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Kohlberg's Model and Ethical Decision-Making

I’m frequently asked whether it is ethical to take credit for the work done by a co-worker. The purpose of this blog is to share my knowledge on the issue and provide food for ‘ethical thought.’ It is based on the following case study.

Assume you have worked for an organization for five years. Your work has been exemplary by all standards, including performance evaluations by your supervisor. The department head just announced that one of two workers will be promoted to the position of assistant supervisor to replace a departing employee, which carries a $10,000 higher annual salary. You believe you deserve the promotion and need the extra money to help pay for your child’s medical expenses. You and a co-worker up for the promotion recently finished a project with three other team members. You were in charge of the project. The ethical question is whether you should submit the report under your name and simply acknowledge the team members participation or submit the report as a team effort. Assume in the former case, you are likely to increase your chances of getting the promotion.

The model used to evaluate this decision is Kohlberg’s Model of Moral Development. Kohlberg argued that people develop their moral sense sequentially using three levels and six stages of moral reasoning. Here is a brief overview of his model and responses to the moral dilemma.

Level 1: Pre-conventional

Stage 1: Obedience to Rules; Avoidance of Punishment

At this stage, the individual focuses on the physical consequences of an action to determine the goodness or badness of a decision and seeks to avoid punishment while exhibiting deference to those in authority.

Example: You might present the project report as a team effort to avoid detection by the department head and possibly being punished for misrepresenting the work. Alternatively, you might take credit for the report if you believe there is little chance of being caught and punished.

Stage 2: Satisfying One’s Own Needs

In Stage 2, rules and authority are important only if acting in accordance with them satisfies one’s own needs (egoism). This is a “what’s in it for me” position, in which right behavior is defined in a short-sighted way which does not consider one’s reputation or relationships to groups of people other than when it promotes one’s own interests.

Example: Unlike Stage 1 which is motivated by the fear of being caught and punished, in Stage 2 you are motivated by self-interest. You may ignore the overall team effort, or at least downplay it, in order to get the promotion. You may take credit for the report if you believe it will lead to your promotion with no negative effects on your position within the organization. However, if you believe your relationship with team members could be irreparably harmed by submitting the report as your own, then you might decide it’s not worth the risk to take full credit.

Level 2: Conventional

Stage 3: Fairness to Others

In Stage 3, an individual seeks to do what is in the perceived best interests of others, including those in a peer or work group and those to whom the individual reports. Weber refers to this stage as Good Boy/Nice Girl Reasoning. At this stage, good behavior or right decision making is understood as that which pleases or helps others, so that the decision maker is seen by others who are important as a good boy or nice girl.

Example: At this stage of reasoning, right or wrong is judged in the context of one’s relationships with others. The needs of the work team may be seen as taking precedence over one’s own self-interest so that you would not take full credit for the report; otherwise you risk your relationship with others.

Stage 4: Law and Order

Stage 4 behavior emphasizes the morality of law and duty to the social order and orientation towards fixed rules. One’s duty to society, respect for authority, and maintaining the social order become the focus of decision making. The decision maker assumes the role of a generalized member of society, and reasoning relies on a conception of the social system as a consistent set of codes and procedures that apply equally to all members of society. The focus shifts beyond the work group to include all members of society.

Example: Here, your decision would be motivated by following the law, which includes the code of conduct of the organization that may or may not address taking credit for another’s work. If the code prohibits taking credit for another’s work, then you may decide it’s morally right to give credit to the entire team. To do otherwise risks a possible breakdown in the social order in the organization. What if everyone took credit for someone else’s work? Laws may be broken and chaos might occur in the organization.

Level 3: Post-conventional

Stage 5: Social Contract

In Stage 5, an individual is motivated by upholding the basic rights, values, and legal contracts of society. That person recognizes in some cases that legal and moral points of view may conflict. To reduce such conflict, individuals at this stage base their decisions on the greatest good for the greatest number of people” -- a rational calculation of benefits and harms to society.

Example: Reasoning at this stage would be driven by values such as honesty and personal responsibility. The purposeful deception of others is always wrong. What is right for you to do is share the credit. This is a situation where you would weigh the harms and benefits of alternative actions. The act utilitarianism method calls for balancing harms and benefits of alternative actions. Some might use it and rationalize it’s best to take full credit. However, the rule utilitarianism method argues to follow the rule: Never take credit for something you have not done, regardless of the consequences to yourself and others.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles

At this stage, moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles that everyone should follow and transcend mutual benefit. Rights, laws, and social agreements are valid not because of a particular society’s laws or customs, but because they rest on the premise of universality. Justice and equality are examples of principles that are deemed universal.

Example: The universal principle is: It is wrong to take credit for another’s work. You have an ethical duty to give credit where credit is due. It would be an unjust outcome to take credit for someone else’s work. Not only might laws (i.e. company code) be broken but one’s role in society might be compromised. Each person who contributes to the report has a right to receive equal credit, assuming each had about the same role.

The Rights Theory plays a role in post-conventional thinking in that the co-workers have an ethical right to be given credit and you, as the decision-maker, have a duty to give them that credit. For me, this is the bottom line of how best to deal with the decision of whether to give credit to co-workers. Alternatively, ask how you would feel if your decision to take credit for the project and only mention the co-workers was the headline of tomorrow’s newspaper. Would you be proud to defend your action?

Dr. Steven Mintz is professor emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is a writer, speaker, and consultant on ethical issues.

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