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Hemmerling, Kay (2014).

Morality behind bars – An intervention study on fostering moral competence of prisoners as a new approach to social rehabilitation.

Frankfurt: Peter Lang.


"Prisoners prefer moral ideals like justice and responsibility just as much as non-prisoners. However, they lack moral competence, which Georg Lind has defined as the ability to solve conflicts through deliberation and communication rather than through violence, deceit and power. The data of this experimentally designed intervention study show that imprisonment mostly makes things worse. It leads to a regression of moral competence. Further, these data show that - with appropriate training methods like the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD) - moral competence can be effectively and sustainably fostered. The KMDD lets participants learn to solve stressful morally dilemmatic moments with mutual respect, thinking and discussion - the keys to a non-delinquent life in society."

Extended Preface

Criminality as Lowest Level of Conflict-Resolution

by Georg Lind

Dr. Hemmerling's book addresses two important questions: First, does imprisonment in general diminish moral competence? Second, is the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD)® an effective method for reversing this trend and fostering moral competence?

Many studies show that imprisonment does hardly contribute to the improvement of society, rather it makes things worse. The longer humans are incarcerated the more they lose their ability to solve conflicts through thinking and discussion, and, therefore, are forced to solve conflicts through violence, deceit, and power (Wischka, 1982; Glasstetter, 2005; Hemmer­ling, 2014). This is a vicious cycle: The longer criminal offenders are sentenced to stay in prison, the higher is their risk to end up in prison again. In his moving report about incarcerated youth William Ayers (1997) writes: “The reformist justification – the idea of rehabilitation and improvement through imprisonment – has always loomed large in debates and discussions about prison. But in their own terms the reforms are a farce: parole and probation are only possible if caseloads are manageable and parole officers are diligent; psychiatric help is not an option so long as there is one psychiatrist for every thousand inmates” (p. 173). Is rehabilitation really an unrealistic aim of imprisonment? With his intervention experiment, Kay Hemmerling shows this is not the case.

When the author asked me some years ago whether I was willing to advise his project I was reluctant. On the one side, I saw a great chance for research on, and application of, our new Education Theory of moral competence development (Lind 2002; 2008 a; Nowak et al., 2013). If, as Socrates hypothesized, morality was mainly a matter of virtue or competence, and if, for this reason, morality could be taught, then, we must assume, criminality is a sign of low moral competence and hence can best be treated (not faught!) through adequate methods of competence training. Indeed, I had elaborated this hypothesis in an article titled “Gewalt und Krieg als niedrigste Stufe der Konfliktbewältigung” (Violence and war as the lowest stage of conflict resolution) (Lind 1998). At that time, this theory was supported by many studies showing consistently a strong (negative) relationship between criminal behavior and moral development. It seems that moral competence is the single most powerful predictor of criminal behavior (Blasi 1980; Wischka 1982; Hemmerling 2006). There were also many intervention studies showing that the so-called method of dilemma discussion by Moshe Blatt and Lawrence Kohlberg (1975) was quite effective (Lind 2002) and that it could be successfully applied in prison settings (Jennings et al., 1983). Yet these applications were confined to a few projects in the United States. I knew of only one application of the education theory of moral development to the rehabilitation of prison inmates in Germany. Glasstetter (2005) ran an intervention study with juvenile delinquents using Kohlberg’s just community approach (Power et al., 1989). He found that this intervention did not improve their moral competence scores, it remained stable. This finding is in line with other studies which showed that the just community approach had many benefits which could be demonstrated but could not be shown to foster moral competence (Power et al. 1989; Lind 2002). Yet, Glasstetter’s intervention was at least successful in preventing moral competence to regress. In his control group the moral competence scores sank. So Kay Hemmerling’s project was a great opportunity to clarify two important questions which these studies have raised: First, does imprisonment in general diminish moral competence? Second, is the method of dilemma discussion more effective than the just community?

On the other side, I also anticipated many roadblocks for Kay’s project. Would he be able to find a prison that would allow him to conduct a thorough research and intervention study? My reading of literature was that the above findings were hardly known among criminologists and administrators of the penitentiary system. Some leading experts even expressed doubts about any relationship (Göppinger 2008). Would prison inmates be willing to participate in such an experiment? In Germany, prjson inmates get already much psychological treatment, about which they are not always enthusiastic. Prisoners whom we talked to said they would participate in such treatments only because they were required to do so. Kay Hemmerling planned to offer his intervention on a voluntary basis. Would somebody show up? Finally, would he be able to acquire by himself enough expertise as a KMDD-Teacher in order to be effective? He decided to use the Konstanzer Methode der Dilemma-Diskussion (KMDD)® which requires the teacher to take part in a 120 hour training process. Various studies showed us that without sufficient expertise, the KMDD does not have much, if any impact on participants' development of moral competence. At that time hardly any training seminars were available.

This book falsifies all my concerns and also the expert's skeptical statements above. Kay Hemmerling has not only been able to find a prison for his project but could also win a sufficient number of voluntary participants among the prison inmates. He also succeeded to carry out an unusually sophisticated experimental design and - in cooperation with a certified KMDD-Teacher - to produce strong effects through KMDD interventions. In sum, fostering moral competence is very important for preventing criminality. Moral competence is the ability to solve conflicts through deliberation and communication rather than through violence, deceit and power. But today most prisoners leave prison with an even lower moral competence than they had when they entered. Obviously, such regression of moral competence in prison prevents rehabilitation. To do something about this is urgent. Through his findings, Kay Hemmerling's study strongly supports the concept of moral competence, and the notion that moral competence can be effectively fostered, even in criminals and in those charged with criminal behavior. In other words, his study shows that we must no longer condone the regression of moral competence of people as a consequence of the deprived learning environment of prisons. The message of this book is: We can prevent criminal behavior by fostering delinquents' moral competence through adequate methods and adequately trained teachers for this method. Let us begin.


Ayers, W. (1997). A kind and just parent. The children of juvenile court. Boston: Beacon Press.

Blasi, A. (1980). Bridging moral cognition and moral action: A critical review of the literature. Psychological Bulletin, 88, 1-45.

Blatt, M. & Kohlberg, L. (1975). The effect of classroom moral discussion upon children's level of moral judgment. Journal of Moral, Education, 4, 129 - 161.

Glasstetter, S. (2005). Moralerziehung nach Lawrence Kohlberg – Über die Effizienz und Auswirkungen der ‘Just Community’ in einem geschlossenen Heim für delinquente Jugendliche. Unpublished diploma thesis, University of Landau, Germany, Dept. of Psychology.

Göppinger, H. (2008). Kriminologie. München: Beck.

Hemmerling, K., & Scharlipp, M. (2013). The keys of cognition: Insights into moral and democratic education in prison. In: E. Nowak, D. Schrader & B. Zizek., eds., Educating competencies for democracy, pp. 287 - 302. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag.

Jennings, W. S, Kilkenny, R. & Kohlberg, L. (1983). Moral-development theory and practice for youthful and adult offenders. In W. D. Laufer & J. D. Day, eds., Personality theory, moral development and criminal behavior, pp. 281-355. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Lind, G. (1998). Gewalt und Krieg als niedrigste Stufe der Konfliktbewältigung. [Violence and war as the lowest stage of conflict resolution]. In W. Kempf & I. Schmidt-Regener, eds., Krieg. Nationalismus, Rassismus und die Medien, pp. 273 - 282. Münster: LIT-Verlag.

Lind, G. (2002). Ist Moral lehrbar? Ergebnisse der modernen moralpsychologischen Forschung. [Can morality be taught? Research findings from modern Moral Psychology]. Second Edition. Berlin: Logos-Verlag.

Lind, G. (2008 a). Teaching students to speak up and to listen to others: Cultivating moral democratic competencies. In: D. E. Lund & P. R. Carr, eds., Doing democracy and social justice in education: Political literacy for all students, pp. 319 - 335. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Lind, G. (2008 b). The meaning and measurement of moral judgment competence revisited – A dual-aspect model. In: D. Fasko & W. Willis, eds., Contemporary philosophical and psychological perspectives on moral development and education, pp. 185 - 220. Cresskill. NJ: Hampton Press.

Lind, G. (2010). The theory of moral-cognitive development: a socio-psychological assessment. In G. Lind, H.A. Hartmann & R. Wakenhut, eds., Moral judgment and social education, pp. 21-53. Rutgers, NJ: Transaction Books, second edition.

Nowak, E., Schrader, D. & Zizek, B., eds. (2013). Educating competencies for democracy. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag.

Power, C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wischka, B. (1982). Moralisches Bewusstsein und Empathie bei Strafgefangenen [moral consciousness and empathy in prison inmates]. Unpublished diploma thesis, University of Marburg, Germany, Dept. of Psychology.

© by Georg Lind 2015