Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moral Development and the Concept of Right and Wrong

Morality describes the principles that govern our behavior. It is such a complex issue because its development lies on a variety of factors such as gender, culture, religion, government systems and ethnic background. In principle, it is an important aspect of our lives because it impacts the choices we make in our everyday life. As we strive to survive in a world of growing complexity we are constantly faced with the question of morality. As part of society where we have to live by a set of rules, we learn to adjust our expectations based on a model of conformity to these rules. Such rules are important because they are intended to ensure impartial treatment and harmony among all people. In short, morality has to do with fairness and survival in a world of many conflicts and ruled by indifference.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a Psychology professor in both Chicago University and Harvard University specialized in research on moral education and reasoning, created the theory of stages of moral development. According to Kohlberg, moral development sustains that moral reasoning, the basis of ethical behavior, has three levels of two identifiable developmental stages each. He determined that the process of moral development was mainly concerned with justice, and that it continued throughout the individual’s lifetime.

During the Pre-Conventional level the children would associate right or wrong based on whether they are rewarded or punished. In stage one moral development is defined by obedience and punishment orientation in which the child reasons about how he can avoid being punished. In stage two he guides his moral choices towards satisfying his needs.
At the conventional level the adolescent defines right behavior as that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. A recognition of what makes a good citizen and the importance of looking up to authority are some of the various abstract social virtues incorporated to them in mid-adolescence stage. Both forms of moral reasoning require an ability to think abstractly about values such as “duty” and “social order”.


The Post conventional level of moral reasoning pushes the individual into a more deeply abstract form of thought. He reasons about the meaning of abstract principles such as “justice”, “freedom” and “equality”. At that point the individual has more solid moral standards to decide what is right and wrong. He realizes then, about the gaps which exists in what he views as morally acceptable and what society has determined to be legal.

In a large sense, teaching morality is quite challenging because each person lives by different values and has a different view of what morality is, depending of his or her environment and upbringing. But individuals can be conditioned to develop a certain pattern of behavior to reflect the code of ethics of his parents and the environment he belongs to. Some of the core values and beliefs that a given person acquires in early childhood and through their teenage years are preserved throughout his lifetime. At a young age, the individual will learn from his parents his first lessons of “right and wrong” and “should and should not” and it does not take long before he perceives the consequences of choice and behavior. As he grows through his teenage years and reaches adulthood, he develops awareness and concern with the larger society and reasons more abstractly about right and wrong.

One can imagine how chaotic societies would have become if we did not have to abide by certain principles. Without such a sense of order, chaos and conflict would have resulted and we would be left to our own devices and desires. Without such a sense of control, the strongest individuals would have destroyed the less privileged in order for themselves to benefit. Since early years in history of civilization, man has adopted rules meant to ensure fair play and provide individuals with certain basic protection. Societies have adopted codes of ethics in order to create an environment of mutual respect among its citizens. That increases the odds of individual’s survival and the integrity of the group.

We find ourselves constantly debating the subject of morality as advancements in technology and scientific knowledge become bolder. Some of the topics that become increasingly conflicting are: genetic research, abortion, fertility methods, sexuality, ecological conservation, racism, euthanasia, warfare, drug use and human rights, just to name a few. Establishing boundaries for moral behavior have become even more challenging as human choices and responsibilities have grown dramatically over the years in response to growing scientific developments. This is so because the human mind has not been able to process all the new information with the same speed with which it is presented. Besides, we humans are naturally fearful of what is different and act conservatively in regard to change.

Morality exists to gauge and standardize our behavior. It has to do with the survival of the species. We can discuss the validity of various people's ideas of morality, but the underlying reason for morality is to provide society with order and stability. Morality tells us that it is not acceptable to kill people simply for the sake of killing. Morality protects a person's right to his possessions. If there were no morality, then people would be free to do as they wish which could mean that some would not be stopped from committing crimes such as, stealing, murdering or raping. Society would succumb and eventually cease to exist if there was no establishment of rules or order as a result of our morality.

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