Moral development is the process through which children develop proper attitudes and behaviours toward other people in society, based on social and cultural norms, rules, and laws. All of us want our children to grow up to be morally strong citizens of society. But how do we know how they are developing, where they stand and where they need to grow? This is where some scientific research and model comes in handy.
The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87) thought that moral development was a kind of hierarchical ladder with six rungs. He asked children of all ages to reason about problems involving fairness, justice, equality, loyalty, benevolence and various kinds of social welfare. He also looked at how children encouraged each other to cooperate and how they resolved conflicts. He was convinced that children can sense a natural moral order and can grow towards a universal and objective morality that we all eventually come to share. Here are the six stages:
Being wholly egotistical. Being moral
means no more than being obedient
because of the fear of punishment. This is how most children start at they are moved simply by the consequences of their actions; they choose based on what causes them pleasure or pain.
Conforming to the norms of a peer group, but for selfish reasons. This is where the seeds of understanding reciprocity are sown in their minds but only as long as it serves one’s own interests. They recognize that others have interests too and that you can make an exchange to serve each other’s interests.
Being moral means being a good boy or a good girl and seeking the approval of others. In this stage, they are focused on living up to social expectations and roles. They try to be nice and start seeing how your choices affect relationships.
Being good means being loyal to authorities and social institutions. Doing what is right is what makes you a good citizen, a member of a group. Here the focus is on recognizing the social order and ensuring that it is upheld. At this stage, people start considering society as a whole while making decisions or judgements. Following law and order, doing one’s duty, following rules and respecting authority are signs that one has matured to this stage.
Starting from this stage, people start recognizing the abstract principles of morality. They also start acknowledging the differing values, opinions, and beliefs of other people. They can see how rules of law are important to maintaining society and members of society need to adhere to them.
They also start agreeing with Utilitarian views on happiness, the greater good and democracy.
The belief in universal moral principles that override all other obligations,
even society’s laws, or empirical observations of ‘happiness’. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they sometimes conflict with laws and rules. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Here one’s action is never a means but always an end in itself; one acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal or previously agreed upon.
So you begin as a selfish brat and, with time, you end up as Buddha or Immanuel Kant. That’s the idea. Kohlberg freely admitted that some adults never get much beyond stage three, and only a few ever reach the giddy Kantian heights of stage six. Research suggests that the majority of the population resides between the 1st and 4th stages with only a few making it to stages 5 and 6.
Kohlberg was mostly interested in moral reasoning. His six stages have little to do with the ability to empathize or show compassion. His tests for moral thinking are almost wholly about problem-solving. For Value parents, morality may be more about caring, benevolence, dialogue and relationships built up over time. Being moral implies negotiation, being tentative, recognizing that there are rarely simple solutions in life and being prepared to suspend judgement. To be fair, Kohlberg never said that the results of his research were conclusive. However, subsequent and more sophisticated experiments seem to show that Kohlberg’s conclusions about moral development may well be about right.
It’s a complex topic and parenting in this regard is easier said than done. But models or frameworks like these help in building or benchmarking the moral core of a person. Kohlberg’s analysis of moral development can be useful for parents as well as teachers. Children already have their own rather simple understanding of morality, so it’s best to try to build on that, rather than attempt to impose an incomprehensible ‘higher’ one. Simulation games exploring moral issues are one way of challenging children to think in new ways. One can also use thought experiments and case studies to discuss with children and see how they think and guide them with new ways of thinking. Discussions and lessons that end in disagreement are often more interesting and useful than those that reach a happy consensus. But modern education is an ambivalent process. We encourage children to compete and then expect them to cooperate. We want them to obey teachers and then to think for themselves.
If Aristotle is right, we shouldn’t leave moral development to chance. First, lift yourself higher on the moral development ladder and then try to lift your child.