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The Nature, Measurement, Development and Education of
Moral-Democratic Competence

by Georg Lind

Democracy is a moral ideal of how people can live and work together in peace. In a democracy, we have substituted the government by a king or a dictator through the goverrnment by discussion on the basis of shared moral principles (A. Sen, 2009). These moral principals should help us to solve any conflict by means of rational, nonviolent discourse rather than by violence and power.

The moral ideal of democracy is widely accepted. Polls show that all over the world democracy is well accepted by a vast majority of people. So the problem is not how to spread democratic values but how to apply these values in everyday life. Moral ideals and democratic principles require interpretation and negotion when being applied to concrete situations. Ideals and principles can imply mutually exclusive courses of action and thus cause moral dilemmas. Strong emotions like fear and disgust can restrain our judgment and our ability to make a rational choice.

Therefore, the maintenance and the development of democracy requires that citizens develop high moral-democratic competencies, e.g., the competence to make judgments based on moral principles and to enter a moral discourse with others, especially with opponents and even enemies, to solve conflicts.

However, such moral-democratic competencies are scarce and cannot be acquired by indoctrination or by other ways of teaching "from above", nor can they be transmitted, but must be acquired through life-long learning. The only way of learning them, it seems, requires time and good education. The most effective way is to learn it "from bottom up," that is, through the discussion of semi-real moral, that is, "educative"dilemmas. For this well-trained teachers are needed who understand the ideals, emotions and cognitions involved in this process.

The teacher's role is not to instill moral competencies but to foster them by giving opportunities for responsibility-taking and guided reflection, and providing a democratic role model for the children. Only through this model the children will get to know what democratic behavior really means, and how to live and work together democratically. Only if the teacher fully understands and respects shared moral principles like justice and mutual respect, will his/her students learn to understand and respect them, too.


How did I get into this? I have talked about this at various occasions (e.g., in the interview with Helen Haste, 2002 and in other interviews). Here I give a short overview: I started out as a researcher in this field of moral psychology and eventually became an moral educator. My research in this area began in 1974, when I joined the Center for Educational Research at the University of Konstanz, to collaborate in a cross-cultural and longitudinal study on the process of socialization of university students (see about the Author). That research was strongly influenced, among others, by empirical research on students' political socialization of university students (Student und Politik) conducted by Jürgen Habermas and his colleagues in the Sixties, and his theory of communicative ethics, as well as by Lawrence Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory of moral development.

This research was based on the idea that higher education is needed not only for instilling in the individual the abilities and attitudes to make a career but also the competencies and postures to maintain peace and democracy in the face of ever growing complexity and antagonism in modern, fast changing, and complex societies. One of the core questions of this research then was whether university would actually succeed in fostering both the individual and social qualities which it aspired to.

When looking out for an adequate research paradigm for translating this question into a valid and feasible research design, I felt that the approaches of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, represented the most advanced state of the art. We were especially impressed by three basic assumptions of their approach:

At that time, these three assumptions challenged some mainstream beliefs, namely a) that moral and democratic personality had nothing to do with cognition and competencies, i.e., that both belonged to completely different domains of behavior, b) that moral values and attitudes may vary become stronger or weaker but never change their structure, and c) that educators could only chose between value neutrality (or relativism) and moral absolutism, that is, between ignoring these topics in school or retreating to authoritarian methods of moral indoctrination.

While Piaget and Kohlberg´s cognitive-developmental approach provided an excellent basis for research into the process of university students' development, I felt that it was far from being perfect. While the sophistication of their theoretical accounts surpassed many others, their experimental methods seemed to need some improvement. In particular their 'clinical method', which showed the way for developing an adequate measurement methodology, was too susceptible to subjective rater biases. A new, as theoretically valid but more objective measurement methods was needed. While these authors and their students provided some supportive evidence, replications and stricter tests of their propositions by independent researchers were largely missing.

In particular one assumption restricted very much their research designs and, therefore, alternative explanations from gaining experimental support, namely their assumption that moral competencies would unfold in a logical manner, that is, that they would develop always toward greater maturity but never regresses and, therefore, their progress should be highly correlated with chronological age.

I felt that the positive correlations found in research could also be explained as the result of the educational processes taking place during adolescence. Unfortunately, this alternative hypothesis had been mostly ignored and never tested by that time.

So I used our international, longitudinal research, as well as of a series of other research (representative studies of German youth, experimental laboratory and field studies, cross-sectional studies etc.), to put the classical cognitive-developmental hypotheses and alternative hypotheses to test. In these studies, me and my colleagues found

a) that moral cognition or competence really exists, that is, their existence and relevance can substantiated empirically. Above us, these concepts help us to better understand the (moral) behavior of people and the role of moral attitudes and beliefs therein.

b) that moral competencies are real, that is, that they can be observed (or measured) and that they can be meaningfully related to a multitude of salient life phenomena (violent behavior, delinquency, career choice, political orientations, learning etc.)

c) that moral-cognitive development is not invariantly upward but may considerably regress if educational inputs stops before a sufficient level of development is reached.

d) that with the exception of the invariant-sequence hypothesis, all core assumptions of Kohlberg's theory hold valid in the West and East European countries that participated in our research. In particular, in all countries there was a close relationship between the level of moral competence measured and the amount and quality of educational input. The level and quality of education seems to be a necessary and indispensable condition for the development of moral competencies. Obviously, with low quality of education, people cannot develop the moral abilities needed in modern, complex societies to live a moral life.

In the mid 1980-ies, Lawrence Kohlberg invited me to accompany him to schools in New York, where he introduced his concepts of dilemma discussion and Just Community. This experience turned me into a moral educator. Since then, I offer courses in moral development and education to teacher students of various fields as majors, and students majoring in psychology.

The focus of my teaching is on fostering moral and democratic competencies in schools and institutions of higher, professional and adult education. We are adapting and developing programs for moral-democratic education in schools and many other institutions of education, and we evaluate these programs using various sources of information: participant observation, and interviews with students, teachers, principals, parents and school administrators. Lately, we have developed an internet-based program for self-evaluation of teaching, which has helped to improve considerably the effectiveness of the dilemma discussion method.

As a result, we have developed a new method, the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD). The KMDD takes up many elements of other methods like a) Moshe Blatt and Lawrence Kohlberg's Dilemma Discussion Method, b) the Just Community Approach by Clark Power, Kohlberg and Ann Higgins, c) Ralph Mosher's Democratic School, d) Rheta DeVries' Constructivist Teaching, e) Fritz Oser Discourse Ethics Approach to school life, and Norman and Louis Sprinthall´s conceptions of role-taking and guided reflection. Yet, it also contains many new elements which make the method highly effective (r > 0.70).

Research projects and references

My research has let me construe a new theoretical framework, the Dual-Aspect-Theory of Moral Behavior and Development, that corrects and extends the cognitive-developmental theory of morality. In order to test hypotheses that follow from this new theory, I am conducting and advising various research projects. In particular, I am initiating a cross-cultural research into the importance of opportunities for role-taking and guided reflection (Norman Sprinthall) for the development of moral competencies. An outline of this project can be viewed and downloaded from this web site, or obtained from the author (

This research would not be possible without the Moral Judgment Test (MJT) , which we have developed to measure the competence aspect of moral judgment in a pure way. The MJT is now being translated and validated in 29 languages and being used in many research and evaluation studies world-wide.

Of course, I have drawn from many sources and have been stimulated by many scholars. Click on 'more' to get to a selective list of publications which have influenced me very much (this page is password protected because it contains of copyrighted material).

Click 'here' to get to a (nearly) complete list of my publications.


Armatya Sen (2009): The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


Dedicated to the memory of the late 
Lawrence Kohlberg

Foto of Kohlberg et al.
From left to right: Georg Lind , Ann Higgins, Lawrence Kohlberg, Jim Rest, 1982
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Draft for his lecture in Düsseldorf, 1985
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