Moral Development- Micro and Macro Applications

Moral Development Theory and Practice in Discipling Individuals and as Revealed in the Broad View of Biblical History                                                                 Cathy Byrd  3-18-17


In the character formation and spiritual formation work that we do at Titus 2, there is a process that we use that is designed to take those coming to us from the worldview of the culture in which they have been formed and in which they have lived and to transform their minds and hearts into a worldview that reflects the biblical Christian worldview.  Not everyone is “all in” and others will only embrace the Christian life up to a point.  It is not coercive, even though some come to us ordered by the courts to complete the Titus 2 program. Even those are free to leave any time.  It may be less comfortable for them to do so than staying, but they have the choice of whether they wish to be changed.  It is a psychoeducational approach as well as a spiritual approach.   It uses enticing persuasion…..showing the students the many ways that God desires to embrace and bless them as they grow in knowledge, understanding, and obedience.   It is “caught” as well as “taught” through the mentoring, discipleship, and witness of the volunteers who give so much of their time and themselves to this endeavor. 

There is a simple though not easy  identification and discipleship schema based on the current moral development status of individuals and the goal toward which we wish to move them that we use.   There are four “stages” to which students will be exposed.   They are described below.

1. ) The stage of Self-Interest Based Ethic: This is the position of most who come to us from the chaos of their present lives. A self-interest ethic emphasizes the importance of valuing ourselves and of self-respect. However, this approach adopts a more radical stance when it gives priority to the individual from the point of view of the individual’s own interest or desire, which is what we find to be the case with most of the women coming to us.  A self-interest based ethic advises individuals to be primarily concerned with how the outcome of a particular decision is likely to affect them personally.  What is “right” is defined almost exclusively by whether or not it helps one achieve her own immediate goals, often without regard to the impact on others or long term impact.  Skills like self-control and delayed gratification are often lacking.  

Upon entry into the program we immediately require them to conform to the next stage of moral development.  It is:

2.) Rules-based Ethic: A rules-based ethic gives priority to rules, regulations and policies as a means of defining “right”, or ethical behavior. It assesses the right thing to do in a situation by checking for a rule that addresses the situation. The law is considered absolute in determining what should or should not be done. A rules-based ethic may evolve into the development of elaborate and comprehensive codes designed to deal with as many situations as possible and emphasizes compliance with rules. Although the rules are  established to support the underlying values of the group, they are not always readily recognized and understood by those just coming in a Rules-Based Ethic from a Self-Interest Based Ethic. Rules-based ethical structures become better understood and tolerated as the individual understands and embraces the values underlying the rules and begins to experience the positive outcomes that cooperation with the rules afford to the participant. 




1.            There can never be enough rules to cover every situation. One must learn to understand and interpret “the spirit of the law” as well as “the letter of the law” to avoid further endless extensions of minute and explicit rules to deal with every contingency.

2.            Due to the complexity of life, the promulgation of rules can foster in some rebellious individuals an “exception” or loophole mentality… the presence of rules becomes manipulation. One is constantly testing every rule to see how far to the edge of non-compliance one can go before discipline is exerted.

3.            Rules can conflict. Do we create more rules to adjudicate conflicts that arise when the practical application of two rules becomes difficult?  

4.            All rules need interpretation.  There must be acceptance of the process and agreement regarding who will be granted authority for the final interpretation.

5.            Focusing on rules and actions makes us think of ourselves in terms of what we do, and not who we are.

So, do we simply forget about rules?

1.       We really cannot do without some rules. Everyone has them no matter what. Not to follow any rules is itself a rule!


2.       Rules are essential for understanding the difference between right and wrong—the main parameters of what is expected of everyone.  Thus they coordinate human behavior in a rough and ready way.


3.       Rules function as helping guidelines or synopses of cumulative moral experience and wisdom of the group to which one belongs or among which one seeks to affiliate.  


4.       Rules can clarify fundamental issues at stake in attempts to resolve problems.  “What do the rules say?  How do we apply that here?”


While individuals are learning the rules of the new structured realm of Rules-Based Ethic into which they have entered, they are being taught the underlying values that the rules support.  Over time, as they begin to learn, evaluate, and practice with the values, observing the positive aspects of those values and how to apply them to their own lives for the benefit of themselves and others they generally become less resistant to the rules.  Eventually, the rules are no longer problematic.  When one embraces and begins to desire to live according to the values being taught and lived, they have truly begun to live out of the next developmental stage of the ethical progression:

3.) Values Based Ethics: Values are rooted in our culture, in the family’s practices and preferences, and what we call “ways of life”. They are part of the foundation upon which moral reasoning is based and serve as guides for decisions and actions. Some authors define them as enduring beliefs about what is considered to have important worth.  Each culture and various subcultures have values that have been established through its leadership, structure, rules, practices, and disciplines.  When the values are attached to the results or outcomes of our actions, it is also called Consequence-Based ethics. It emphasizes that the effects of our actions on ourselves and others tend to play an overriding role in ethical decision-making. It promotes assessment of the probable good and bad effects of the different options open to us in a situation and use of these assessments as the basis for deciding what should or should not be done.   Rules and policies continue to be in place to guide the discretionary judgment in specific situations. Values- Based or Consequence-Based Ethic stages advocate transparency and usually state publicly the set of values by which they propose to operate and by which they are to be judged.   Consequences and disciplinary actions are sought that are in keeping with the violation and in proportion to the violation.  Such constraints on violations of the values are referred to as  “natural consequences.”

If we as Christian educators and mentors can assist a cooperating individual through this progression from the culturally promulgated Self-Interest Based Ethic (one expression of which is seen in what some recognize as a “street mentality” that often is accompanied by frequent violations of the boundaries of others and engagement with law enforcement), then successfully through the Rules-Based Ethic to this Values-Based Ethic and it is accompanied by biblical literacy and support for a real relationship with Christ, then the individual is likely to manifest a significant change in attitude and behavior.  The presence of a regenerated conscience will lead to improved sensitivity to “right” and “wrong” based on a new set of community values to which one now belongs. 

If an individual only progresses this far, it will make in difference in choices of associations and actions and make the individual a far better community minded individual.  But there is a higher, more lasting and abundant quality of life that can be achieved by persevering in the moral development to the final stage:

4.) Virtue Based Ethics: A virtue based approach to ethics gives priority to living a good life and to achieving excellence according to one’s view of the highest standard of virtue.  In the Christian worldview, that standard is the example of the life and ministry of Christ and the principles revealed in the Bible.  A Virtue-Based Ethic focuses on sustainable progress toward a life-long goal to be achieved – being a person of good character.  It starts with the idea that a person of good character will strive to do the right thing in any circumstance. Some of the virtues possessed by such a person are integrity, courage, compassion, and a sense of justice.  How those are lived out depends upon the unique gifts and graces of the individual and God’s purpose being sought and lived out in one’s life. 


As one studies the Bible it is observable that God has been putting the people whom he has chosen to be his through much the same moral development process.  After the fall of Adam and Eve that resulted from disobedience and yielding to the temptation to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”, the world fell under an ethical status of self-interest.  Selfishness reigned in the hearts of people.  The human condition under the burden of “original sin” was ushered in by Adam and Eve’s disobedience.  And God’s redemptive work of restoring his moral image in man and the world began. The family, tribe, and clan was the structure that God used to mold his people through centuries of becoming his people.  But it would be during the era of Moses and the institution of the Ten Commandments that God would model a rules-based ethical standard for his people.  That model continued as God taught his people through the judges, kings, and prophets the values that the rules were designed to support so that they could live out the value system as a culture that was distinctly different from those who did not believe in and embrace the covenant with God.  As history shows, however, values-based systems can vary greatly as some choose one group of values over another.  And battle among themselves over who is right and who is wrong.  But, with Christ’s presence among humanity and God’s standard of virtue present for all to see, the developmental stage of virtue-based ethics was born.  The ministry of Jesus Christ transformed the way the rules were viewed and interpreted and determined the values that had eternal worth in the Kingdom of God.   God has given us all that we need to live according to virtue-based ethics.  He has given us the example of the life of Christ.  He has given us his Word to read.  He has given us his Holy Spirit to assist us in understanding and applying the Word to the dilemmas we face in life.  

I believe that God desired that all of humanity would come to know the virtue-based ethics standard of conduct that knowledge and obedience to the Word of God and relationship with Christ makes possible.  

Moral development, whether it is one heart at a time or for all people, nations, and cultures of the world, is God’s plan and it is readily visible in the redemptive plan of God in his Word and in the world.  It continues to be an evolving work in progress. 


(With thanks to Dr. Sandra Richter whose Epic of Eden study helped me see the “big picture” of God’s redemption and how it correlated to the moral development model we use at Titus 2!)