Moral Development Research Paper

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In the lay person’s view of morality, both good and bad as well as right and wrong behavior are considered. Discussions about morality from the psychological viewpoint cannot be separated from the underlying theory, because different theories have different concepts for defining morality. Three main theories in developmental psychology, namely psychoanalytic (Freud), behavioral (Skinner), and cognitive developmental (Piaget), deal with morality, but are concerned with different meanings of morality (Turiel 1998). Freud proposed the concept of conscience, which he defined as the internalization of societal norms. Morality as defined by Skinner consists of behaviors that have been reinforced (positively or negatively) with value judgments associated with cultural norms. Knowledge and judgment about social relationships were considered central to morality in Piaget’s theory.

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Each of the three theories also differs in describing development (changes over time) in morality. The clearest picture of changes over time in moral judgment is found in Kohlberg’s theory of the stages in moral development, which is based on Piaget’s theory. Kohlberg’s stage theory of the development of moral judgment has triggered research in several different countries and cultures. Because of this, Kohlberg’s theory was chosen to discuss the cross-cultural perspectives in moral development. The following discussion, therefore, will cover: (a) the stages in the development of moral judgment and underlying reasons for formulating them, the process and conditions contributing to moral development, and the assessment of moral stages; and (b) a review of perspectives and research results from different cultures that support or do not support Kohlberg’s concepts of moral development.

1. Kohlberg’s Theory Of The Development Of Moral Judgment

Kohlberg stated that morality deals with the reasons, considerations, and judgments which underly an individual’s decisions about matters that are good or bad, or right or wrong. Kohlberg also proposed six stages of moral judgment, which could be more generally classified into three levels.

1.1 The Stages

The first level of moral judgment, the preconventional level, is generally found in elementary school children. In stage 1, the first stage of this level, children give reasons for their behavior that are consistent with socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by authority figures, namely parents or teachers. Stage 2, which is the second stage of this level, is characterized by a view that right behavior means acting in one’s own interests. The second level of moral judgment is that generally found in society and therefore is known as conventional morality. Stage 3, which is the first stage of this level, is characterized by reasons which seek to do what will gain the approval of others. Stage 4, the second stage of this level, is characterized by an orientation to abide by the law and respond to the obligations of duty. The third level of moral judgment, the postconventional level, is not reached by the majority of adults. Stage 5, which is the first stage of this level, is characterized by an understanding of social mutuality and genuine interest in the welfare of others. Stage 6, the second stage of this level, is characterized by reasoning based on respect for universal principle and the demands of individual conscience. The stages are summarized in Table 1.

The formulation of the stages in the development of moral judgment was based on the principle of morality, namely justice, which is characterized by equality and reciprocity between the self and others or between one’s right and obligation in deciding between what is right or wrong. Based on longitudinal studies in various countries, Kohlberg (1969) claimed that the sequence of the stages in moral development is invariant.

1.2 The Process Of Moral Development

Kohlberg conceptualized the process of moral development as occurring from the solution of moral cognitive conflicts in the individual. The concept of moral cognitive conflict is analogous to Piaget’s concept of disequilibrium in cognitive development. With regard to morally relevant cognitive conflict, Kohlberg states that this will occur when, during interactions with others, individuals experience role-taking opportunities and obtain feedback in the form of reasoning from a higher stage, in this case only one stage higher. As a result they need to reconsider their previous reasoning. If individuals succeed in overcoming their moral cognitive conflict, their stage of moral judgment will progress. However, if they are not able to overcome their moral cognitive conflict, they will remain in the same stage of moral judgment (Setiono 1980). The experience of moral cognitive conflict in the individual can be induced by participation in moral discussions.

Inductive disciplinary technique and democratic authoritative child-rearing practices both positively influence moral development. Power-assertion, love withdrawal disciplinary techniques, and authoritarian child-rearing practices negatively influence moral development (Salztein 1976, Eckensberger 1994).

1.3 Method Of Assessment

Much research has been based on Kohlberg’s theory because in addition to providing a detailed conceptual framework, Kohlberg and his colleagues also designed a manual for assessing the stages in moral development. Answers to hypothetical dilemmas typical for each stage of development can be detected through criterion judgments. By comparing an individual’s answers to criterion judgments stated in the manual, the individual’s stage of moral judgment can be determined. These criterion judgments were formulated on the basis of research using sample children and youth coming from middle- and upper-class families, conducted at the Center of Moral Development, Harvard University, USA.

2. Cross-Cultural Perspectives And Research Results

In this section the following issues are discussed from a (cross-) cultural perspective: the nature of moral principles, stages of moral judgment, the process of progression to a higher stage including determining conditions, and methods of assessment. If cross-cultural research findings support Kohlberg’s conceptions of moral judgment, it means that there is a universality of the concept; if not, it can be interpreted as the cultural bias in Kohlberg’s theory, or the society can be classified as a more traditional one.

2.1 Moral Principle

Various cross-cultural studies on moral development have shown that the justice principle as a core of Kohlberg’s theory seems to be deficient (Eckensberger 1996a). There are non-Western moral principles that differ from Kohlberg’s: among others are the Confucian principle of giri-ninjo (obligation), which seems to be close to the Indian ‘ethic of duty’ (Miller 1994, Schweder et al. 1987), the Javanese moral principles of hormat (respect to others) and rukun (harmonious social relations) (Setiono 1994), the principle of ‘collective happiness’ of the kibbutzniks (Snarey 1996), and the principle of ‘connectedness’ of the Chinese (Ma 1988). In addition to the cross-cultural findings, in a study of women’s morality, Gilligan (1982) found that responsibility and care are moral principles.

2.2 Stages Of Moral Judgment

Cross-cultural research reveals the universal existence of stages 2, 3, and 4, but this was not necessarily the case for stages 1 and 5 (Eckensberger 1996b). Stage 1 was hardly encountered in the USA, Bahamas, Turkey, and Tibet. Surprisingly, stage 5 was also not detected in Kohlberg’s latest longitudinal USA data (Colby et al. 1983) but occurred in kibbutzim in Israel (Snarey 1996, Bar-Yam et al. 1996), Germany (Eckensberger 1996b), and China (Lei 1994). In a number of developing countries stage 5 reasoning was absent (Eckensberger 1997a), and this is interpreted as indicating that the justice principle of Kohlberg’s theory does not fit with the local ethical principle. Concerning the highest stage of moral judgment, Setiono (1994) argued that Javanese people scored as stage 3 by Kohlberg’s manual have the highest stage of moral judgment based on the local moral principle. The nonoccurrence of the higher stages, namely stage 5 or 6, cannot be interpreted as a lack of moral development in that culture. A moral principle which differs from Kohlberg’s concept (justice) could be the cause of this nonoccurrence of higher stages. Snarey and Keljo (1991) pointed to Gemeinschaftlike postconventional morality as an explanation concerning the absence of postconventional morality in many cultural groups. In contrast to Kohlberg’s types, a gemeinschaft-like moral voice or type would seem to redefine the same categories as follows:

(a) Hierarchy: any moral hierarchy is derived from the nature of human interconnectedness.

(b) Intrinsicality: means and ends are paradoxically inseparable. Social units are understood as ends in themselves as are individual persons.

(c) Prescriptivity: there is an organismic relationship between right and obligation. The two cannot be seperated. Moral duty is conceived of in vocational terms, in the language of ‘ought.’

(d) Universality: judgments are universal based on organismic connectedness, not based on abstract principle.

(e) Freedom: the separation of the external from the internal is a false dichotomy. There is an organic relation between the individual and tradition.

(f) Mutual respect: respect is based on mutual interconnectedness.

(g) Reversibility: role-taking and empathy are central dimensions of moral judgment.

(h) Constructivism: being is given. Rules and laws are derived.

(i) Choice: solutions are chosen in terms of their relationship to and impact on the whole. There is awareness of multiple systems which are connected by a common unity of organic being; actions are rooted in one’s place in the larger web of being.

2.3 Progressing To A Higher Stage And Its Determinants

(Cross-) cultural research into the process of progressing to a higher stage is represented by the studies of Van Doorn (1982), Asih Menanti (1988), and Hessy (1999). These studies were conducted in Indonesia and were concerned with the existence of role-taking opportunities and moral cognitive conflict and its resolution, in the process of progressing to a higher stage. The results showed that discussions of moral issues and decision-making experiences concerning moral issues are useful for the development of moral judgment. The cross-cultural findings on the process of moral development, including research on social role-taking opportunities, and moral cognitive conflict and its resolution, gave support to Kohlberg’s concepts regarding the process of progressing through the stages. Cross-cultural research on the socialization determinants of progression through moral reasoning stages, particularly disciplinary techniques and childrearing practices, is represented by the study of Mayarina (1984) and Prameswari (1990) in Indonesia and some studies in India (Eckensberger 1994). Cross-cultural research findings indicate that inductive disciplinary techniques and authoritarian democratic child-rearing practices foster the development of moral reasoning, which provides some support for Kohlberg’s assertions regarding the role of cognitive conflict in moral judgment.

2.4 Assessment Method

(Cross-) cultural research using Kohlberg’s assessment method revealed that certain responses could not be scored according to the criterion judgment as stated in the manual. Lei and Cheng (1996) pointed out that some of their interviews with individuals in Chinese communities were difficult to analyze, because their subjects referred to different types of collective conflict-solving strategies not mentioned by Kohlberg. Tietjen and Walker (1996) were faced with a similar problem in Papua New Guinea.

According to Eckensberger (1997a), the following criteria should be fulfilled for cross-cultural assessment.

(a) They contain a real moral conflict for the individual.

(b) All the facts mentioned in the dilemma are familiar to the subject.

(c) No situational (social and language) factors mask the individual’s moral stage.

3. Future Research Directions

Results of studies about different moral principles in different cultures, and the differences between men and women, give rise to the following questions: should research be based on the differences in moral principles in the collective and individualistic cultural orientation categories existing in different cultures? Should research always specify the subjects as male or female?

Little research on the process of progressing through the stages of moral reasoning and the relationship of moral development to moral behavior has been done. Therefore it would be interesting to do a cross-cultural study on whether there are cultural specifics in regard to the roles of social role-taking opportunities, moral cognitive conflict, and parental discipline in the development of moral reasoning. Is Kohlberg’s statement about the consistency between moral reasoning and moral behavior of stage 5 and 6 valid in different cultures? In cultures where stage 5 and 6 do not exist, would this mean that there would be no consistency at all between moral reasoning and moral behavior?


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