Ethical Development

What do we mean by ethics and acting ethically? Basically, ethics are how we decide whether something that we do, or someone else does, is right or wrong. The most basic element of ethics is empathy, which is the ability to imagine and understand how other people are feeling. We usually begin to learn empathy as toddlers, but whether we continue to learn it – and practice it – depends largely on what we’re taught.

As we grow, we pass through distinct stages of moral development in which our ethical thinking is based on different principles: the desire to avoid punishment (Stage I) and the desire to obtain rewards (Stage II), which are then followed by a wish to fit in and conform in order please others (Stage III) and a duty to follow rules, laws and social codes (Stage IV). Last comes the sense of participating in a social contract (Stage V) and, finally, a morality that looks to universal ethical principles of justice and the equality and dignity of all people (Stage VI). The distinctions between Stages IV, V and VI are best illustrated by looking at how each views laws: to Stage IV, a law is an absolute that must be obeyed in all circumstances; to Stage V, a law is seen as an expression of the will of the people and may be altered (formally or informally) if enough people agree to it; to Stage VI laws are only to be obeyed if they are seen as being just in the light of universal ethical principles. People at these three stages of moral reasoning might, for example, have reacted to laws that discriminated against African-Americans by saying “It’s the law, so follow it,” “Follow the law until we change it,” and “Disobey an unjust law,” respectively.[i]

According to Lawrence Kohlberg, who pioneered the study of moral development, many adults do not progress past this stage. Some pass temporarily into cynicism, which Kohlberg defined as rejecting standard morality without replacing it – often with the result that looks like a return to the earliest stages. Others, though, progress into the post conventional stages, where the spirit of laws becomes more important than the letter and social conventions and laws are weighed against broader principles and may not be obeyed. It’s worth noting that this is not the same as simply ignoring a law that’s inconvenient to you. As Martin Luther King put it, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly… and willingly accept the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice.”[ii]

There are a number of important things about this progression. First, the stages describe a way of coming to a decision about a moral question; describing someone as being in a particular stage means that they makes moral judgments in that way more than half the time and even those who are primarily at Stage V or VI make some decisions based on lower-stage reasoning. As well, children can only understand moral arguments up to one step above their current level. Small children, for instance, will not really understand an abstract principle like the “do to others as you would have them do to you,” but might understand it in the self-interested terms of Stage II as “If you’re nice to people, they’ll probably be nice to you; if you’re mean to people, they’ll think it’s okay to be mean to you.” Finally, certain things may cause moral development to be slowed down – in particular, exposure to violence: studies of children who had grown up in Northern Ireland and Lebanon during times of conflict there found that many had not progressed beyond Stages I and II.[iii]

It’s important to note that the later stages don’t replace the earlier ones; they add another way of thinking about right and wrong, but even as adults we will often act out of a desire to abide by social norms, to get a reward or to avoid punishment. Still, when we’re talking to young people, it’s important to take their stage of moral development into account. Young children will respond best to well-communicated penalties or a clear explanation of relevant laws or rules, while tweens and teens are more likely to be swayed by their sense of the social norms and values of a community (such as their school or family) or by appeals to a general moral principle. This is why, while it’s important at all ages to set clear rules and procedures, among older youth we need to pay more attention to the implicit messages we may be sending about cultural values or morality.

How do we make ethical decisions? Research has found that when we do something for ethical reasons we follow a four-step process.[iv] Each of these steps is basically an opportunity to “take the easy way out.” For example, the first step is simply identifying the situation as a moral issue: if we see something as an ethical question, we’re more likely to think carefully about it before taking action.[v] The second step is to understand the issue emotionally by applying empathy to the situation. The third step is being willing to set aside personal motivation in order to make a moral decision that may not be in our best interest. Finally, to make a moral decision, we may need to be able to act against public opposition if our personal morals conflict with social codes or attitudes. 


[i] Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into practice, 16(2), 53-59.

[ii] Wikipedia. 2016. Letter from Birmingham Jail. [online] Available at:

[iii] Garabino, J., Kostelny, K., and Dubrow, N. (1991). What children can tell us about living in danger. American Psychologist, 46(3), 376-383.

[iv] J.R. Rest. Moral Development. 1986

[v] Bonde, S et al (2013) A Framework for making ethical decisions. Brown University. Retrieved from