Morals tell us
what is good.

Moral Development: Reasoning, Judgment, and Action

Yvonne L. LaMar

Moral Development The practical applications of morality theories can only be fully appreciated in the context of moral development. Several social scientists have theorized about the chronology and order that people develop the ability to know right from wrong. This paper has two purposes. The first purpose is to briefly explore the educational implications of two popular theories of moral development. The second purpose is to examine the formation and applications of moral judgment and moral action along with educator's role in this area of development.

Theories of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg's (1969) Theory of Moral Development is one of the most widely used approaches to the examination of moral reasoning. This stage theory is based on various responses to scenarios which involved a moral dilemma. Kohlberg recognized three levels of moral development which encompassed six stages. A brief description of the levels and stages follows:

Level 1, The Preconventional Level Children at this level respond to moral cues from their social reference group, most commonly, parents. At this stage children are extremely self-involved and moral behavior is only in response to sanctions and rewards based on behavior, hence the description of Stage 1, "The Obedience and Punishment Orientation". Stage 2 is the Instrumental Relativism Orientation. At this stage moral behavior depends on the desires of the individual.

Level 2, The Conventional or Moral Level Moral reasoning is now based on existing social norms as well as the rights of others. Kohlberg asserts that most adolescents and some adults operate at this level of reasoning. Stage 3 is the Interpersonal Concordance Orientation indicates that the individual has developed the ability to empathize and is no longer selfish in their moral reasoning. Stage 4 is the Orientation Toward Authority, Law, and Duty. At this stage moral activity becomes a function of following rules and has no association with the need for personal approval

Level 3, The Postconventional or Autonomous Level This is the most advanced level of moral reasoning which relies on universal principles in approaching moral problems. Stage 5 is the Social Contract Orientation which relies heavily on noble principles such as equality and human dignity. Stage 6 is the Universal Ethical Principles Orientation which is rarely reached. This orientation relies on principles that are self-generated and universally applicable. This brief description of levels and stages was provided as a backdrop for the educational implications of moral development theories. According to Kohlberg (1969) education plays a major role in moral development. His strongest statement to this effect is that moral reasoning stops at the same point that formal education stops. Although this assertion has stimulated much needed discussion about moral education, there has been a great deal of resistance.

Parents tend to fear that formal moral education may contradict the religious or philosophical values that are taught in the home and by social agencies other than the school. Even in communities where moral education is welcome there is disagreement about which values and what topics to cover in the classroom. Children are encouraged to behave in a moralistic fashion whether the school has embraced a moral education agenda or not. Middle-class, conformist values are rewarded and other behavior is punished or pathologized. Behavior that can be characterized as immoral will be discussed later in this paper along with practical ways to for educators to approach them.

Carol Gilligan's Feminist Theory of Moral Development

According to Kohlberg (1969), more males than females move beyond stage 4 of their moral development. There appeared to be deficiencies in females' ability to reason morally. This deficiency was accepted and confirmed by other theorists until Carol Gilligan of Harvard University supplied an alternative explanation. Gilligan demonstrated through several studies that males and females approach moral issues from completely different perspectives. The most significant difference in the females' approach was the inclination to emphasize interpersonal relationships (Gilligan, 1977). Females tend to base their moral actions on responsibility toward specific others more than on abstract principles. Gilligan described the stages of female moral development in terms of levels and transitions.

Level 1, Orientation Toward Self- Interest The First Transition: from selfishness to responsibility

Level 2, Identification of Goodness with Responsibility for Others The Second Transition: from conformity to a new inner judgment

Level 3: Focusing on the Dynamics Between Self and Others This stage theory suggests that we seriously consider gender differences when evaluating moral reasoning, judgment, and actions. The implications of Gilligan's research go beyond the domain of psychology to reach into any field that theorizes about people as an intelligent and respectful effort to provide an empirical basis for differences that are discovered between genders. In an educational context this would suggest that different types of behavior should be expected from boys and girls. There is also the implication that moral education interventions should be tailored to the appropriate gender . 

Morality and Identity

Morality and identity are interrelated aspects of the individual personality. Spontaneous moral judgment is an integral part of social conduct and reflects a dimension of one's personality. Piaget (1954) alludes to this connection with the concepts of egocentrism and decentering. Egocentrism is the inability to see the perspective of others. Decentering is the process of moving from egocentrism to sociocentrism which involves role-taking ability and empathic reactions to others. Decentering depends highly on conscious social activity and an individual's personal sense of autonomy. Decentering coincides with Piaget's Concrete Operational Stage (age 7 or 8) when children's language reveals more concern about others and less self-involvement (Piaget, 1954).

In the context of morality, identity formation embraces two central concepts. The first concept is primary personal identity which is phenomenal thinking that occurs with a sense of ownership (conscious thought). The second concept is autonomous identity which is phenomenal experiences which are not accompanied by that sense of ownership (unconscious processes). The primary identity is prominent and continuous through the life span. The autonomous identity exists as a conscience or inner entity (Baldwin, 1906) which is perceived or summoned during moments of ethical deliberation. The autonomous identity is accessed only when conflict is present.

According to Davidson and Youniss (1991) the "experiencing self" slips between the primary and autonomous identifies without a break in phenomenal continuity due to the way that thought seamlessly skips over temporal gaps. This has several implications for the study of moral development. First, it suggests that social activity is conducive to moral development. Second, it describes what it is that develops - the seamless internal dialogue between the primary and autonomous identities. Finally, it predicts the course of moral development into adulthood coinciding with Piaget's stages of cognitive development.

Another implication of Davidson and Youniss' (1991) view of the "experiencing self" is the clarification between spontaneous moral judgment and moral theorizing. They propose that spontaneous moral judgments are universal where moral theorizing is bound to include elements derived from cultural (or other pluralistic) assumptions and practices. The link between moral judgment and moral identity is that both begin from the same underlying structures of thought (cognition).

The Socialization of Moral Judgment and Behavior: A Cross-Cultural Perspective Bronfenbrenner and Garbarino (1976) developed a typology of moral orientation that consists of five stages; 1. self orientation- individual is motivated by impulses of self-gratification without regards to or expectations of others. 2. authority-oriented - individual generalizes parental structures and values to include moral standards of other adults and authority figures. 3. Peer-oriented - individual becomes an adaptive conformist who goes along with peer group. 4. Collective-oriented - individual is committed to a set of enduring group goals which take precedence over individual desires. 5. Objectively-oriented - individual responds to situations on the basis of principles. Smooth transition from stage to stage requires extensive social interaction. Movement from Type 1 to Type 2 is stimulated by attachment patterns and responsiveness but is mainly associated with parental prohibitions (Bowlby, 1946). The individual stops responding to personal impulses in order to please parents or authority figures. Lack of discipline or authority figures hinders progress from the first to second type. Long term consequences of early social neglect indicate a pattern of psychopathology which might be categorized as amoral (Bowlby, 1946).

Movement from Type 2 to Type 3 presupposes that the individual has connections to several social agencies (e.g. school, church, peers, and family) and is being pulled in different, contradictory directions. Moderate dissonance is typical at this stage of life when the individual is not ready to conform but must make independent decisions that can be applied to concrete situations. There must be enough tension to require resolution but not enough to be overwhelming. Attainment of Type 3 status also requires a setting where the individual has opportunities and social support for developing abstract thinking because of overlapping social allegiances. Unfortunately, these social conditions do not occur in every culture.

The kind of social structure capable of generating Type 3 morality must be pluralistic where the different social agencies represent different expectations, sanctions, and rewards for members of society. These differences often generate inter-group conflict that is largely regulated by a set of ground rules (e.g. laws, The Constitution). Inter-group conflict is also subdued by some common commitment to unifying goals, such as religious ethics. The drawbacks of a pluralistic society are less troubling when compared to its alternatives. In a monolithic setting there is one set of goals which requires an authority orientation only. In an anomic setting there are no goals, meaning no integration and no variety. Pluralism occurs on several levels - within families (two parents vs. One, extended vs. Nuclear), peer group, neighborhood, community, work world, civic and political organizations, each of these settings varies according to social class.

Social Cognitive Theory of Moral Thought and Action When children are young there are physical boundaries to control their actions. As they mature, social relations are designed to elicit culturally acceptable behavior. According to Bandura (1991) cognitive guides are formed in our social relationships which regulate our conduct under changing circumstances. This view reinforces Reiss' (1965) Familial and Social Transmission Models which asserts that values and standards of conduct arise from diverse sources of influence and are promoted by institutional backing. Internalization of standards of moral conduct requires modeling from various sources. Children observe parents, siblings, peers and other adults to help them determine what behavior is appropriate for what situation.

Several unfortunate circumstances exist that underscore the need for intentional modeling from those who have direct contact with children. First, families that are estranged from the mainstream do not heed to institutional values causing confusing inconsistencies in the moral development of the children involved. Second, social change often arises from a breakdown of transmission between generations, leaving younger generations to find moral models among their contemporaries, which may not be appropriate. The last unfortunate reality is that television provides extensive opportunity for modeling aggressive and inappropriately sexualized behavior. Without adequate discussion of adult material that is readily available to them, children are likely to develop misconceptions about important issues.

Moral Judgment and Action

If an individual does not perceive evident fact in a predicament they experience cognitive conflict. Cognitive conflict serves as an equilibrium mechanism which motivates cognitive change (Bandura, 1991). However, discrepancies between events and mental structures are not automatically motivating. A limit to the balancing effect of cognitive conflict is that events that are too bewildering or too familiar do not arouse interest or exploration.

Interplay of Personal and Social Sanctions Bandura's (1991) Social Cognitive Theory identifies three sources of influence; behavior, cognition, and environment. Behavior usually produces self-evaluative reactions and social effects which may be complementary or opposing. To enhance the compatibility between personal and social influences people generally select associates with similar standards of conduct (although interacting with people of differing standards does not necessarily create personal conflict). In some cases, people who are not much committed to personal standards adopt a pragmatic orientation, tailoring their behavior to whatever the situation calls for. Selective association and the pragmatic orientation of moral behavior requires certain abilities according to Bandura (1991). The ability to selectively activate or disengage moral control requires that an individual must be capable of self-regulating behavior which could be considered purposeful access to the autonomous self.

Moral Disengagement Moral disengagement allows for different types of behavior under the same moral standards. This behavior is not culturally acceptable and is, in some cases, reprehensible. The following is a list of moral disengagement practices (Bandura, 1991) along with practical guidelines for educators to follow to counteract their effects.

Moral Justification - in this practice people do not engage in reprehensible conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions. The conduct is made socially and personally acceptable by portraying it in the service of moral purposes (e.g. military conduct, killing abortion doctors). The most effective way to counteract this behavior is not through the individual's personality structures, aggressive drives, or moral standards but by helping the individual to cognitively reconstruct the moral value of the action (Bandura, 1991).

Euphemistic Labeling is an example of how language shapes the thought patterns on which people base many of their actions. Diener et al. (1975) found that language possesses a disinhibitory power that allows people to behave in ways that they would not normally find unacceptable. The use of ethnic slurs are an example of euphemistic labeling. An effective way to deal with this behavior is to reveal the purpose of using this language. If people are unable to apply negative generalizations they are more likely to recognize the universal, human traits that others possess which allows for sympathetic behavior.

Advantageous Comparison exploits the contrast principle. The contrast principle declares that when an option is presented and then compared with another more attractive option, the second option appears to be more appealing than when viewed alone. A classic example of advantageous comparison in the presentation of an outrageously expensive item by a salesperson and then being presented with a lower priced but still expensive item. The less expensive item seems cheap by comparison but may have been perceived as expensive if it were presented alone. In an educational context this practice should be acknowledged and avoided. Correcting this behavior involves simply recognizing its use in order to make morally sound decisions.

Displacement of Responsibility involves distortion of the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. In many cases, people blame authorities for their actions rather than accept personal responsibility (Rule and Nesdale, 1976). Use of this practice depends highly on the legitimacy of the authority being obeyed; the higher the authority, the more people defer. This external attribution is also affected by other justifications such as social consensus about the morality of the enterprise. Stressing the value of autonomy and self-direction is a useful way to prevent or diffuse this behavior.

In the practice of Disregard or Distortion of Consequences people readily recall information about the potential benefits of an action but are less able to remember its harmful effects. This response is especially strong when damage is done and the effects can not be avoided, although evidence of harm will likely be discredited (Mynatt and Herman, 1975). Personalization is an effective way to counteract this behavior. In Milgram's (1974) classic obedience study, subjects were less like to inflict pain when they had personal contact with their victims, even when threatened.

Diffusion of Responsibility is reached by division of labor in a moral enterprise. Group decision-making obscures direct responsibility for particular acts. In some cases people go to great lengths to conceal their part in immoral activities. This practice is especially evident in bureaucracies where no one person claims responsibility for situations that may be a result of company policies or government regulations. Individuals may experience intense pressure to participate in such behavior but must be aware of the consequences that they will face individually.

The most common example of Attribution of Blame is victim-blaming. Victim-blaming involves the devaluation of people incurring harm and gives perpetrators even more tendency toward maltreatment. Victim-blaming makes perpetrators' actions excusable or even self-righteous. There is sometimes trivialization and distortion of consequences that are so convincing that victims come to believe the degrading characterizations of themselves. Realistic representations of people can be useful in limiting the use of this device.

The aforementioned devices do not spontaneously transform a person. Moral disengagement requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce heinous deeds (Bandura, 1991). The practices are usually preceded by gradual diminution of self-sanctions and are often accompanied by self-exonerations that are necessary to maintain self-esteem. A person's values and beliefs affect what information they seek and how they interpret it (Bandura, 1991). The distorted interpretation of morally disengaged behavior is most likely the result of an individual's need to possess positive self-regard in light of their immoral behavior.

Dehumanization Dehumanization can be used as an umbrella term to describe all of Bandura's (1991) morally disengaged behaviors. To perceive another as human activates empathic emotional reactions through perceived similarities (Bandura, 1991). The joys and suffering of similar people are more arousing than those of strangers or individuals who have been divested of human qualities (Bandura, 1991). Dehumanization is an essential ingredient in the perpetration of inhumanities (Kipnis, 1974). Kipnis (1974) found that those who are seen as subhuman were not only regarded as lacking sensitivity but as only responsive to harsh treatment.

A later study found more hopeful results. Helm and Morelli (1979) found that people steadfastly refuse to behave punitively, even in response to strong authoritarian commands, if the situation is personalized by having power holders see the oppressed people or by having them behave directly toward potential victims instead of remotely. This finding might be called "The Power of Humanization!".

Summary The theories of moral development were briefly introduced to serve as a conceptual bridge for the theories of moral judgment and action that followed. I could only attempt to relate the aforementioned concepts to current school settings. Without a clear moral education agenda, the role of educators in the students' formation of moral judgment is vague. What is clear is that any efforts at intervention or social modeling should be done in collaboration with the other social systems that influence the lives of students.

So many opportunities exist for modeling of negative attributes that much consideration should be given to the active pursuit of a moral education curriculum which involves deliberate role modeling and opportunities for ethical discussions. The obligations of educators are ever increasing and their efforts at modeling culturally acceptable behavior is more important than it has ever been. In some cases, educators may be the only mainstream influence in a child's life and may serve as a representative of a world that the child might not otherwise know. Whether the child chooses to enter the world that the educator represents is an individual decision, the availability and access to this world is what must become mandatory.

Knowing the order and descriptions of moral stages of development is small part of the educator's obligation to students. Understanding the application of these theories to various situations in everyday life and throughout history could possibly be the beginning of a process of advanced moral reasoning for both teacher and student.

WWW Links

Here are some interesting web links for those who want to explore the issue of morality more thoroughly. Also, the "Reference" section provides links to publishers and journals whose books and articles were used for this paper. Citizens for Community Values - a grassroots educational organization that aims to promote ethical discussions through various ventures. Morality and Spirituality in Children's and Young Adult's Literature - this organization explores morality in classic and contemporary literature. This site also provides lesson plans for character education courses. Character Education Institute - This organization also provides curriculum enhancers for grades K-12. Global Street Corner- a bulletin board for issues that concern adolescents and the people who love them. The Opportunity for Adolescents Research and commentary about psychological health and effective identity formation. Family Research Center this Judeo-Christian organization promotes religious values and gives advice for parents.


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Piaget, J. (1981) Intelligence and Affectivity: Their relationship during child development. Palo Alto CA: Annual Review Monographs. (First Published, 1954).

Stayton, D., Hogan, R., and Ainsworth, M. (1971). Infant obedience and maternal behavior: origins of socialization reconsidered. Child Development, 42, 1057-1069.

Cornell University