Wednesday, March 20, 2013


HUMAN BEHAVIOUR - The Ethical Dimension



Your Behaviour, particularly your Ethical Behaviour, depends on your Moral Development.  

Have you ever asked yourself: “What is my stage of Moral Development?”

Kohlberg offers a handy framework for delineating the stage each of us has reached with respect to personal moral development.

In a nutshell, the six stages of Moral Development may be summarized as follows:
1. FEAR – Stage 1

2. NEEDS – Stage 2

3. CONFORMANCE – Stage 3

4. COMPLIANCE – Stage 4

5. CONSENSUS – Stage 5


As you will probably infer, this concept seems to be linked with various theories of motivation like Maslow’s Need Hierarchy, Herzberg’s Hygiene Theory etc.



Physical Consequences determine Moral Behaviour.
At this stage of personal moral development, the individual’s ethical behaviour is driven by the decision to avoid punishment or by deference to power. 

Punishment is an automatic response of physical retaliation. 

The immediate physical consequences of an action determine its goodness or badness. 

Such moral behaviour is seen in boarding schools, military training academies, prisons, cadet training, hazing and ragging etc. where physical punishment is used to inculcate the attributes of obedience and deference to power. 

An example of this is corporal punishment which involves deliberate infliction of pain for the purpose of regimentation and inculcating discipline and as a deterrent to discourage unacceptable behaviour.

If used in the physical consequences domain, the carrot and stick approach, a policy of offering  a combination of physical rewards and punishments to induce desired moral behaviour, is an example of this.

The individual behaves in a manner akin to the Pavlovian dog.


Individual Needs dictate Moral Behaviour.
At this stage, a person’s needs are the person’s primary ethical concern. 

As far as you are concerned, the right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies your own needs

People are valued in terms of their utility. 

Example: “I will help him because he may help me in return – you scratch my back, I will scratch yours.”


Approval of Others determines Moral Behaviour.
This stage is characterized by decision where the approval of others determines the person’s behaviour. 

Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others within the group.

The good person satisfies family, friends and associates. 

Peer Pressure is an example of conformance.

“Everybody is doing it, so it must be okay.”

 One earns approval by being conventionally “respectable” and “nice.” 

Sin is a breach of the expectations of the social order.

What will others say?” (the “log kya kahenge?” syndrome) is the leitmotif.

Conformance with prevailing ‘stereotypes’ is the order of the day.


Compliance with authority and upholding social order are a person’s primary ethical concerns.
“Doing one’s duty” is the primary ethical concern. 

Consistency and precedence must be maintained. 

Example: “You will comply with your superior’s instructions because you feel it is wrong to disobey your senior”. 

Authority is seldom questioned. 

You will not question orders from above.

“Even if you feel that something may be unethical, you will unquestioningly obey all orders, and comply with everything your boss orders you to do, because you believe that the boss is always right.”


Tolerance for rational dissent and acceptance of rule by the majority becomes the primary ethical concern.
 Example: “Although you disagree with their views, you will uphold their right to have them.” 

The right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights, and in terms of standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society, for example: the Constitution, various norms of morality and codes of ethics and codes of conduct and moral customs, laws and traditions. 

The freedom of the individual should be limited by society only when it infringes upon someone else’s freedom.


What is right is viewed as a matter of individual conscience, free choice and personal responsibility for the consequences.
Example: “There is no external threat that can force you to make a decision that you consider morally wrong.” 

An individual who reaches this stage acts out of universal ethical principles.


Moral development is in no way correlated with intellectual development or your position in the hierarchy or factors like rank, seniority, status, success or earnings, salary, material wealth. 

In the words of Alexander Orlov: “Honesty and Loyalty may be often more deeply ingrained in the make-up of simple and humble people than in men of high position. A man who was taking bribes when he was a constable does not turn honest when he becomes the Chief of Police – the only thing that changes in the size of the bribe. Weakness of character and inability to withstand temptation remains with the man no matter how high he climbs.” 

Ethical traits accompany a man to the highest rungs of his career.

The moral progress of a person may be compared to moral growing up of children as they progress towards adulthood from stage 1 towards stage 6.

Small children are at stage 1 – they are taught that whatever their elders say is right is right and doing the right thing is obeying authority and avoiding punishment.

As they grow up, children are no longer so impressed by any single authority and they see that there are different sides to any issue and their actions will be governed by their needs (Stage 2).

Stage 1 and Stage 2 correspond to Maslow’s Physiological and Safety / Security needs.

As they grow up and values are inculcated, young people think as members of the conventional society with its values, norms, and expectations and emphasize being a good person (conformance – Stage 3).  

Soon the concern shifts towards higher social needs and complying with society as a whole (Stage 4).

These two stages correspond to Maslow’s Social needs.

As they grow morally higher, people are less concerned with maintaining society for it own sake, and more concerned with the principles and values that make for a good society and they may emphasize basic rights and the democratic processes that give everyone a say (Stage 5 - corresponds to Maslow’s Esteem needs) and if they reach Stage 6 they will focus on self-actualization.

However, you will realize that your moral development may be situational in nature and you will be at different stages depending on the situation.

In a nutshell the governing factors pertaining to six stages of Moral Development which determine your Ethical Fitness may be summarized as:
FEAR – Stage 1

NEEDS – Stage 2





Whenever two individuals at different stages of moral development interact with each other, both of them try to force or manoeuvre the other into their own appreciation of the ethical situation, thus leading to conflict.

What is Your Stage of Personal Moral Development?

Be honest with yourself and recall the decisions you made in recent ethical situations.

The six stages of moral development are valuable landmarks as they tell you approximately where you are and what changes you will have to make in yourself to move to a higher level of moral development. 

The ultimate goal is to engage in ethical decision making at stage 6.

Your stage of moral development will determine your ethical susceptibility and ethical vulnerability.

Ethical Susceptibility is your inability to avoid ethical dilemmas.

Ethical Susceptibility is environment dependent (on external factors) like, for example, your job, your boss, colleagues and subordinates, or the persons around you, or even the ‘prevalent ethical culture’.
Ethical Vulnerability is your inability to withstand succumbing in the given ethical dilemmas or moral situations. It is dependent on your internal stage of moral development in the given ethical situation.
Whereas being in an ethical dilemma is not in your control, to act in an ethical manner in the prevailing situation is certainly in your control.

Whenever two individuals at different stages of moral development interact with each other, both of them try to force or manoeuvre the other into their own appreciation of the ethical situation, thus leading to conflict.

In a formal hierarchical setup, various employees in the chain may not be at similar stages of moral development thereby leading to ethical dissonance in the system.

It is therefore important for all Human Resource Managers to understand this concept in order to envisage ethical harmony in the organization. 


The concept of Moral Development does have some congruence with various motivation theories like Need Hierarchy Model by Maslow, Dual Factor Theory by Herzberg, Achievement Motivation Model by McClleland and it will be interesting to explore linkages between motivation and moral development.

The fact of the matter is that Human Ethical Behaviour varies widely from person to person depending on the stage of moral development which may be situational in nature.

Copyright © Vikram Karve 2013
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.
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About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer and blogger. Educated at IIT Delhi, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and an anthology of short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional  and academic research papers in journals and edited in-house journals and magazines for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing and blogging. Vikram Karve lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

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