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Exploring Levels of Moral Development Among Sex Offenders Participating in Community-Based Treatment

NCJ Number
Journal of Offender Rehabilitation Volume: 34 Issue: 4 Dated: 2002 Pages: 85-95
Frederick P. Buttell
Date Published
11 pages
This study examined the levels of moral reasoning among sex offenders ordered by a court into a community-based treatment program.
Kohlberg's (1981) theory of moral development holds that moral reasoning changes over time in predictable stages that move from the simple (low) to the complex (high) and that the complex (higher) stages are more adaptive and different from the simple stages. Kohlberg (1981) asserted that people prefer to reason at the highest level of which they are capable, because moral issues are resolved more effectively at a higher stage than at a lower stage. There is an abundance of empirical support that indicates the structure of moral development is universal; that offenders most often use a pre-conventional level of moral reasoning; that moral education programs are effective in raising the level of moral reasoning; and that enhancing moral reasoning results in decreased criminal activity. The current study explored the usefulness of moral development as a treatment construct for sex offenders. A total of 77 men arrested in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and ordered by the court into a community-based sex offender treatment program agreed to participate in the study. Time in treatment ranged from 1 to 49 months, with an average time in treatment of 22 months. Subjects were tested with the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which operationalizes Kohlberg's interview method of assessing moral reasoning. Of the 77 men who completed the DIT, 5 were removed from the analysis for various violations of the instrument's internal consistency checks. The primary research question was whether sex offenders in the treatment program were similar to other types of offenders in using lower levels of moral reasoning than non-offenders. The study found that the sex offenders in this study were using a level of moral reasoning two standard deviations lower than adults in general. Based on this finding, it is plausible to conclude that there may be a relationship between moral development and sexual offending. Sex offenders who fail to make positive changes in their behavior following treatment may still be approaching problem solving in difficult situations with a level of moral reasoning that promotes self-interest (pre-conventional reasoning) over empathy (conventional reasoning). More extensive research and follow-up assessments are needed in exploring the relationship between sexual offending and moral development. Study limitations are discussed. 23 references


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