Lawrence Kohlberg identified six stages in moral development divided into three levels or phases:
Stage 1 — The Punishment and Obedience Orientation
Stage 2 — The Instrumental Relativist Orientation
Stage 3 — The “Good Boy - Nice Girl” Orientation
Stage 4 — The Law and Order Orientation
Stage 5 — The Social-Contract Legalistic Orientation
Stage 6 — The Universal Ethical Principle Orientation
As the name of the phase connotes, people do not have yet the discipline or habit to conform or adapt to conventions. They are at a learning phase. Right and wrong are associated with punishment and reward. For instance, at stage one, young children at home learn right and wrong by associating these concepts with pain and gratification which can be conditioned by proper actions of the parents. Touching fire hurts so it is wrong. The same learning process can be observed in grade school and in the military. At stage two, the person applies the principles learned at stage or from innate capabilities. A child would not hurt another because he knows it is bad from his own experience.
At this phase of moral development, people observe order in family or society by abiding to rules and regulations and conforming to conventions. The rules may not necessarily be written and are followed as tradition or from role models. For instance, at stage three, family members behave in specific ways as good and bad depending on what the family and its extension have observed as good or bad. In the same manner but perhaps in a warped sense, teenagers are accepted into peer groups if they conform to what the groups have defined as good and bad. At stage four, because people move into a more heterogeneous environment like a school, office or even society in general, laws are written to maintain order. People conform to wider forms of social conventions.
Beyond merely abiding by the rules and conforming, people at the postconventional level make deliberate efforts to do good or become good persons. They take actions beyond what is merely expected from conformity. At stage five, volunteerism is a form of action that people may take. They sometimes even risk their lives to help other people. They do not need to do that. It was the right thing to do in the context of the greater society. It is a recognition that people have social obligations to fulfill. At stage six, people practically agree completely on truths, on what is right and wrong, and on what is good and evil. This can be observed for instance in religious orders of priests and nuns, and from the Amish or Quaker communities in the US. Stage six is a situation wherein people’s religious, cultural, business and other beliefs and values are fully integrated. It is accomplished through deliberate effort and sacrifice.
Maintaining an Ethical Corporate Culture
The important stages from Kohlberg’s theory are four and five. The corporate organization should first develop a code of conduct and a written set of values the company believes in as part of its policies in addition to the rules and regulations. All employees should be oriented about and should agree with all of these policies. Recruitment would also be key in maintaining an ethical corporate culture. From the outset, a corporation should recruit people who agree with and share its value system. New employees should immediate fit into the organization’s culture.
If a corporate organization have homogeneous membership—people have the same religion, values and beliefs—which can happen, then stage six would be the ideal situation. There would be no need for the establishment of rules, regulations and contracts. People all know what to do. However, this seems to happen more in religious communities rather than in corporations. Lay organizations can only aspire to be like them.
In a pluralistic and heterogeneous society, moral relativism occurs. The concept of right and good is relative to each individual. A consensus and agreement is always sought. The problem with this approach is that people can never agree. A consensus also does not mean that what has been agreed upon is also right. The definition of what is good or right and what is wrong should be established first. So, it seems that laws are enacted so there can be order and people would know how to act and behave especially in public. Laws are attempts to establish what is right and wrong in society and they apply to every member of a specific society. Laws however can be different from one place to another. In the end, there can be only just ethics. Laws or any form of rules and regulations are merely attempts to define what the universal good is.
Thus, in Kohlberg’s theory, the existence of laws is only stage four or five because the situation is still imperfect. Stage six is the perfect situation when ethics has become universal. After all, there is only one ethics and people are merely trying to find and define it.
Hartman, L., & DesJardins, J. (2010). Business Ethics: Decision-Making for Personal Integrity & Social Responsibility. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Weber, J. (1991). Adapting Kohlberg to Enhance Assessment of the Manager's Moral Reasoning. Business Ethics Quarterly, 1(3), 293-218.