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MNGT 4602 Leadership: Courage and Moral Leadership

Leadership Research Guide

Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development constitute an adaptation of a psychological theory originally conceived of by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Kohlberg began work on this topic while a psychology postgraduate student at the University of Chicago in 1985, and expanded and developed this theory throughout 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. Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment far beyond the ages studied earlier by Piaget, who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages. 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, a notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of such research.

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, and classified it as belonging to one of six distinct stages.

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; 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 (2002) 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.

Kohlberg's scale is about how people justify behaviors and his stages are not a method of ranking how moral someone's behavior is. There should however be a correlation between how someone scores on the scale and how they behave, and the general hypothesis is that moral behavior is more responsible, consistent and predictable from people at higher levels.

Three Levels and Six Stages

Kohlberg's six stages (Figure 5.1) can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Following Piaget's constructivist requirements for a stage model, as described in his theory of cognitive development, it is extremely rare to regress in stages-to lose the use of higher stage abilities. Stages cannot be skipped; each provides a new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them.

Figure 5.1 Levels and Stages of Moral Development

Level 1 Pre-Conventional

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

     (How can I avoid punishment?)

2. Self-interest orientation

    (What's in it for me?)

    (Paying for a benefit)

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)

Pre-Conventional Level

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 pre-conventional 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.

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. 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."

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. 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 theorists, the world's perspective is often seen as morally relative.

Conventional Level

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 questioned.

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, 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 force.

Post-Conventional Level

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 post-conventional 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.

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.” 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. Legal 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. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true. 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.

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. In particular Kohlberg noted a stage 4½ or 4+, a transition from stage four to stage five, which shared characteristics of both. 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. Kohlberg noted that this was often observed in students entering college.

Kohlberg suggested that there may be a seventh stage-Transcendental Morality, or Morality of Cosmic Orientation-which linked religion with moral reasoning. Kohlberg's difficulties in obtaining empirical evidence for even a sixth stage, however, led him to emphasize the speculative nature of his seventh stage.

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 the content of those arguments, a position he calls "formalism" (Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.2 Formal Elements


Views of Persons

Social Perspective Level


Sees how human fallibility and frailty are impacted by communication

Mutual respect as a universal principle


Recognize that contracts will allow persons to increase welfare of both

Contractual perspective


Able to see abstract normative systems

Social systems perspective


Recognize good and bad intentions

Social relationships perspective


Sees that a) others have goals and preferences; b) either to conform or to deviate from norms

Instrumental egoism


No VOP: only self and norm are recognized

Blind egoism

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 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"); 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). 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. 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.

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").

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 socio-centric. 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.

Examples of Applied Moral Dilemmas

Kohlberg established the Moral Judgement Interview in his original 1958 dissertation. 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 of open-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.

Heinz Dilemma

A dilemma that Kohlberg used in his original research was the druggist's dilemma: Heinz Steals the Drug in Europe. 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. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

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 him.

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.

Criticisms of the Theory of Moral Development

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. In addition, Kohlberg's theory was initially developed based on empirical research using only male participants. Carol Gilligan, a former student of Kohlberg, argued that Kohlberg's theory is overly androcentric and did not adequately describe the concerns of women although research has generally found no significant pattern of differences in moral development between sexes.

Next, Kohlberg's stages are not culturally neutral, as demonstrated by its application to a number of different cultures. Although they progress through the stages in the same order, individuals in different cultures seem to do so at different rates. 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.

Lastly, other psychologists have questioned the assumption that moral action is primarily a result of formal reasoning. Social intuitionists such as Jonathan 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 hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions; moral reasoning may be less relevant to moral action than Kohlberg's theory suggests.

Educational Implications

Moral and Character Development in Education (Huitt, 2004)

In assisting students with moral and character development, it is acknowledged that morals and character traits/attributes come into play within a rapidly changing context. Teachers cannot teach students all the specific knowledge, values, or behaviors that will lead to success in all aspects of their lives. Teachers must, therefore, acknowledge that some values are relative and teach students to develop their own views accordingly. At the same time, teachers must acknowledge that there are some absolutes with respect to morality and character that are accepted as commonalties among members of specific communities, major world religions, and moral philosophers. Teachers have an obligation to teach or support these morals and character development in the classroom, in the family, in religious organizations, and communities at large.

Moral and character development is integral to the development of self (Ashton & Huitt, 1980), and is as much the responsibility of early caregivers as it is of later educators. Nucci (1989) showed that "children's moral understandings were independent of specific religious concepts" and that both secular and religious children focus "on the same set of fundamental interpersonal issues: those pertaining to justice and compassion" (p. 195). In sum, parents, educators, affiliates of religious organizations, and community members have an obligation to provide young people with training appropriate to their age level that would assist them in holding to the absolutes that are common across philosophies and beliefs of the major religious traditions, while at the same time helping them develop and defend own acquired values.

Wynne (1989) reports that the quality of relationships among faculty (and between the faculty and adults in authority) is a major factor in the development of student character. An atmosphere of adult harmony is vitally important. According to Wynne, schools effectively assisting pupil character development are:

  1. directed by adults who exercise their authority toward faculty and students in a firm, sensitive, and imaginative manner, and who are committed to both academics and pupil character development;
  2. staffed by dedicated faculty who make vigorous demands on pupils and each other;
  3. structured so that pupils are surrounded by a variety of opportunities for them to practice helping (prosocial) conduct;
  4. managed to provide pupils-both individually and collectively-with many forms of recognition for good conduct;
  5. oriented toward maintaining systems of symbols, slogans, ceremonies, and songs that heighten pupils' collective identities;
  6. dedicated to maintaining pupil discipline, via clear, widely disseminated discipline codes that are vigorously enforced and backed up with vital consequences;
  7. committed to academic instruction and assigned pupils significant homework and otherwise stressed appropriate academic rigor;
  8. sensitive to the need to develop collective pupil loyalties to particular classes, clubs, athletic groups, and other sub-entities in the school;
  9. sympathetic to the values of the external adult society, and perceive it as largely supportive and concerned with the problems of the young;
  10. always able to use more money to improve their programs, but rarely regard lack of money as an excuse for serious program deficiencies;
  11. open to enlisting the help, counsel, and support of parents and other external adults, but willing to propose important constructive changes in the face of (sometimes) ill-informed parent resistance;
  12. disposed to define "good character" in relatively immediate and traditional terms.

In teaching moral and characters, it was not a failure of the economic or material aspect of society, in many cases, but rather a failure of the human, social, political, or spiritual aspects. The educational system must prepare individuals to progress in each of these arenas of life. Therefore, character development must be seen as an organic process in the development of the material/physical, human/psychological, and spiritual/transcendental aspects of human being.

The need for moral and character development in education led to the character education movement in the US. By the early 2000s, character education had become the fastest growing school reform movement (Kline, 2017). According to the US Department of Education (n.d.) website, character education is defined as a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others. Thus a set of morally desirable traits exists and these traits should be purposefully taught in schools (Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2004; McClellan, 1999; Prestwich, 2004). Huitt (2004) identified a list of moral and character attributes/traits as the focus for K-12 schools (Figure 5.3) based on data results collected in south GA. Those attributes/traits can be integrated into the curriculum to assist young people strive for excellence in both character and competencies. Lesson Plan examples from Figure 5.4 to Figure 5.8) are just a few.

Figure 5.3 Attributes/Character Traits for Moral and Character Development 

Ability to See Another's Perspective

Ability to Work in Teams













Dependable & Reliable


  Disciplined Mind





   Freedom from Prejudice




   High Self-Esteem







   Love of Learning








Positive, Encouraging Attitude



   Prompt & Punctual

   Respect & Accept Authority

    Respect for Physical Health

   Respect for Self & Own Rights

   Respect for the Creator

   Respect for the Natural Environment

   Respect the Rights of Others




   Searches for Meaning



   Strives for Excellence





   Valuing Family

The Lesson Plan is a great place for teachers to start teaching and supporting moral and character development in the classroom. Below are several examples of teaching and supporting moral and character development in a variety of subject areas across various grade levels:

Figure 5.4 Teaching Trait Honesty in Language Arts

Grade Level: First Grade       Content Area: Language Arts
Learning Objective(s) Predict outcomes, oral speaking, following 2-3 step directions.
Moral/Character Trait(s) Honesty
Lesson Title                                         Too Many Tamales
Lesson Summary                                   After reading the story Too Many Tamales about a girl who loses her mother’s ring, discuss how Maria solved the problem. Discuss other implications of the story. Divide the class into five groups. Allow the groups to choose from five questions related to honesty. After 10 minutes of planning together, each group acts out the honest way to handle the situation they were given.

Figure 5.5 Teaching Trait Integrity in Social Studies/Health

Grade Level: 7-12

Content Area: Social Studies/Health
Learning Objective(s) Define integrity and relate what is has to do with your character.
Moral/Character Trait(s) Integrity
Lesson Title Are You a Person of Integrity?
Lesson Summary Discussion questions about integrity for use either with or without a video.

Figure 5.6 Teaching Traits Cooperation and Determination in Science/Health

Grade Level: 5-12                                                           Content Area: Science/Health
Learning Objective(s) Students will be better able to solve problems in a group team experience, strengthen group cohesion through team building and communication, and reinforce individual communication skills.
Moral/Character Trait(s) Cooperation; Determination
Lesson Title                               Group Rope Squares
Lesson Summary This activity reinforces group cohesion and communication skills as well as problem solving and cooperation. Groups are formed and students have to work together to make a square out of coiled rope.

Figure 5.7 Teaching Traits Self-Discipline and Responsibility in Music

Grade Level: 7-8 Content Area: Music
Learning Objective(s)   National Music Standards Learning Objectives:  Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.
Moral/Character Trait(s) Self-discipline; Responsibility
Lesson Title                                    Choral Concert
Lesson Summary Students perform song using correct posture, singing voice, and rhythm. Students perform accompaniment on non-pitched percussion instruments with appropriate technique and rhythm. Students discuss social and cultural context of the song lyrics.

Figure 5.8 Teaching Traits Respect for Self and Respect for Others in Reading/Language Arts, Health, and Mathematics

Grade Level: 6 Content Area: Reading/Language Arts, Health, Mathematics
Learning Objective(s)

Reading/Language Arts

  • gather information from reference works: books... periodicals... dictionaries... thesauruses... encyclopedia... atlases and almanacs
  • present information through reports... demonstrations and projects


  • explain the personal responsibility of individuals and community members for maintaining public safety


  • collect data
  • display data using tables and graphs
  • read... analyze and interpret tables and graphs
Moral/Character Trait(s) Respect for Self, Respect for Others
Lesson Title                                              Smoke 'Em Out
Lesson Summary

Students develop and use a questionnaire to survey others on their awareness of the danger of second hand smoke, then graph the data collected, relate their findings to at least two character qualities/traits and present to the class.

Moral Development and Classroom Management (Nucci, 2009)

Schools and classrooms contribute to students’ moral development through the nature of the overall social and emotional climate. This includes the way in which teachers and schools address behavioral issues through classroom management and discipline. Paying attention to the emotional climate of classrooms is important because children incorporate emotional experiences within their social cognitive schemes.

Variations in the emotional experiences of children can affect their moral orientations. The development of morality in children is supported by experiences of emotional warmth and fairness. Children who grow up in such environments tend to construct a view of the world based on goodwill. A child who maintains an orientation of goodwill feels emotionally secure and expects the world to operate according to basic moral standards of fairness. Children who maintain this orientation are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior. A moral classroom climate is one that fosters this tendency toward goodwill. The elements of a moral classroom climate address the following four needs: autonomy, belonging, competence, and fairness.

In early childhood it is especially important to construct a classroom climate characterized by positive emotion. In middle childhood students are less dependent on adults. However, they become more susceptible to social comparison and peer exclusion. A positive moral climate reduces competition and increases opportunities for peer collaborative learning and social problem solving. In adolescence the challenge is to offset the negative impact of student cliques and tendencies toward alienation. Large high schools pose special challenges for the creation of moral community. The Just Community School and the Small Schools movement are efforts to address this challenge through “schools within schools.

A positive moral atmosphere is complemented by behavioral management in the form of developmental discipline. In addition to the goals of control and efficiency common to all approaches to behavioral management, developmental discipline includes the additional goal of fostering students’ social and moral competence. Developmental discipline engages students’ intrinsic motivation to do what is right for their own reasons. Developmental discipline deemphasizes the use of external rewards and punishments to shape behavior. Conflicts and misbehavior are addressed primarily through social problem solving. Teacher discourse provides suggestions and scaffolding to support students’ efforts to resolve disputes and arrive at fair solutions.

Teacher feedback in support of positive behavior avoids the use of external rewards such as gold stars or certificates of recognition for good conduct or character because such external rewards reduce intrinsic moral motivation. Moral action and compliance with school conventions is aided by teachers’ judicious use of positive feedback in the form of validations that use moderate language referring to specific behavior and not the characteristics of the student. Responses to misbehavior should minimize the use of consequences when alternative problem-solving methods are available. When consequences are to be employed they should be “light” and in the form of logical consequences that are connected in a meaningful way to the nature of the transgression.

Moral Development and Cheating in the Classroom

Cheating is a violation of social norms (Kline, 2017). Williams (2012) categorized cheating into five dimensions: total cheating, serious cheating, social cheating, plagiarism, and student identified serious cheating. Academic Dishonesty (n.d.) breaks cheating into two dimensions: individual characteristics, such as gender and GPA, and institutional environment. To cheat or not, on the surface, it would seem that a student’s level of moral development would be the central factor for deciding whether or not to cheat (Kline, 2017). According to Thoma and Dong (2014) moral reasoning generally increases as the level of education increases. According to Kohlberg’s theory, higher stages of moral development would result in clearer moral thinking and thus produce better moral actions and behaviors.

However, in the case of cheating in the classroom, it is found that moral behavior is situation specific regardless of moral development levels or stages (Harthshorne & May, 1928-1930; Kline, 2017; Leming, 2008) Honesty or dishonesty in one situation does not predict the behavior of a child in another situation; no significant difference was found on cheating between students who used religious or moral focused programs and those who did not (Clouse, 2001; Harthshorne & May, 1930; Leming, 1993). Research has shown low levels of significance for factors such as level of education, GPA, a little or no significance for grade level, and cheating is equally prevalent across academic levels and demographic variables such as ethnicity or gender, but it does decrease with age at the college level (Geddes, 2011; Kline, 2017; McCabe & Trevino, 1993; Williams, 2012).

Cheating has always been a concern for educators and it is more prevalent than ever despite all of the focus and efforts on moral education (Kline, 2017; Schab, 1991). A general decrease in aversion toward dishonesty and an increase in the willingness to engage in dishonest behavior over a 30-year period was reported by Schab (1991). There is a disconnect between perceptions of cheating and cheating behaviors (Honz, Kiewra, & Yang, 2010; Williams, 2012). Giving answers or homework to another student is viewed more lightly than receiving or stealing answers or homework from another student; cheating within the classroom was viewed as a greater offense than cheating outside the classroom (Honz, Kiewra, & Yang, 2010). A significant relationship between cheating incidences and perceptions of cheating was also found that the less serious the cheating was perceived to be, the greater the number of cheating incidences was, meaning that the more seriously the behavior was perceived, the less frequently it occurred (Kline, 2017; Williams 2012). Remarkably, there was no large discrepancy in cheating perceptions across grade level and academic level (Kline, 2017).

What does this all mean for teachers? In responding to cheating, preventive measures are among the first strategies in the classroom (Santrock, 2018). It is the teachers’ responsibility to help students understand the purpose of learning and goals of education. Teachers should foster intrinsic motivation for learning in the classroom. Learning is not to get a high grade. To improve students’ self-efficacy for tests, teachers can help students understand the learning materials, and provide help for students. Study guides and additional assistance can help better prepare students not to cheat. Woolfolk (2015) also suggested the use of a variety of assessment measures in testing students’ learning, in order to reduce testing pressure and cheating and to promote intrinsic learning, such as the use of group project, research project, open-book exam, and take-home test, to name a few. Teachers can emphasize the importance of moral behavior and character integrity in the classroom. To help shape students’ perceptions on cheating, parents, peers, and others can also help influence students as to what behavior is acceptable and what is not in terms of cheating (Thoma & Dong, 2014). It is important to teach students to be responsible, disciplined, moral individuals (Sandtrock, 2018).

In addition to clarifying goals and purpose of education for intrinsic motivation for learning, providing assistance for testing preparation, instilling character traits, and shaping perceptions on cheating, and the use of a variety of forms of testing learning as mentioned above, it is necessary to help students form proper expectations of testing and cheating culture. Rules of testing and consequences of cheating must to be clearly announced to students in the classroom. Students’ questions related to testing procedures need to be addressed before testing. During testing, teachers need to closely monitor students’ progress so that no opportunities are created for students to cheat. Cheating incidences should be handled immediately to stop continuous violations. To reduce cheating incidences, testing pressure, and cheating temptations during testing, teachers can help create a low-pressure testing atmosphere, for examples, classical music may be used as background music. Cheating should be dealt promptly, properly, and consistently according to the established rules and policies to reduce and stop cheating offences. This again helps create a culture of not cheating, form an intrinsically motivated learning atmosphere, and shape students’ perceptions of what is acceptable and what is not in terms of cheating behaviors.  


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Moral Theories

DeontologyAn act is judged to be right based upon the subjective intentions of the agent committing the act, independently of the prospective consequences of the act.  The intentions are often motivated by some perceived universal moral standard.

Differential Association: The process of acquiring ethical or unethical behavior patterns due to the interaction with close co-workers, including peers, subordinates, and superiors.  Persons wuold be much less likely to transgress company policy if they had not observed such behavior in co-workers.

Relativism:  All moral standards are relative to person, place, time and/or culture.  There is no objective, immutable, universal moral standard.

Teleology:  An act is judged to be right based upon its propensity to produce certain kinds of consequences.  These consequences are often judged, predicted, or estimated using empirically gathered evidence.

Virtue Ethics: The view that the primary and fundamental moral foundation is to be found in a person's character.  Rather than rules of conduct to which an individual must adhere, an individual's personality is cultivated so that by nature and habit they will have a predisposition to behave in a morally righteous way.

Kohlberg's Six Stages of Cognitive Moral Development

Chart of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Level One:
Pre-conventional Morality

Stage 1: Primitivism

Individual views right conduct as a means of avoiding negative consequences or punishment.

Stage 2: Reciprocity

Right behavior is determined by a mutually beneficial arrangement where each party’s self-interests are satisfied.

Level Two:
Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Empathy

Identification of the needs and interests of others.

Stage 4: Social Conscience

Empathy is expanded to include not just specific individuals, but society as a whole. 

Level Three:
Post-Conventional Morality

Stage 5: Social Contract

Rights, values and legal contracts to society are recognized as worthy of respect and preservation.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle

Recognition of universal unalienable rights and ethical principles held to be true regardless of any society or legislative policy.

Leadership and Ethical Decision Making