Measuring moral development in public administration

Laura Lee Swisher, Tennessee State University


This cross-sectional study examines the relationship between age, race, gender, region, organizational location, job title, and moral development among public administrators as measured by the Defining Issues Test (DIT). In the late 1970s James Rest developed the DIT to assess moral development based on Kohlberg's six stages of moral development. Rest and his associates now view their position as “neo-Kohlbergian” and interpret their results within three “schemas” of moral thinking (Personal Interest, Maintaining Norms, and Postconventional) rather than six stages. A computer-generated random sample of 1000 of the 9,925 members of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) was mailed a packet containing a demographic questionnaire and the short form of the DIT. Statistical analysis was performed on the resulting P and N2 (postconventional) and stage four percentage (maintaining norms) scores. Scores were compared with norms for age and educational level and with results obtained by Debra W. Stewart and Norman A. Sprinthall in previous studies of public administration. Results of the study indicate that public administrators use postconventional moral reasoning less than expected based on their level of education. Although most of the 344 respondents possessed a graduate degree, the mean P score (postconventional) of 41.45 was equivalent to adults in general. Respondents used stage four (maintaining norms) moral reasoning more frequently than expected (37.13%). This score was significantly higher than senior high students. These findings support Stewart and Sprinthall's findings of decreased P scores and increased stage four scores. However, this sample scored significantly higher on the P (postconventional) score and lower on stage four (maintaining norms) compared with Stewart and Sprinthall's results. In contrast to their findings, this study also found a significant difference between males and females with females scoring significantly higher on postconventional reasoning. Respondents over sixty years of age scored lower on postconventional reasoning. There were no significant differences based on organizational variables. Results of the study indicate that public administrators use postconventional thinking less than others with comparable education. Females scored higher than males on postconventional thinking. Ramifications for public administration and implications for future research are discussed.

Subject Area

Public administration|Political science|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Laura Lee Swisher, "Measuring moral development in public administration" (1999). ETD Collection for Tennessee State University. Paper AAI9943851.