Neo-Kohlbergian view on moral development

The neo-Kohlbergian approach (Rest et al., 1999) originally grew out of the need to devise a less time-consuming and a more user-friendly method to assess moral problem solving. The revised Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) is a multiple-choice test within which respondents are presented with five dilemmas and asked what the protagonist should do. Next, they assess 12 arguments in terms of their importance in solving the dilemma. They represent different Kohlberg’s stages, from 2 to postconventional, and after evaluating the items, the respondent is asked to rank in order the four most important ones. The most important index of the DIT is the P score (percentage of postconventional reasoning), which is based on the rankings and indicates the relative weight of the postconventional arguments (Stage 5, see Table 5.1) in the respondents’ moral problem solving. There is also a new index, N2 score that is basically a modified P score which measures the preference for the postconventional schema when taking into account rejection of the personal interest schema (Rest et al., 1999).

The DIT is based on the recognition of moral issues instead of verbal expression in the Moral Judgment Interview. It relies on the notion that a tacit understanding of moral concepts is sufficient for adequate moral decision-making, that is, the individual does not need to be able to articulate her moral justifications in order to apply them in practice. Studies have shown that people can comprehend arguments from one stage above their current stage (Walker, deVries, & Bichard, 1984), and furthermore, they also use arguments from lower stages depending on the content of moral conflict they encounter (for a review, see Krebs, Denton, & Wark, 1997). The accumulated empirical evidence has thus led to the theoretical reformulation of Kohlberg’s theory. By giving up the radical distinction between structure and content and exclusive reliance on verbally produced data, neo-Kohlbergians have refuted the assumption that moral development would follow a staircase model in which individuals move from stage to stage and using the achieved highest stage reasoning across different moral issues. Instead, moral development means gradually shifting from lower to more complex conceptions of social co-operation, while lower concepts remain available to the individual. Advances in moral reasoning in adolescence and adulthood are best described by three successive schemas, that is, the organised structures of generalised knowledge residing in long-term memory through which people interpret moral issues. They are briefly explained as follows (for further elaboration, see Rest et al., 1999):

T/ic personal interest schema combines Stages 2 and 3 thinking, with a focus on advancing interests of self and significant others in brief exchanges and negotiated cooperation. The individual aims to act according to social role expectations and to fulfil her or his duties as a loyal member of the social group, within the family, or at the workplace. One is able to apply reciprocity in relationships with known others and view strangers as well in terms of advancing personal or group-level interests.

The maintaining norms schema emerges when the individual starts to extend moral questions from interpersonal relations to include strangers in the scope of society. One is troubled with questions such as “how should a fair society be organised?”, “what is the role of government?” and “when is it right to use force and who should use it?” The maintaining noons schema matches Stage 4 in Kohlberg’s theory and is characterised by the need for generally accepted and uniform norms that are applied to all people in society. The individual understands the hierarchical structure of society as establishing social order and obeys authorities out of respect for “the rule of law” rather than due to their personal qualities.

The postconventional schema transforms the assumption that laws, noons, and practices are moral per se and indeed seeks the moral purpose behind them. They could thus be partial and just against some minorities or citizens, and therefore should be subjected to rational critique and can be challenged by novel knowledge and further evidence. Societies should be built on sharable moral ideas that are open to scrutiny and negotiated through means of community life. Consistent with Stage 5, morally valid solutions in society are based on full reciprocity, which means that they must be acceptable or just from the viewpoint of all people (Rest et al., 1999).

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