Question: How do we develop morals and how is morality measured?Response by Gerald Schueler, Ph.D. © 1997
"Morality is a system of beliefs, values, and underlying judgments about the rightness or wrongness of acts." (Zimbardo, 1988, p 87)
Morality has to do with a sense of right and wrong, and with what psychologists call the conscience. The conscience is an internalized set of moral values (Craig, 1989). Piaget (1965), a famous cognitive psychologist, defined morality as "an individual's respect for the rules of social order and his sense of justice," where justice is "a concern for reciprocity and equality among individuals." According to Piaget (1965), moral sense develops in two stages as follows: (1) The moral realism stage is where all rules are obeyed without distinction. There is no weight given in this first stage to intent. (2) The moral relativism stage is where rules are created and agreed to cooperatively by individuals. In this second stage, rules can change--there is no absolute right or wrong.
Piaget (1965) taught that there is a direct connection between a child's moral development and a child's general cognitive development. The entire concept of moral development must concern itself with child development and how morality is acquired during the developing stages of life. Piaget concluded that moral behavior develops between the ages of four and twelve (Hunt, 1993).
There is considerable debate as to how children acquire morality. Social learning theorists believe that children learn it by being rewarded or punished for various kinds of behavior and by modeling. Psychodynamic psychologists believe it develops as a defense against anxiety over the loss of love and approval. Cognitive theorists believe that, like intellectual development, morality develops in progressive, age-related stages. (Craig, 1989, p. 352)
There are three main schools of thought concerning moral development in modern psychology: social learning, psychodynamic, and cognitive. Social learning theorists are concerned with behaviors and suggest that moral development is primarily a matter of reward and punishment. Children model the behavior of adults, and learn morals through rewards and punishments, a well-documented process called operant conditioning.
Psychodynamic theorists are concerned with emotions and suggest that moral development comes about by unconsciously avoiding the disapproval of others. Freud was a psychodynamic theorist:
Freud argued that most people behave morally most of the time because of the inhibiting effects of their consciences or the guilt they feel when they do something wrong. (Zimbardo, 1988, p. 87)
Cognitive theorists are concerned with thinking and they suggest that moral development has definable stages that everyone goes through to some degree. Lawrence Kohlberg produced a landmark study of moral development, a morality rating system that he developed for his doctoral dissertation consisting of nine moral dilemmas. Over the following twenty-five years he revised and strengthened his system which is generally accepted today as a useful methodology for moral measurement.
According to Kohlberg's original formulation, people can fit into one of the six stages or moral development. Since then, he has theorized that an even higher moral stage (stage 7) exists, although it is rarely found. (Zimbardo, 1988, p. 88)
Kohlberg's three-level six-stage model is given below.
Kohlberg's Model of Moral Development:
Stage 1. Punishment and obedience. Rules are obeyed to avoid punishment.
Stage 2. Naive instrumental hedonism. Rules are obeyed to obtain rewards and to have favors returned.
Stage 3. "Good-boy" morality of maintaining good relations and the approval of others. Rules are obeyed to avoid disapproval or dislike by others.
Stage 4. Authority-maintaining morality. Rules are obeyed to avoid censure by legitimate authorities and to avoid guilt.
Stage 5. Morality of contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law. Rules are obeyed for social or community welfare.
Stage 6. Morality of individual principles of consciousness. Rules are obeyed in order to abide by universal ethical principles.
The "Heinz dilemma" is a good example of how Kohlberg measures moral development. In this dilemma, a woman is near death from cancer. A new drug, which can help her, is at the local drug store, but the druggist is charging ten times what it cost to make the medicine. The woman's husband is named Heinz, and he can only borrow half of the money needed to buy the medicine. He asks the druggist to lower the price, but the druggist refuses. Heinz then considers breaking into the store and stealing the drug in order to save his wife's life. The moral question asked in this dilemma is, should Heinz break the law and steal the drug and save his wife's life, or should he obey the law and let his wife die?
Kohlberg (1976) gave his test to a cross-section of seventy-two males aged ten, thirteen, and sixteen. He then retested these every two to five years for the next three decades. The results suggested that moral sense develops in distinct stages (Hunt, 1993). Figure 3 shows Kohlberg's longitudinal data. The x axis is years of age and the y axis measures the percent of subjects at each stage of moral development. The bar graph clearly shows the subjects progressing through moral stages over time. However, none of the subjects tested reached stage six (Baron, 1989).
Kohlberg has been criticized by other psychologists including women for various reasons (Kohlberg's study subjects, for example, were males), and Kohlberg himself has reviewed his findings and has acknowledged the importance of some of his critics' arguments (Zimbardo, 1985). But his six stages still remain as an important psychological model for moral development. One of his critics is Carol Gilligan (1982):
Gilligan argues that there are essentially two methods of moral reasoning. One is based on concepts of justice and the other on caring for others. These methods can be sexually differentiated. The justice perspective is characteristics of male thinking, while caring for others is common to women's moral reasoning. Men focus on rights and think in highly individualistic terms, according to Gilligan. Women, by contrast, see moral issues in terms of human relationships and concerns for the need of both sides in a moral dilemma. However, Gilligan notes, some women make moral judgments from a justice perspective and some men from a caring one. It results from the socialization process. As a consequence of their predispositions, however, men tend to base their judgments on abstract moral principles and women generally on human needs in concrete situations ...Gilligan argues that Kohlberg's stages theory needs to include the female perspective along with the male's. (Craig, 1989, pp. 354-355)
Gilligan's argument is that men and women develop differently, but neither can be said to be more or less morally developed than the other. Women develop morally through caring for others, while men develop morally through a sense of justice. (Zimbardo, 1985). Kohlberg (1981) later added a seventh moral stage called the cosmic ethical principle orientation. In this stage what is "right" is defined in terms of a sense of "cosmic unity." This seventh stage addresses morals that are based on strong religious convictions.
Virtually all psychologists agree that babies are amoral--neither moral nor immoral. They cannot understand people's responsibilities to each other. Various stages of moral development are entered as we grow. But it is well known that children are egocentric--they see the whole world as wrapped around themselves and are unable to view life from another's perspective (Zimbardo, 1985). The egocentric character of the child matures in early middle childhood. This allows the child to see another's point of view and to develop friendships. The nonmoral preconventional moral reasoning of children gives way to reasoning at the conventional level where the moral values of the family and culture are accepted (Darley, Glucksberg & Kinchla, 1991).
Two very important influences over moral development are self-control by using language to overcome behavior, and pressure from peer groups (Darley, Glucksberg & Kinchla, 1991). A certain amount of control can be exercised over children by talking to them. In addition, self-control can be improved by the child talking to himself or herself. "One way that children remind themselves about what they are supposed to do (or not do) is by talking to themselves" (Darley, Glucksberg & Kinchla, 1991, p. 399). The ability to delay gratification improves with age. Four-year old children, for example, are usually unable to delay gratification at all. Five-year old children often can delay gratification by talking to themselves. By twelve, a child normally understands the importance of delayed gratification and the need for self-control. When this understanding is lacking, moral development is retarded and children tend to be either overly aggressive or overly withdrawn.
When children enter school at ages five or six, the peer group becomes a major factor in shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behavior (Darley, Glucksberg & Kinchla, 1991; Craig, 1989; Zimbardo, 1985). This is especially true at ages ten to twelve. At this stage group dynamics form hierarchies and both loyalties and prejudices are developed. "Moral judgement may arise as a result of social learning, as a defense against anxiety, or as a result of developing cognitive processes" (Craig, 1989, p. 365).
To summarize, moral development according to modern psychology is somewhat indecisive, although Kohlberg's six stages are widely accepted as a general model. Basically, morals are the result of our developing from an initial state of amorality to obtaining a conscience - a sense of right and wrong. How this development occurs is debatable, but it is generally accepted that morals have to do with acquiring a sense of right and wrong. Virtually all psychologists agree also that morality is culture-dependent, and what is right in one culture may be wrong in another culture. Right and wrong are relative, rather than absolute, terms.
Most societies from the ancient to the modern period share certain features in their ethical codes. Some of these have applied only within a society and are considered cultural, while others have been more universal. Most societies, for example, have customs or laws forbidding murder, bodily injury, or attacks on personal honor and reputation. Property rights also exist in some form almost everywhere (Encarta, 1997; Comptons, 1994).
Societies rely on rules that define the basic duties of doing good and furthering the welfare of the group. Within the family, mothers look after their children, and men support and protect their dependents. In turn, grown-up children are expected to provide care for their aging parents. Helping more distant relatives is also considered a duty in some places, depending on the extent of kinship ties. In societies where the major religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, the duty of helping the needy and the distressed has been emphasized. These obligations extend beyond family to acquaintances and even strangers. Telling the truth and keeping promises are also widely regarded as duties, though they are sometimes withheld from strangers (Encarta, 1997; Comptons, 1994).
In the last 200 years, modern nations have evolved what can be described as a universal ethic that originated with ideas about human rights to life, liberty, and property that developed during the period of the Enlightenment. Whether honored in practice or not, there is at least an acceptance of the notion that the lives of human beings are meant to be improved by abolishing disease, poverty, and ignorance (Encarta, 1997; Comptons, 1994).
A somewhat different approach to morality is given by Duke (1994) who argues from a chaos theory approach:
It may be possible to speculate broadly regarding the sorts of behavior patterns that could represent attractors in psychology. For example, traits such as morality, religiosity, competitiveness, dependency, or aggression, around which large amounts of behavior typically congregate, might be verbal descriptions of varying attractors within as yet unstudied nonlinear dynamical behavioral or cognitive systems (p. 267).
Here morality is seen as an attractor around which people naturally tent to gravitate. When applying chaos theory to psychology, the human mind is viewed as a complex nonlinear system and the theory of attractors applies. This theory suggests that morality is inherent in human nature, and thus is genetic.
However, the Byfields (1995) argue that the case for a genetically-based morality is flawed because of "a glaring inconsistency:"
If morality can be explained as the product of our genetic nature, where exactly did mankind get this idea of marital fidelity for males, for instance? Since it is genetically counter-efficient, how come we have it? (p. 41)
They also ask how can we account for the human notion that we should cherish and preserve the weak and the helpless? Parents, they argue, if impelled solely by genetic self-interest, would devote little if any time to the crippled child, who would be least likely to guarantee their genetic survival. Yet, impelled by morality, they customarily devote more attention to that child than to the healthier ones. They conclude that our idea of morality must derive from a source "apart from nature."
Morality is our sense of right and wrong that helps maintain stability in society. It seems to develop naturally as human beings develop and can be measured. It is uncertain at this time whether morality is genetic or learned, natural or un-natural.
Comptonís Interactive Encyclopedia Copyright (1994). CD ROM. Comptonís NewMedia.
Craig, G. J. (1989). Human Development (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Darley, J. M., Glucksberg, S. & Kinchla, R. A. (1991). Psychology (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Duke, M. P. (1994). Chaos theory and psychology: Seven propositions. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs. Vol. 120. 08-01-1994.
Encarta Encyclopedia. (1997). CD ROM. Microsoft.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: psychological theory and womenís development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hunt, M. (1993). The story of psychology. New York: Anchor.
Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: Cognitive developmental approach. In Lickona, T. (Ed.). Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development. New York: Harper & Row.
Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. Gabain, M. (trans). New York: Free Press. First published in 1932.
Zimbardo, P. (1988), Psychology and Life (12th Ed.). Glenview IL: Scott, Foresman and Co.