's stages of moral development constitute an adaptation of a
psychological theory originally conceived of by the Swiss psychologist Jean
Piaget. Lawrence Kohlberg began work on this topic while a psychology
postgraduate student at the University of Chicago,[1] and expanded and
developed this theory throughout the course of his life.

The theory holds that moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behavior, has six
identifiable developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral
dilemmas than its predecessor.[2] Kohlberg followed the development of moral
judgment far beyond the ages studied earlier by Piaget,[3] who also claimed that
logic and morality develop through constructive stages.[2] Expanding on Piaget's
work, Kohlberg determined that the process of moral development was
principally concerned with justice, and that it continued throughout the individual's
lifetime,[4] a notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of
such research.[5][6]

Kohlberg relied for his studies on stories such as the Heinz dilemma, and was
interested in how individuals would justify their actions if placed in similar moral
dilemmas. He then analyzed the form of moral reasoning displayed, rather than
its conclusion,[6] and classified it as belonging to one of six distinct stages.[7][8][9]

There have been critiques of the theory from several perspectives. Arguments
include that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other moral values, such as
caring;[10] that there is such an overlap between stages that they should more
properly be regarded as separate domains; or that evaluations of the reasons for
moral choices are mostly post hoc rationalizations (by both decision makers and
psychologists studying them) of essentially intuitive decisions.

Nevertheless, an entirely new field within psychology was created as a direct

result of Kohlberg's theory, and according to Haggbloom et al.'s study of the most
eminent psychologists of the 20th century, Kohlberg was the 16th most
frequently cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks throughout the
century, as well as the 30th most eminent overall.[11]

Kohlberg's scale is about how people justify behaviors and his stages are not a
method of ranking how moral someone behaves: there should however be a
correlation between how someone scores on the scale and how they behave and
the general hypothesis is that moral behaviour is more responsible, consistent
and predictable from people at higher levels.
Kohlberg's six stages can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-
conventional, conventional and post-conventional.[7][8][9] Following Piaget's constructivist
requirements for a stage model, as described in his theory of cognitive development, it is
extremely rare to regress backward in stages—to lose the use of higher stage abilities.[13]
Stages cannot be skipped; each provides a new and necessary perspective, more
comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them.[13][14]

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

(How can I avoid punishment?)

2. Self-interest orientation

(What's in it for me?)

Level 2 (Conventional)

3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)

4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

(Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation

6. Universal ethical principles

(Principled conscience)
The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is especially common in children, although adults
can also exhibit this level of reasoning. Reasoners at this level judge the morality of an action
by its direct consequences. The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stages
of moral development, and is solely concerned with the self in an egocentric manner. A child
with preconventional morality has not yet adopted or internalized society's conventions
regarding what is right or wrong, but instead focuses largely on external consequences that
certain actions may bring.[7][8][9]

In Stage one (obedience and punishment driven), individuals focus on the direct consequences
of their actions on themselves. For example, an action is perceived as morally wrong because
the perpetrator is punished. "The last time I did that I got spanked so I will not do it again." The
worse the punishment for the act is, the more "bad" the act is perceived to be.[15] This can give
rise to an inference that even innocent victims are guilty in proportion to their suffering. It is
"egocentric", lacking recognition that others' points of view are different from one's own.
There is "deference to superior power or prestige".[16]

Stage two (self-interest driven) espouses the "what's in it for me" position, in which right
behavior is defined by whatever is in the individual's best interest. Stage two reasoning shows a
limited interest in the needs of others, but only to a point where it might further the individual's
own interests. As a result, concern for others is not based on loyalty or intrinsic respect, but
rather a "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" mentality.[2] The lack of a societal
perspective in the pre-conventional level is quite different from the social contract (stage five),
as all actions have the purpose of serving the individual's own needs or interests. For the stage
two theorist, the world's perspective is often seen asmorally relative.


The conventional level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. Those who
reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing them to society's
views and expectations. The conventional level consists of the third and fourth stages of moral
development. Conventional morality is characterized by an acceptance of society's conventions
concerning right and wrong. At this level an individual obeys rules and follows society's norms
even when there are no consequences for obedience or disobedience. Adherence to rules and
conventions is somewhat rigid, however, and a rule's appropriateness or fairness is seldom

In Stage three (interpersonal accord and conformity driven), the self enters society by
filling social roles. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as it reflects
society's accordance with the perceived role. They try to be a "good boy" or "good girl" to live
up to these expectations,[2] having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three
reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a
person's relationships, which now begin to include things like respect, gratitude and the "golden
rule". "I want to be liked and thought well of; apparently, not being naughty makes people like
me." Desire to maintain rules and authority exists only to further support these social roles. The
intentions of actions play a more significant role in reasoning at this stage; "they mean well ...".

In Stage four (authority and social order obedience driven), it is important to obey
laws, dictums and social conventions because of their importance in maintaining a functioning
society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for individual approval exhibited
in stage three; society must learn to transcend individual needs. A central ideal or ideals often
prescribe what is right and wrong, such as in the case of fundamentalism. If one person violates
a law, perhaps everyone would—thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and
rules. When someone does violate a law, it is morally wrong; culpability is thus a significant
factor in this stage as it separates the bad domains from the good ones. Most active members
of society remain at stage four, where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside


The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, consists of stages five and six
of moral development. There is a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from
society, and that the individual’s own perspective may take precedence over society’s view;
they may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles. These people live by their own
abstract principles about right and wrong—principles that typically include such basic human
rights as life, liberty, and justice. Because of this level’s “nature of self before others”, the
behavior of post-conventional individuals, especially those at stage six, can be confused with
that of those at the pre-conventional level.

People who exhibit postconventional morality view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms
—ideally rules can maintain the general social order and protect human rights. Rules are not
absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question. Contemporary theorists often
speculate that many people may never reach this level of abstract moral reasoning.[7][8][9]

In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights
and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or
community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not
promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet “the greatest good for
the greatest number of people”.[8] This is achieved through majority decision, and
inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract
reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in
justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Rights
are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deontic moral action. Decisions are
not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in
the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[17] This involves an individual imagining what they would do in
another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.[18] The resulting
consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself;
the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or
previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to
identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.[14]

[edit]Further stages
In Kohlberg's empirical studies of individuals throughout their life Kohlberg observed that some
had apparently undergone moral stage regression. This could be resolved either by allowing for
moral regression or by extending the theory. Kohlberg chose the latter, postulating the
existence of sub-stages in which the emerging stage has not yet been fully integrated into the
personality.[8] In particular Kohlberg noted a stage 4½ or 4+, a transition from stage four to
stage five, that shared characteristics of both.[8] In this stage the individual is disaffected with
the arbitrary nature of law and order reasoning; culpability is frequently turned from being
defined by society to viewing society itself as culpable. This stage is often mistaken for the
moral relativism of stage two, as the individual views those interests of society that conflict with
their own as being relatively and morally wrong.[8] Kohlberg noted that this was often observed
in students entering college.[8][14]

Kohlberg suggested that there may be a seventh stage—Transcendental Morality, or Morality of

Cosmic Orientation—which linked religion with moral reasoning.[19] Kohlberg's difficulties in
obtaining empirical evidence for even a sixth stage,[14] however, led him to emphasize the
speculative nature of his seventh stage.[5]

[edit]Theoretical assumptions (philosophy)

The picture of human nature Kohlberg begins with is that humans are inherently communicative
and capable of reason. They also possess a desire to understand others and the world around
them. The stages of Kohlberg's model relate to the qualitative moral reasonings adopted by
individuals, and so do not translate directly into praise or blame of any individual's actions or
character. Arguing that his theory measures moral reasoning and not particular moral
conclusions, Kohlberg insists that the form and structure of moral arguments is independent of
thecontent of those arguments, a position he calls "formalism".[6][7]

Kohlberg's theory centers on the notion that justice is the essential characteristic of moral
reasoning. Justice itself relies heavily upon the notion of sound reasoning based on principles.
Despite being a justice-centered theory of morality, Kohlberg considered it to be compatible
with plausible formulations of deontology[17] and eudaimonia.

Kohlberg's theory understands values as a critical component of the right. Whatever the right is,
for Kohlberg, it must be universally valid across societies (a position known as "moral
universalism"):[7] there can be no relativism. Moreover, morals are not natural features of the
world; they are prescriptive. Nevertheless, moral judgments can be evaluated in logical terms of
truth and falsity.

According to Kohlberg: someone progressing to a higher stage of moral reasoning cannot skip
stages. For example, an individual cannot jump from being concerned mostly with peer
judgments (stage three) to being a proponent of social contracts (stage five).[14] On
encountering a moral dilemma and finding their current level of moral reasoning unsatisfactory,
however, an individual will look to the next level. Realizing the limitations of the current stage of
thinking is the driving force behind moral development, as each progressive stage is more
adequate than the last.[14] The process is therefore considered to be constructive, as it is
initiated by the conscious construction of the individual, and is not in any meaningful sense a
component of the individual's innate dispositions, or a result of past inductions.

[edit]Formal elements

Progress through Kohlberg's stages happens as a result of the individual's increasing

competence, both psychologically and in balancing conflicting social-value claims. The process
of resolving conflicting claims to reach an equilibrium is called "justice operation". Kohlberg
identifies two of these justice operations: "equality," which involves an impartial regard for
persons, and "reciprocity," which means a regard for the role of personal merit. For Kohlberg,
the most adequate result of both operations is "reversibility," in which a moral or dutiful act
within a particular situation is evaluated in terms of whether or not the act would be satisfactory
even if particular persons were to switch roles within that situation (also known colloquially as
"moral musical chairs").[6]

Knowledge and learning contribute to moral development. Specifically important are the
individual's "view of persons" and their "social perspective level", each of which becomes more
complex and mature with each advancing stage. The "view of persons" can be understood as
the individual's grasp of the psychology of other persons; it may be pictured as a spectrum, with
stage one having no view of other persons at all, and stage six being entirely sociocentric.
Similarly, the social perspective level involves the understanding of the social universe,
differing from the view of persons in that it involves an appreciation of social norms.

[edit]Examples of applied moral dilemmas

Kohlberg established the Moral Judgement Interview in his original 1958 dissertation.[4] During
the roughly 45-minute tape recorded semi-structured interview, the interviewer uses moral
dilemmas to determine which stage of moral reasoning a person uses. The dilemmas are
fictional short stories that describe situations in which a person has to make a moral decision.
The participant is asked a systemic series ofopen-ended questions, like what they think the
right course of action is, as well as justifications as to why certain actions are right or wrong.
The form and structure of these replies are scored and not the content; over a set of multiple
moral dilemmas an overall score is derived.[4][9]

[edit]Heinz dilemma
A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma: Heinz Steals
the Drug In Europe.[5]

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought

might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The

drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce.

He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband,

Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000,

which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or

let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it."
So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have

broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?[5]

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz
should do. Kohlberg's theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is
significant, the form of their response.[7] Below are some of many examples of possible
arguments that belong to the six stages:[5][15]

Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would consequently
be put in prison, which would mean he is a bad person. Or: Heinz should steal the medicine
because it is only worth $200, not how much the druggist wanted for it. Heinz had even offered
to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.

Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he
saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Heinz should not steal the
medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would probably experience anguish over a
jail cell more than his wife's death.

Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants
to be a good husband. Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is
not a criminal; he tried to do everything he could without breaking the law, you cannot blame

Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits
stealing, making it illegal. Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the
prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals
cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.

Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to
choose life, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist
has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.

Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human
life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should
not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are
equally significant.


One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes justice to the exclusion of other values,
and so may not adequately address the arguments of those who value other moral aspects of
actions. Carol Gilligan has argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly androcentric.[10]Kohlberg's
theory was initially developed based on empirical research using only male participants;
Gilligan argued that it did not adequately describe the concerns of women. Although research
has generally found no significant pattern of differences in moral development between sexes,
Gilligan's theory of moral development does not focus on the value of justice. She
developed an alternative theory of moral reasoning based on the ethics of caring.[10] Critics such
as Christina Hoff Sommers, however, argued that Gilligan's research is ill-founded, and that no
evidence exists to support her conclusion.[20]

Kohlberg's stages are not culturally neutral, as demonstrated by its application to a number of
different cultures.[1] Although they progress through the stages in the same order, individuals in
different cultures seem to do so at different rates.[21] Kohlberg has responded by saying that
although different cultures do indeed inculcate different beliefs, his stages correspond to
underlying modes of reasoning, rather than to those beliefs.[1][22]

Other psychologists have questioned the assumption that moral action is primarily a result
of formal reasoning. Social intuitionists such asJonathan Haidt, for example, argue that
individuals often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness,
law, human rights, or abstract ethical values. Thus the arguments analyzed by Kohlberg and
other rationalist psychologists could be considered post hocrationalizations of intuitive
decisions; moral reasoning may be less relevant to moral action than Kohlberg's theory

[edit]Continued relevance
Kohlberg's body of work on the stages of moral development has been utilized by others
working in the field. One example is the Defining Issues Test (DIT) created in 1979 by James
Rest,[24] originally as a pencil-and-paper alternative to the Moral Judgement Interview.[25] Heavily
influenced by the six-stage model, it made efforts to improve the validity criteria by using
a quantitative test, the Likert scale, to rate moral dilemmas similar to Kohlberg's.[26] It also used
a large body of Kohlbergian theory such as the idea of "post-conventional thinking".[27][28] In
1999 the DIT was revised as the DIT-2;[25] the test continues to be used in many areas where
moral testing is required,[29] such as divinity, politics, and medicine.[30][31][32]