Developmental psychologists recognized that when an individual begins life, we are all amoral or in other words, an individual do not yet have the rudiments of moral judgment. By the time an individual becomes adults, however, he/she may possess a complex notion of morality. Morality is defined by most psychology books is a system of personal values and judgments about the fundamental rightness or wrongness of acts, and of an individual’s obligations to behave in just ways that do not interfere with the rights of others.
Moral development on the other hand, is the acquisition of moral standards and the ability to make judgments. But how do an individual evolve from amoral to moral, from a total lack of understanding on responsibilities to a complex perception of right and wrong? This question has occupied the attention of many developmental psychologists. The two most influential psychological researchers on moral development were Lawrence Kohlberg and Piaget as Kohlberg’s research on moral development was heavily influenced by Piaget`s cognitive development.
According to Kohlberg, people progress through stages in the development of moral reasoning. I would like to choose the children, adolescence, and adulthood emotional and moral-related life events and apply understanding of emotional and moral development.
Moral development in Children. Piaget (1975) called the first period in a child’s moral development as moral realism. Before the age of seven or eight, the child has little concern for the reason that specific behaviors are allowed or forbidden; he is a self-centered creature, and his mind does not seem flexible enough to fully comprehend the violation of rules as an interference with others (which theoretically, provides the basis for morality).
Another label for the early moral realism period is the rules stage, a term that suggests that a child blindly follows rules without reason or unreasoning adherence to authority. For Kohlberg, this stage of moral development is known as preconventional morality that is exemplified by most children at the preschool years (Fischer, 1993).
Preconventional morality is a kind of self-serving approach to right and wrong where children tend to behave in certain ways in order to avoid being punished and in certain ways to obtain rewards. In his longitudinal study of moral judgment, Kohlberg (1976) reinterviewed several children at different points in time. At age 8, John, one of the participants, was asked, “Why shouldn’t you steal from a store?”
John’s preconventional response was: It’s not good to steal from the store. It’s against the law. Someone could see you and call the police” (Kohlberg, 1976). At this lowest level of moral development, children have not internalized a personal code of morality. Rather, they are molded by the standards of adult caregivers and the consequences of adhering to or rejecting these rules.
Moral development during Adolescence. It is during early adolescence stage that a person’s sense of right and wrong typically matures to the level of conventional morality as Kohlberg calls it. Conventional morality is the level shown by most adolescents and some adults (Colby et al., 1983). Maintaining conventional expectations has a moral value in its own right. From Kohlberg`s (1976) study; at age 17, John’s conventional-level response to the question about stealing from a store was: “ It’s a matter of law. It’s one of our rules that were trying to help to protect everyone.
It’s something that’s needed in our society. If we didn’t have these laws, people would steal, they wouldn’t have to work for a living. Here, the motivating force behind behaving in a just or moral fashion is the desire either to help others and gain their approval or to help maintain the social order. Individuals at the conventional level make moral judgments on the basis of expectations – those of the family, the social group, or the nation at large. As young adolescents progress through these stages, they begin to internalize the moral standards of valued adult or role models.
Moral development in Adulthood. The next level of moral judgment is postconventional level and only a few individuals may progress to this final level. Though a person may progress from conventional to postconventional level any time during adolescence, Kohlberg maintained that only about 25 percent of adults in the world progress beyond the conventional level, and most of these individuals do so sometime during their adult years.
Moral judgments at the postconventional level transcend the authority of persons or conformity to groups. Now, values and principles guide moral judgments. Individuals at this level may understand and accept society’s rules and laws but tend to view them in terms of the underlying principles. Postconventional morality affirms people’s agreed-upon rights and exhibited in such statements as; “People have a right to live”, “If you steal the drug, you won’t lived up to your own ideals”.
Hence it affirms values agreed on by society, including individual’s rights and the need for democratically determined rules and guided by universal ethical principles in which they do what they think is right as a matter of conscience, even if their acts conflict with society’s rules. As stated, not many people reach this level of moral reasoning. Only those who develop the abstract reasoning of formal operational thought may come to this level.
Hence the exact nature of the stages and their sequence in moral development of an individual remain an open question. But one thing is clear though, that moral development is not fixed at adolescence, but rather continues throughout adulthood. Also, how quickly and how far people progress in moral development depends on a number of factors, including their cognitive development. One thing is certain though, that moral judgment and moral behavior are important aspects of an individual’s personality development.
Colby, A., Kohlberg, L.,Gibbs, J., & Lieberman, M. (1983). A longitudinal study of moral
development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48 (1-2,
Serial No. 200).
Fisher, K.W. (1993). Commentary: Illuminating the processes of moral development.
Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48 (1-2, Serial No. 200).
Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In
T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research and social issues.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.
Piaget, J. (1975). The moral judgment of the child. New York: The Free Press.
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