Universality and cultural diversity in professional ethical development: From Kohlberg to Dynamic Systems Theory

Year: 2012

Author: Kim, Minkang

Type of paper: Refereed paper


 Upholding ethical standards is part of what it means to be a professional and therefore part of professional education, but to what extent is the development of ethical reasoning universal across cultures, or is it highly dependent on culture?  If it is universal, how can we explain the unique patterns of moral reasoning and behaviour in Asia, which reflect Confucian values?

This issue is particularly pertinent to professional education as it becomes increasingly globalised, with students from different cultural backgrounds travelling overseas for their professional education, sometimes staying to practice in their adopted countries, and as nations such as Australia become increasingly multi-cultural. In professional medical and dental education, for example, students increasingly travel from Asia Pacific nations to study in the USA and Australia. In professional teacher education, students from many different cultural origins enrol in Australian universities, some being resident in Australia and others from overseas.

The issue of universality versus cultural diversity has been a perennial and on-going debate in psychology. Moral psychology has generally adhered to universalism, calling on support from Kantian ethics. Strong universalism has historically been associated with resistance to relativism. Over the past half-century, cognitive rationalist approaches (e.g. Kohlbergian and neo-Kohlbergian), focusing on the development of reasoning skills and the acquisition of ethical concepts, have tended to predominate in courses of professional ethics. However, over the past decade, these approaches have met with considerable criticism. Social intuitionist Jonathan Haidt (2001) has argued that ethical reasoning, the core of the cognitive developmental model, is rarely the direct cause of moral judgment and behaviour. Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) agrees that ethical action is often intuitive, but nevertheless argues that ethical reasoning skills develop and are always the product of the historical and social contexts in which an individual's development takes places.  From this perspective, it is not the forms or stages of ethical reasoning that are universally the same, as Kohlberg and other argued, but the dynamic and emergent process of development, which is historically and socially situated and responsive to multiple causes including a predilection to value.  So, there are commonalities across time and place in the processes of ethical development, but the product of those processes is regionally and culturally diverse.

This paper explores these ideas as they impact on practice and research in professional education, and with reference to a comparative developmental study of ethical identity in American and Asian dentists.