The Development of Moral and Ethical Reasoning in the Law Curriculum

22 June 2020

Educational project

The Development of Moral and Ethical Reasoning in the Law Curriculum

Developing the capacity for moral judgement is an essential professional competence for lawyers. For assessing and providing insight into the development of moral judgement in law students, the six stages of moral development as described by the cognitive-developmental theory of moral development by Kohlberg (1984) provide a frame of reference.


What teaching and learning activities in the law curriculum can be used in order to contribute to students’ moral reasoning and moral judgement? Inspired by international literature on legal ethics, various teaching methods and learning activities have been tried out in the law curriculum at Utrecht University School of Law:

Four teaching methods were tried out in the period 2019 to 2021 at the Utrecht University School of Law: teaching methods that either work with (hypothetical) – dilemma’s (I); in-class reflection papers (II); experiential learning based on own experiences in a simulation situation (III); or clinical teaching in a real law firm (IV).

Aim and research question

The research questions were as follows: I. Do the four teaching methods have a positive effect on the development of moral reasoning of law students? II. What do teachers believe to be the strong points of the pilots in relation to their influence on students’ moral reasoning and what conditions are necessary to come to fruition?

Set-up and method

First of all, the Defining Issues Test (DIT) was used to measure the development of moral reasoning in bachelor’s and master’s law students. By means of paired t-tests (pre- and post-measurements – on the level of schemas, patterns of thought and on overall level) we tried to identify which learning activity yields the most gain in moral reasoning (five groups, pre- and post-measurements) in SPSS Additional information about the effectiveness and utility of the method was gathered using semi-structured interviews with the lecturers (e.g., do you think the method contributed to the moral development of students?; Was the method easy to implement?). Their experiences and the reflections of the lecturers will be used to interpret the results: what exactly were the elements that proved to be effective (in the quantitative part of our study)?

(Preliminary) results

Unfortunately, in all pilots, the remaining groups, i.e. students that participated in both the pre-and post-measurements, were quite small. Conclusions can therefore only be drawn with caution. Also, when all pilots are taken together, looking at changes in scores after ethics teaching, we see an overall trend/rise of N2, i.e. the degree to which post-conventional items are prioritized plus the degree to which personal interest items (lower stage items) receive lower ratings than the ratings given to post-conventional items (higher stage items). This gives us an indication that our teaching (methods) on legal ethics had a positive effect.

Although some significant differences in the pre- and post-scores were found, these should be interpreted with utmost care. However, for future research it can be interesting to explore these results further. These results might indicate that:

  • students’ sense of morality, defined in terms of more abstract principles and values, increased;
  • their focus on maintaining social laws and norms declined;
  • and they prioritized post-conventional items more in combination with giving lower ratings to personal interest items than the ratings given to post-conventional items.

This preference for higher stage items, which was significant, although for a small group, can also be seen as a (positive) trend across all the pilots taken together. Further research could investigate these results further.


Further research is needed to provide more insight into what types of moral education (possibly combined) are most effective in developing moral reasoning; preferably through various interventions over a longer period of time, stretching from the start of the bachelor’s degree in law until (post-doctoral training in) practice. However, our study of the pilots has shown that both the design of effective moral education and measuring progress by means of DIT are feasible. The next step is to investigate differences between the types of moral education with larger groups of students in order to be able to give firm conclusions. One final, positive, but still tentative, result of these pilots is that there is no sign of cynical or amoral reasoning among (the small group of) Utrecht University law students


  • Hartwell, S. (1994). Promoting moral development through experiential teaching. Clinical Law Review, 1, 505–539.
  • Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development, Vol. 1: The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
  • Van den Enden, T., Boom, J., Brugman, D., & Thoma, S. (2019). Stages of moral judgment development: Applying item response theory to Defining Issues Test data. Journal of Moral Education, 48, 423-438.

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