Same Same? Moral Development across Continents

- In the Preconventional Level development of moral behaviour develops purely out of the necessity to satisfy one's needs: “Obey to rules to avoid punishment” and “Conform to obtain rewards, have favours returned, and so on”.
- In the Conventional Level satisfying one’s need is not of such an importance any more, but rather wanting to be praised (“Conform to avoid disapproval and dislike by others”) and purely obeying to authority (“Conform to avoid censure by legitimate authorities and resultant guilt”).
- In the Postconventional/Autonomous/Principled level the concept of morality is redefined in the sense that the idea of moral standard is formed independently from the given moral code from authorities. A personal understanding of morality is formed. This finally results in the “universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individuals” (Kohlberg, 1981).

One of the major aspects of this approach is the assumption that society develops to serve the needs of the individual. However, is this assumption true for all the different cultures and ethnic groups around different continents? Kohlberg himself studied the cultural generalization of his theory in different societies and concluded that the development of moral stages is the same across the world, at least concerning the order of the development of moral reasoning. The time of transition from one stage to the next stage differs from culture to culture. Nevertheless, his claim is highly controversial and has been contested in several follow-up studies.

One famous follow-up study was conducted among a sample of Nepalese Buddhist monks, who grew up and were educated in a framework distinctive from most North American students. Heubner and Garrod (1993) replicated Kohlbergs study and found that the so-called postconventional, autonomous, principled level was not reached by any of the Nepalese monks.

These results suggest that Kohlberg’s stage theory is able to provide an explanation for general moral development in the sample of Nepalese Buddhist Monks. However, it seems that his theory cannot explain the fact that only the first four stages were found, and that none of the Monks reasoned similar to moral development in stage five or six (Heubner & Garrod, 1993). How did the researchers explain these findings?
Heubner and Garrod argued that the absence of the stage five and six was due to the difference in reference framework between the Nepalese monks and Kohlberg's samples. The law and order perspective was simply not included in their reference framework. Though this explanation might be able to account for the fact that the last level was absent, it cannot provide an answer to the important question 'why' this level is absent. A number of explanations tried to shed light on the 'why' aspect, but didn't provide much more than mere speculation.

As the discipline of cross-cultural psychology is still young compared to other disciplines within psychology more research is needed to provide a better understanding of 'why' persons across continents differ. It remains to be said that cross-cultural psychology rightly deserves to be referred to as a separate discipline within psychology. Future research will show whether many so far uncontested 'universalistic' psychological theories can live up to the standards set by themselves.

Meanwhile, five years later and just back in Singapore I once again struggle to blend into this different University life, waiting for the research outcomes that will finally shed light onto my daily struggle.


Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D. & Kosmitzki, C. (1998). Lives across Cultures: Cross-Cultural Human Development. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gilbert, D. T., Fiske, S. T. & Lindzey, G. (1998). The Handbook of Social Psychology. Boston: McGraw.

Heubner, A. & Garrod, A. C. (1993). Moral reasoning among Tibetian Monks: A Study of Buddhist Adolescents and Young Adults in Nepal. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 24, 167-185.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, Volume I. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Matsumoto, D. (2000). Culture and Psychology: People around the World. Australia, Delmar, Calif.: Wadsworth Thomas Learning.

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