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Understanding Moral Understanding

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Understanding Moral Understanding

Throughout time there has always been this nagging question of what is right and what is wrong. As of yet, there is no universal agreement on the correct answer to that question, which leads to wondering: how do we even begin to make the decision of morals and where do they come from? Are morals imbedded in us from birth or are they programmed into us through life, nature verses nurture? According to psychology moral understanding is a process. No one starts out knowing and understanding everything about morality and the rules the world follows. Children do not fully understand the meanings of rules or morals that are being taught to them.

An example given in Children and Their Development was a father and son playing a board game called Chutes and LaddersТ. The rules of the game state that you can only go up the ladders and down the chutes, but in order to speed up the game the father tells the son that he can not only go up the ladders but also the chutes. But the son adamantly declares that the rules of the game say your can not go up ladders (Kail, 2004, p.369). This is a simple example of how children do not clearly understand everything about right and wrong when they are young. Compare those actions to an adult who would most definitely chose to speed the game up by going up both the chutes and the ladders and be able to comprehend that it is not against the rules if both parties agree to them.

Throughout the history of psychology there have been various theorists who have tried to explain the progression of how we as humans gain an understanding of morals. Some of these theorists are: Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Elliot Turiel, and Carol Gilligan, just to name a few. These individuals spent years working with a variety of people trying to identify the process by which children gain the ability to use and comprehend morals. These psychologists built off each other's ideas and came up with the general understanding that we have today about how morals are formed. But even as informed as we are today we are still finding out new and interesting facts about the developing minds of children everyday.

The first of these theorists, and the cornerstone for many others work, would be Jean Piaget. He was one of the theorists who worked mainly with younger children in order to come up with his theory of how morals were developed. Piaget determined that younger children chose who had the worst behavior based on the "amount of damage caused by a person's behavior." He would give the children a situation with a moral problem. After he told them the situation he would ask them to choose 'who is naughtier:' a boy who accidentally broke fifteen cups or a boy who breaks one cup trying to reach a jam jar when his mother is not around. Younger children would say that the 'naughty' boy was the one who broke the most cups regardless of the other boy's motives (Huxley). This lack of understanding is attributed to the first stage of moral development according to Piaget. This stage lasts from the age of 2 until about 4, and in this stage "children have no well defined ideas about morality (Kail, 369)." This stage is followed by the realism stage, from ages 5 to 7. In this stage the children believe that rules were created by older and wiser adults, and that they have to be obeyed and cannot be altered. Another attribute of this stage is that they believe breaking any of the rules automatically leads to punishment. Children who are in this stage see everything as written in stone and completely inalterable; but this too fades into the next stage that begins at age 8 called the relativism stage. In this stage the children begin to understand that rules are created by people in order to help them get along in society (Piaget). This is a truly wonderful stage in which the child begins to understand that rules are changeable, alterable and that they are created so people can get along better. Piaget was truly original in his time and after his a man named Kohlberg came along and added to his theories.

Kohlberg was known to use moral dilemmas, stories that have no real correct answer, to test teenager's responses. One of his best-known dilemmas is about Heinz, who had a dying wife:

"In Europe, a woman was near death from cancer. One drug might save her, a form of Radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The druggist was charging $2,000, ten times what the drug cost him to make. The sick women's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow money, but he could only get together about half of what it would cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No." The husband got desperate and broke into the man's store top steal the drug for his wife (Kail, 371)."

Kohlberg would then analyze the reactions of people from the various age groups and record his findings. From these dilemmas he "identified six stages of moral reasoning grouped into three major levels. Each level represented a fundamental shift in the social-moral perspective of the individual (Murray)." Basically, he said that all people go through six visible transformations in their moral understanding in a lifetime. "He has identified an invariant sequence of six stages of reasoning about morality; i.e., a developmental progression of increasingly more effective ways of thinking about and resolving moral problems and issues (Berkowitz)." The levels are: Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional, and within each of these levels are two stages. The first level that children start in is the Preconventional level. In the first stage in this level their moral decision-making is because an adult has set up rules with rewards and punishments. The second stage is the time in which the child learns to act in his own best interest, to do what is best for him. The second level is the conventional level. This level has the third and fourth stages of moral development. At the third stage the adolescent, or sometimes even adult, makes their decisions based on social norms. Basically, the person does what everyone else is doing in order to fit in or be accepted, this is very prevalent with teenagers. The fourth stage is the stage where the person believes that they should obey rules because they were created or the good of all society. Then comes the third and final level, the Postcoventional level. This level has the fifth and sixth stages in it, and is typically only for adults. In the fifth stage the person begins to understand social "contracts" and have a genuine interest in the welfare of others. Kohlberg felt that not

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