Snell’s cognitive moral development theory

Snell’s cognitive moral development theory

Snell provides a sophisticated treatment of both the cognitive and the personal skills that a manager needs to have in making ethical decisions.

His model is based on an adaptation of the cognitive moral development theory of Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). More strictly speaking, Kohlberg developed a theory in the development of moral judgment. [He was strongly influenced by Kantian ethics and the principles of justice].

According to Kohlberg’s research, individuals may pass through three levels during their lifetime in their ethical development. Most individuals may only progress through the first two and never reach the third.

These three levels are pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. These three levels are further divided into stages.

In all he postulated that there were six stages, two per level. Sophistication in ethical decision making progressed through six stages, from 1 to 6. Each stage is characterised in brief by the following characteristics:

Level 1: Pre-conventional

Stage 1 Punishment and obedience (fear and deference).
Stage 2 Instrumental relativism (personal gain – not losing out).

Level 2: Conventional

Stage 3 Interpersonal concordance (being a nice boy or nice girl).
Stage 4 Maintaining law and order (rules, laws and conventions).

Level 3: Post-conventional

Stage 5 Developing social contracts based on majority interest.
Stage 6 Universal ethical principles (justice to all).

The model moves from stage1, heteronomous reasoning (i.e., the opposite of autonomous; meaning being ruled from outside laws, influences or factors) to the principled autonomous stage 6 (self-ruled, self-governing, acting independently on principles rather than norms).

Probably less than five per cent of the adult population operate at the stage 6 level and those not all the time! Some would say that one has to be a moral philosopher to operate at stage 6.

The point should be made that a person who regularly operates at stage 6 is able to operate at any of the other stages, but will probably not be inclined to do so except in extreme circumstances.

A person who is in transition from stage 3 to stage 4 will probably operate at stage 3 most of the time, will occasionally be able to operate at stage 4, will understand what it means to operate at stages 1 and 2, but will have no comprehension of what is entailed in operating at stages 5 and 6.

Kohlberg argued that individuals progressed strictly by stages – they did not ‘skip’ a stage. The way to move from a lower to an upper stage is by constantly being confronted by reasoning of the upper level and being dissatisfied with the level of reasoning of the lower level. With time, the person moves from being in transition to the upper stage. This can be a lengthy process.

Kohlberg’s theory has been influential in guiding the development of ethical training programs.

It is also a controversial theory, which is still hotly debated.

Snell provides illustrations of better forms of ethical reasoning and decision making, which he has developed by an adaptation of Kohlberg’s stage theory.

He is particularly concerned, as are many others, that the ethical education of managers should equip more of them to be capable of making decisions at level 3 – the ‘post-conventional’ stages 5 and 6.

Snell, R.
Developing skills of ethical management
Chapman and Hall, London, 1993


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