Foundations of Ethics

Contribution of Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, John Rawls, Lonnie Athens, James Gilligan, Suzanne Retzinger, René Girard, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke



This knol reviews and integrates fundamental ideas on ethics, including seminal contributions by Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, John Rawls, Lonnie Athens, James Gilligan, Suzanne Retzinger, René Girard, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. The article concludes by linking back modern secular views on ethics to ancient sources on the same ideas.


This Knol reviews and integrates fundamental ideas on ethics, including seminal contributions by Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, John Rawls, Lonnie Athens, James Gilligan, Suzanne Retzinger, René Girard, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke.  The article concludes by linking back modern secular views on ethics to ancient sources on the same ideas.

Integrated Kohlberg-Gilligan Model

Harvard’s Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a model suggesting that an individual progresses through six stages of increasing depth of reasoning when contemplating best ethical practices.  His student, Carol Gilligan proposed an additional dimension of ethical reasoning along an axis that is independent of Kohlberg’s six-stage ladder.  Here, we integrate their models.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Reasoning
Plus Carol Gilligan’s Orthogonal Axis of Ethical Care

Stage 1: Punishment-avoidance and obedience — Individuals make moral decisions on the basis of what is best for themselves, without regard for the needs or feeling of others. They obey rules only if established by more powerful individuals; they disobey when they can do so without getting caught.

Stage 2: Exchange of favors — Individuals begin to recognize that others also have needs. They may attempt to satisfy the needs of others if their own needs are also met in the process. They continue to define right and wrong primarily in terms of consequences to themselves.

Stage 3: Good boy/good girl — Individuals make moral decisions on the basis of what actions will please others, especially authority figures. They are concerned about maintaining interpersonal relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty. They now consider someone’s intentions in determining innocence or guilt.

Stage 4: Law and order — Individuals look to society as a whole for guidelines concerning what is right or wrong. They perceive rules to be inflexible and believe that it is their “duty” to obey them.

Stage 5: Social Contract — Individuals recognize that rules represent an agreement among many people about appropriate behavior. They recognize that rules are flexible and can be changed if they no longer meet society’s needs.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle — Individuals adhere to a small number of abstract, universal principles that transcend specific, concrete rules. They answer to an inner conscience and may break rules that violate their own ethical principles.

Orthogonal Axis: Ethics of Care — An obligation of care rests on the understanding of relationships as a response to another in terms of their special needs. Focuses on the moral value of being empathetic toward those dearly beloved persons with whom we have special and valuable relationships, and the moral importance of responding to such persons as unique individuals with characteristics that require custom-crafted responses to them that we do not normally extend to others.

Carol Gilligan’s Axis, which extends from Antipathy to Empathy, is orthogonal to Kohlberg’s Ladder. Think of Kohlberg’s Ladder as the (vertical) Y-Axis, and Gilligan’s as the (horizontal) X-Axis, forming a 2-dimensional plane with thinking about ethics increasing upwards, and empathy increasing toward the right. 

We can ground the above model with solid scientific foundations by turning to the scholarship of Lonnie Athens, James Gilligan, and Suzanne Retzinger.

Lonnie Athens, James Gilligan, and Suzanne Retzinger

Lonnie Athens is a criminologist who was among the first to interview convicted felons who had committed violent acts. He compiled his research into a classic text, Why they Kill: The Process of Violentization. In a nutshell, he found that shaming and blaming were the primary causes of reactive violence in criminals who committed acts of violence on strangers.

James Gilligan, M.D. was, for many years, the Director of the Center for the Study of Violence at the Harvard University Medical School. He continued the line of research started by Lonnie Athens and obtained similar results, which he published in several books and papers.

Suzanne Retzinger was a psychotherapist who became interested in violence in relationships. She independently discovered the same finding as Athens and Gilligan — namely that shaming and blaming was the most salient cause of breakdowns in relationships, including violence in relationships. Together with Thomas Sheff, she published extensively on the subject.

Their work is among the best scientifically grounded and peer-reviewed modern research establishing the role of shaming and blaming as a causal nexus of reactive violence.

Partly as a result of studies like theirs, the notion of Retributive Justice has given way to a more enlightened notion of Restorative Justice in some of the more progressive societies which seek to establish best practices for dealing with breaches of social norms.

René Girard

René Girard, Emeritus of Stanford University, was a Professor of Humanities who specialized in Literary Analysis and Criticism. His principal subject was the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky, along with Gogol, Pushkin, and Tolstoi, founded the literary genre known as Russian Realism. In English Literature, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle similarly wrote in a style that presented a realistic portrayal of the times they lived in. Among Dostoevsky’s novels, the two that are most germane to our inquiry here are Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Girard extracted from these novels a succinct model of the culture they portrayed. Girard’s Model of Competition, Conflict, and Violence is remarkably insightful. By that, I mean that his model can easily be adapted to lower grade conflicts that don’t escalate all the way to violence. See for example, Cogitating About Communication in Our Connectedness and Worrying About Wheel-Warring in Our WikiWoe. It is straightforward to take Girard’s Model plug it into the Drama Theory Model.

Since these systems theoretic models emerge from the literary arts, they clearly are not grounded in science.

But consider the remark of Umberto Eco, a Professor of Semiotics who also writes novels (e.g. The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum). Eco said, “Whereof we cannot express a theory, we must narrate a story instead.” In other words, ideas which are not yet sufficiently studied by science tend to emerge initially as stories. Thus, before there was a Theory of Ethics, there was Aesop’s Fables and the cultural myths that Joseph Campbell popularized. These stories transmitted cultural wisdom, insight, and values at a time in human history when there was no scientific method. To this day, scientific investigations often spring from a single anecdotal observation. And what is an anecdote, but a story! The plural of anecdote is data. That’s why the Arts and Sciences are the Yin and Yang of academic research. Often the Arts illuminate an idea first, and then Science gets around to analyzing and modeling it.

John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

Perhaps there is none more esteemed among modern English-speaking Ethicists than the late John Rawls. He is especially known for his notion of the Veil of Ignorance in the Philosophy of Ethics.

The Veil of Ignorance corresponds to the notion that any Universal Principle of Ethics must be the same for all players. If one were to trade places with any other player, the same Ethical Principle must still apply. Note that Einstein used the same reasoning when he worked out the Theory of Relativity. Einstein reasoned that the Laws of Nature must be the same for all observers. If two observers trade places, they should not swap out their proposed Laws of Nature for a new set, keyed to a different vantage point. Hillel expressed the same idea in the Golden Rule. His version said, “That which is abhorrent to yourself, do not visit upon your fellow Wikipedian. That is the whole of the Ethical Law. All the rest is talk-page commentary.” This precept is known as “Indifference to Role Reversal” and applies equally to Einstein’s thinking, Hillel’s thinking, and the Twentieth Century thinking of John Rawls. Another name for this precept is The Symmetry Principle. If there is an asymmetry present, there is something lopsided in the applicable ethics. In the presence of an asymmetry or imbalance, there will arise a restoring force that will manifest as drama (or karma) to those embedded within an unfair system.

Social Contracts

In working our way up through Lawrence Kolhberg’s Six Stages of Devolpment of Moral and Ethical Reasoning, most people clearly understand the descriptions of the first four stages, but often express unfamiliarity with Stage 5, the Social Contract.

Here again is our succinct definition of Kohlberg’s Stage 5, The Social Contract:

Stage 5: Social Contract — Individuals recognize that rules represent an agreement among many people about appropriate behavior. They recognize that rules are flexible and can be changed if they no longer meet society’s needs.

The notion of a Social Contract was introduced into the annals of philosophy by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. In the 20th Century, John Rawls further developed and modernized the notion of a Social Contract within his Theory of Justice.

The idea long predates the philosophical examination of the theory of social contracts. The Covenant of Moses and the New Covenant of Jesus are early examples of a Social Contract. The Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and the US Bill of Rights are also exemplary instances of substantial historical interest. Essentially, a Social Contract expresses reciprocal promises among the signatories.

The details of what is being promised vary from one Social Contract to another, but the promises are voluntary, mutually reciprocal, and rely on trust and honor rather than policing through sanctions or punishments. In a social contract community, breaches of promise or breaches of expectation are typically resolved through a civil resolution process that does not contemplate a sanctions or punishment enforcement regime (with the possible exception of S&M fetish subcultures, such as may be found, for example, in some irregular quarters of the English Wikipedia).

An Example Social Contract

Here is a representative example of a Community Social Contract for a small online community from the 1990s.

Blooming Lotus Forum Social Contract


Our purpose is to create and foster Communities of Practice and Communities of Commitment to work creatively, productively, cooperatively and synergistically toward the express common goals of the participants of the Orenda Project.

By agreeing to participate in the conferences in this community, we commit, pledge and agree to engage in a civil and respectful dialogue toward achieving our common goals. Sharing in communities, people and organizations can be mutually supportive and enjoy rewards from the exchange of ideas, experiences, and feelings. By sharing across communities, people and organizations can also reap benefits. For instance, lots of people and organizations have begun to use new technologies to their benefit. Sharing information about the uses of technology, in a mutually supportive atmosphere, across communities, can benefit everyone. There are many areas in which sharing can provide benefit. Hopefully, access to this conferencing will help promote sharing in arts, literature, crafts, events and activities, education, social services, environmental issues, civic issues, and many other areas of interest.

General Project Goals
  • To celebrate and express the natural diversity and cultural diversity that characterize our participating communities;
  • To welcome a broad cross-section of people and organizations to plan for the future;
  • To utilize pro-active and empowering processess to encourage creative ideas;
  • To envision environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits for all;
  • To seek ways to foster pride of people and place.
General Interpersonal and Social Goals
  • To treat other participants with courtesy and respect, and as we wish them to treat us;
  • To foster cooperation, personal and community growth;
  • When conflict occurs, to to seek resolution and reconciliation in a spirit of respect, peace and justice;
  • To take individual responsibility for our words.

The organizers and hosts of the Blooming Lotus Forum subscribe to the general principles outlined in this exemplary guideline on Roles and Responsibilities of Conference Facilitators.

Terms of Engagement

Participants of the Blooming Lotus Forum conferences agree not to post any unlawful, harassing, libelous, privacy invading, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene or otherwise objectionable material. Participants agree not to transmit any material that violates the rights of another, including but not limited to the intellectual property rights of another.

Conflict Resolution Processes

Conflict in community forums is normal and healthy. We seek to work through conflicts as they arise in a civil, courteous, and constructive manner, mindful of the rights of all participants to a fair hearing, to equal protection, and to uniform treatment. To this end we agree to employ and support best practices in the art of conflict resolution.

The best practices for conflict resolution include recommended internal conflict resolution procedures which we agree to honor and respect. Additional external conflict resolution resources may be employed if internal processes fail. The conflict resolution process should be used when the terms of this Social Contract are thought to have been breached by any participant.

Custom Social Contracts

Individual Conferences may adopt modifications of this agreement to incorporate more specific terms of engagement consistent with the purpose and nature of their individual sub-communities.

Some Conferences may also wish to adopt a Community Covenant such as the the one used at the Community Intelligence Labs.

Glossary of Terms

Community Covenants and Social Contracts are agreements among the members and participants of a community which establish the community and cultural norms of social and collegial interaction.

Communities of Practice and Communities of Commitment are terms introduced by Etienne Wenger and George Pór who are with the Community Intelligence Labs.

Discussion of Social Contracts

Some correspondents assert that the English language Wikipedia has a social contract by this definition. However it is not written down, unless one is referring to Wikipedia’s Five Pillars. But  new registrants are not asked to review and affirmatively agree to it.

On the other hand, see Official Policies of Wikipedia.  When anyone can create a policy proposal, and the process of ratifying it as official policy is “majority consensus” of whoever shows up, then one gets a haphazard and unwieldy hodgepodge of mutually inconsistent components which are in constant evolution. It may have worked at first, but it is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and polionic. To the extent that the hodgepodge of component policies comprises a social contract, it fails to fulfill the function of one.  In particular, the dispute resolution protocols and procedures are absent or ill-defined.

Universal Ethical Principles and the Ethics of Care

The top rung of Kohlberg’s Ladder is called the Universal Ethical Principle. It’s the modern equivalent of such fundamental ideas as the Golden Rule (as originally articulated by Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and by essentially all other major faiths in very similar language). In the 20th Century, luminaries such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama are recognized as operating at the highest levels of ethical awareness and practice.

Carol Gilligan’s orthogonal axis, known as the Ethics of Care, adds a feminist perspective by emphasizing the development of Empathy as the antidote to Antipathy.

Together, the top rung of Kohlberg’s Ladder, plus Gilligan’s dimension of Empathy complete the Urim and Thummim of our model of Ethics.

Urim and Thummim literally mean “Lights and Perfection”. Here we interpret those ancient metaphors to mean “Insight and Empathy” or “Awareness and Mercy” or “Mindfulness and Compassion”.

Discussion of Urim and Thummim

Many people who first learn of Urim and Thummim think of them as mesmeric crystals or divination dice. This unfortunate misconception arises because of the way the Ephod is described in the Old Testament. The original English translators of Exodus 28 imagined the Urim and Thummim to be physical artifacts (e.g. divination dice and mesmeric crystals) to be worn in a pouch in the breastplate of Aaron’s Ephod.  However, it is clear from the metaphors (“Lights and Perfections”) that what Aaron, the High Priest, must have upon his heart when he enters the Holy of Holies to seek Divine Guidance is something more abstract and sensible. He needs enlightenment (insightful awareness and mindfulness) in his left hemisphere, and graceful perfection (empathy, mercy, and compassion) in his right hemisphere, to divine the best ethical practices for leading his people out of the darkness of uncertainty and into the light of God’s grace. Today we modernize the language and the Neuro-Mathematical Systems Theology to place the same ancient wisdom on a scientific and philosophical foundation.  But fundamentally we get the same answer today as our forbearers obtained three and half millenia ago.


The content of this Knol originally appeared as part of a Wikiversity Learning Project on the Ethical of Management of the English Language Wikipedia.  Additional material and further discussion can be found there.


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  1. Sajid Khan

    Know thyself or become thy true self? — A new source of ethics.As Kakos has rightly pointed out according to tradition ethics can be defined as human nature, as an effort to live good, as an ‘a priori’ truth, as a creation of society etc. Ethics can also be described as that quality of human nature that is generated by the highest super mature emotional brain. Moral values can be based on the character traits of the super mature emotional brain. A premature brain is totally self centered, a immature brain is corrupt , a mature brain generates a trophy self image and a super mature brain generates a selfless human being. The qualities of a super mature brain are the same as those of a self master and a wise human being. A wise human being does not only know himself he is the very personification of moral values! He does not need to know what is good or bad; his behavior is 24/7 ethical. In this context become thyself should be the goal of ethics education. Many a times even a premature brain knows good from bad yet it does not understand what is good behavior and its ignorance compels it to act in a bad manner. It is the quality of the brain that decides what is good or bad behavior for the person. Ethical behavior is decided by the developed emotional brain capacity of the individual. “This view is called “psychological egoism” and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions”. – Kakos All books on management and self help teach knowledge addressed to the reader as you/self. As the books knowledge and instructions assume that the real person is following their instructions they think that the book will be affective. The problem is most people know themselves as their self image. Thus a person whose self is cloaked in a -2 premature self image has his ethical behavior controlled by his -2 premature emotional intelligence. No matter how much you plead with him to act ethically the only reason he will not commit crime is due to fear of getting punished. If he is convinced that he can get away with it he will commit crime. A prime example is the majority of people living in third world countries. Most have their emotional brain power developed to the -1 immature level. Thus their whole behavior is corrupt. Even though they are religious and they attend their place of worship; the sermons of good behavior have no affect. Even though they know they are doing wrong they don’t understand it enough to not act corrupt. So the cycle of corruption continues and whole countries are struggling under the burden of unethical behavior. Another example is the vast majority of people living right here in America. Our emotional brain power is developed to the +1 super mature level and as a result instead of becoming selfless our brains generate a trophy self image. Satisfying the needs of our trophy self image become more important then even taking care of our progeny. Thus we neglect our family and unethecially stream roll our business rivals to achieve our self image generated never ending dreams. So instead of ‘ “This view is called “psychological egoism” and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions”. We must state, “”This view is called “psychological egoism” and maintains that self image-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions”. Thus to develop 24/7 ethical behavior it is not enough to know thyself. One must become one’s true self image less true self! And the foundations of the ethical code can be based on the character traits of this selfless ( self image less ) self. One of the biggest flaw I find in the approach to finding answers to the mega questions of philosophy is that man is obsessed with finding the ultimate answers instead of trying to find the best possible answers. Take the question of morality/ethics. There are those whose morality concepts are based on their beliefs. For them morality is a Gd given tenant so there are many who are bent on proving that morality is from Gd ( Is it any less good if it is not from Gd? ). Others base it on universal human values. There are points for and against these approaches and ultimate answers to date are beyond the realm of science. I suggest we take the purely scientific approach and define practical morality. I have defined the human mind in four basic levels. The moral values of a premature mind are those of a snake. The moral values of a immature mind are corrupt. The moral values of a mature mind are those of a trophy self image driven ambitions of a ‘I am the best’ driven mind. The moral values of a super mature mind are those of a wise human being. So we can define the ideal moral values as those that are generated by a super mature mind. Capitalist moral values are based on the moral values of a super mature mind; as the majority of capitalist minds develop up to the mature mind level the results of capitalistic morality reflect the moral values of the mature mind ( the majority of minds in capitalist countries ). Thus each for himself…

    • Barry Kort

      Untitled — Thanks for your contributions, Klaus. I would urge the serious reader to review all the articles on this subject, to obtain as broad a perspective as they seek.

  2. Dzonatas Sol

    Untitled — Are there any mental illnesses associated with Stage 1 lapses? (Maybe anxiety?)

    • Barry Kort

      Untitled — Sociopathy and other Cluster B Personality Disorders.

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