Moral Intelligence – Does it Belong in the Boardroom?

Moral compassEmbracing the stubborn idealist within me, I’ve always disagreed with people when they’ve told me that the good guys always come last. However, this sentiment has frequently been met with murmurs of naivety, contending against lasting personal experiences of ‘snakes in suits’ and countless examples of ruthless power figures. The case for the good guys was and still is at times, hard to make. However, following economic/political landscape shifting events such as the 2008 financial crash, the issue of morals and integrity have very much been catapulted into the mainstream.  However, moral development and Moral Intelligence are not necessarily new concepts. With morality in general dating back to ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, it holds a key position as one of the central human virtues. Fast forward to the contemporary era and we have seen huge strides in the understanding of the development of this phenomenon; from Psychological theory (Kohlberg, 1958) to an integrated neuroscientific-evolutionary-developmental perspective of Moral Intelligence to the development of moral reasoning ability tests.

There seems to be a general consensus that Moral Intelligence, defined as ‘the capacity to understand right from wrong…to have strong ethical convictions and to act on them so that one behaves in the right and honourable way’ (Borba, 2002) is a developmental type of reasoning. This suggests that Moral Intelligence is developed and refined through experience. This is exactly what Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (1958) would suggest, but the second integrated perspective (to be discussed later) places huge importance on childhood experience on the eventual development of Moral Intelligence in adulthood.

Kohlberg’s model of moral development

Firstly, let’s explore the former model, which in many ways takes a ‘deepdive’ into moral development, building on Piaget’s more general work on cognitive development. Kohlberg’s model, based on seminal research around the moral dilemma of a man named Heinz*, found there to be a 3 level developmental model of morality. Each level is made up of two components and broadly speaking, consists of the following moral reasoning:

Level 1

Pre-conventional morality: authority is outside the individual and reasoning is based on the physical consequences of actions i.e. being punished.

Level 2

Conventional morality

Authority is internalised but not questioned and reasoning is based on the norms of the group to which the person belongs.

Level 3

Post-conventional morality (Kohlberg suggested that most people don’t reach this level)

Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice – the defence of these principles would be of paramount importance even if this means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment.

A Neuroscientific-Evolutionary-Developmental perspective of Moral Intelligence

A more recent theory of Moral Intelligence takes an integrated approach, utilising developments in Neuroscience and relating them to Developmental and Evolutionary Psychology. The Triune Ethics theory (TET; Narvaez, 2008; 2009) refers to the development of moral functioning. In this case it is defined as the capacity to respond appropriately (noticing, feeling for, imagining, solving and acting on the needs of others) to events which affect the welfare of these others (near or far). This theory is based on evolutionarily mechanisms, shaped by our early social experience and subsequent emotional development. Again, there are three ‘ethics’ which represent stages of moral development, as follows:

Security ethic – “bunker morality”

Attributed to the ‘older brain’ regions, such as the extrapyramidal action nervous system (Panksepp, 1998) and activated when a person feels threatened, which suggests that the self-preservation networks of the brain i.e. fight-flight are involved. However, this ethic leads to less compassion. If applied to a business context, self-preservation would be pursued by the gain of money and security, perhaps at the expense of others. This can be seen as akin to the pre-conventional level of morality from Kolberg’s model because of the tendency to exhibit behaviour to self-preserve (i.e. avoid punishment).

Engagement Ethic – “harmony morality”

This ethic is suggested to involve the emotional systems (the visceral-emotional nervous system on the hypothalamic-limbic axis; Panksepp, 1998) that allow for intimacy, compassionate response and self-sacrifice for others. The Ethic of Engagement emphasises face-to-face emotional affiliation with others, particularly through caring relationships and social bonds.  It is suggested that children with more ‘responsive’ mothers are more likely to exhibit conscience development, agreeable personalities, and prosocial behavior (Kochanska, 2002).

Imagination Ethic – “mindful or heartless morality”

This ethic is attributed to more recently evolved and higher level functioning brain capacities (i.e., prefrontal cortex), shown to be fundamental for complex social and moral functioning. This ethic uses cognitive reasoning to adapt to ongoing social relationships and to envision alternatives to what exists and make plans to guide action for change. This ethic can be accessed through the ‘Security Ethic’ where outsiders are seen as intruders to protect the self/group against, hence heartless morality. Alternatively, the Imagination Ethic can be accessed through the development of the ‘Engagement Ethic’ where outsiders are approached with collaboration and compassion hence ‘mindful morality’.

These latter two ethics map less closely to the stages 2 and 3 of Kohlberg’s model – hence there is a divergence between approaches here.

This may well seem fairly far removed from the business world, but the question which comes to mind when I think about this developmental model is, does Moral Intelligence have a critical window for development? If so, is it fair to say that if someone has ‘under-developed’ Moral Intelligence, come adulthood when individuals become managers and leaders of organisations, is there anything we can do? In other words, once an immature moral egg, always an immature moral egg? Again, the stubborn idealist in me would object, but given the compelling biological and theoretical case made above, perhaps in this case it is naivety?

Moral reasoning tests

Nevertheless, integrity, authenticity and morality are qualities that organisations do recognise as being crucial for good business, and not only as desirable qualities of their people. This is demonstrated by the Corporate Executive Board (2011) finding that ‘high integrity’ companies experienced a 8.8% shareholder return over 10 years versus ‘low integrity’ companies experiencing  minus 7.7% shareholder return over 10 years. This was the area explored by Louisa Tate of Cubiks at this month’s Psychometric Forum event – New Frontiers of Psychometrics. Louisa shared with us the Cubiks moral reasoning tool, currently in development. It’s an ability test, which measures one’s level of moral development, based on the three levels of Kohlberg’s model.  It is the first of its kind, as an ability test which controls for social desirability bias. Set up like a Situational Judgement Test, test takers are presented with videos of moral dilemmas and they must provide justification for the actions they would take in each moral conundrum – based on a likert scoring scale. As it is in development, validation research is still being conducted, but I’m keen to see how this tool is eventually applied out in the business world.

In answer the question posed in the title, I would say a resounding yes (and I know that most of the attendees at the TPF event this month would also agree) that morality absolutely does have a place in business. The mark of a developed society, I would argue, is how pervasive morality is within it – from organisational practices, to political accountability, to educational access and beyond. I’d like to finish this piece with a quote which demonstrates this point from one of the most influential, highly respected and as most would agree moral individuals of the 20th century.

“Seven Deadly Sins

Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Science without humanity
Knowledge without character
Politics without principle
Commerce without morality
Worship without sacrifice.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Written by Raj Chopra, committee member of TPF – @Raj_Chopra24

Follow The Psychometrics Forum on Twitter: @TPF_UK

* Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. The chemist refused saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.


Borba, M. (2002) Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. Jossey-Bass; England.

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191–195.

Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.  New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119.

Narvaez, D. (2009). Triune Ethics Theory and moral personality. In D. Narvaez & D.K. Lapsley (Eds.), Moral Personality, Identity and Character: An Interdisciplinary future (pp. 136-158). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.