The development of conscience, or moral development, involves the formation of a consistent value system on which to base decisions concerning behaviors.Conscience is generally concerned with individuals making distinctions about"right" and "wrong," or "good" and "bad." Morality refers to the agreement ofa group about the rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors. Values are underlying assumptions about standards that govern moral decisions.

Although morality has been a topic of discussion for religious leaders sincethe beginning of human civilization, the scientific study of moral development did not begin in earnest until the late 1950s. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), an American psychologist, was one of the first people to develop a theoryof moral development. Kohlberg was influenced by the work of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget showed that children go through different developmental stages, from concrete to abstract, in learning to reason. Kohlberg took the idea of progressing through developmental stages and applied it to moral development or the development of conscience. Kohlberg tested and researched his theories while a professor at Harvard University, opening the door to the scientific study of moral development.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that people went through six stages of moral development. He divided those stages in to three levels that he called pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality. By conventional, he meant the level that the average person reached. He theorizedthat people had to go through the stages of development in order, and that most moral development came from social interactions with other people.

Kohlberg's Level One pre-conventional morality, generally applies to the development of children between the ages of four and ten. It contains two stages.Stage 1 is the obedience and punishment stage. At this stage people behave morally in order to avoid punishment ("If I say bad words, my mommy will sendme to my room, so I won't say bad words because I don't want to be sent to myroom.") Stage 2 is the called the instrumental-relativist stage. In this stage, moral judgement is motivated by a need to to get what one wants, rather than any understanding of the greater good.("If I pick up my toys, my mommy will let me watch TV.")

Level Two, conventional morality, applies to pre-teens through adults. Stage3 is called the good boy/nice girl stage. In this stage, people's moral judgement is motivated by the desire to avoid rejection and disapproval of others.In this stage, peer pressure and doing things "because everyone is doing them" is a big factor. People mature out of stage 3 to stage 4, the law and order stage. Here an individual's moral judgement is affected by a sense of abiding by the law and responding to obligations of duty. This is a normal adult orientation.

Level 3, post conventionality morality, is not reached by all people. Stage 5is the social contract or legalistic stage. In this stage an individual's moral judgement is formed by respect for the community, a genuine interest in the good of all, and a respect for social order. In the final stage, stage 6,the individual makes moral judgements based on universal principals and his individual conscience.

Other Ways to Look at Moral Development

Kohlberg's six stages of moral development have been criticized for elevatingWestern, urban, intellectual (upper-class) understandings of morality, whilediscrediting rural, tribal, working-class, or Eastern moral understandings.Feminists have pointed out potential sexist elements in moral development theories devised by male researchers using male subjects only (such as Kohlberg's early work). Because women's experience in the world is different from men's in virtually every culture, it would stand to reason that women's moral development might differ from men's, perhaps in significant ways.

Researchers coming after Kohlberg have developed different ways of looking atmoral development. The social learning theory approach claims that humans develop morality by learning the rules of acceptable behavior from their external environment (an essentially behaviorist approach). Psychoanalytic theory proposes instead that morality develops through humans' conflict between theirinstinctual drives and the demands of society. Cognitive development theories view morality as an outgrowth of reasoning. Personality theories are holistic in their approach, taking into account all the factors that contribute tohuman development.

The differences between these approaches rest on two questions: 1) where do humans begin on their moral journey; and 2) where do they end up? In other words, how moral are infants at birth? And how is "moral maturity" defined? Whatis the ideal morality to which we aspire? The contrasting philosophies at the heart of the answers to these questions account for the different perspective of each moral development theory.

Those who believe infants are born with no moral sense, and that all moralityis learned, tend toward social learning or behaviorist theories. Others whobelieve humans are innately aggressive and completely self-centered are morelikely to accept psychoanalytic theories where morality is the learned management of socially destructive internal drives. People who believe it is reasoning abilities that separate human beings from the rest of creation find cognitive development theories most attractive. Finally, those who view humans asbeing born with a full range of potentialities will most likely be drawn to personality theories. Built into the research of moral development are these different views of humans, making it difficult to compare and contrast study results.

What constitutes moral maturity is also a subject of great controversy. Eachsociety develops its own set of values and standards for acceptable behaviorthat tend to promote the perpetuation of that society. This leads some theorists to say that morality is entirely culturally conditioned. However other theorists point to the fact that many values are shared by different societiesand cultures. The debate over whether there are universal truths and cross-cultural standards for human behavior fuels the critiques of many moral development theories, leaving the issue unresolved,

How Do People Develop A Conscience?

Researchers disagree on exactly how individual conscience develops. However,they generally agree on the internal processes for developing a code of behavior based on moral standards or values as the individual understands them. There are four basic components:

1. Moral sensitivity - The development of empathy or identifying with another's experience and understanding the effects of various possible actions on others.

2. Moral judgment - The act of choosing which action is the most moral basedon one's values.

3. Moral motivation - The act of consciously deciding to behave in the moralway, as opposed to other options (for example resisting peer pressure to do something one believes is wrong simply because others are doing it).

4. Implementation - The ability to carry out the chosen moral action.

Concern with the issues of in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, teen parenthood, domestic violence, and suicide has increased interest and concern over morality and moral development. Parents, teachers, and society wantto know how to raise moral children, and they may turn to moral developmenttheorists to find the answers.

Overall, democratic family and school systems, where individuals feel their views are heard and valued, are more likely to promote the development of internal self-controls and moral growth than are either extremely authoritarian or permissive systems. Permissive systems fail to instill any controls, and often fail to convey the standard values of the community. Authoritarian systems instill only fear of punishment, which is not an effective deterrent unlessthere is a real chance of being caught. The necessity to behave within the moral standards of society are imposed from outside in authoritarian situations, rather than coming from within the individual.

Genuine moral behavior involves a number of internal processes that are bestdeveloped through warm, caring parenting with clear and consistent expectations, emphasis on the reinforcement of positive behaviors (rather than the punishment of negative ones), modeling of moral behavior by adults, and creationof opportunities for the child to practice moral reasoning and actions.

The pre-teen and teenage years are considered critical in the development ofa pattern of moral behavior. It is during this time that a life-long value system and behavior code is formed. Researcher have been studyi ying how this age group makes moral decisions, because moral reasoning predicts behavior including honesty, altruism, resistance to temptation and resistance to delinquent behavior.

Preliminary results suggest that teens use several different forms of moral judgement depending on the situation. These include a justice model with emphasis on equality and fairness, a caring model, with emphasis on maintaining relationships and relieving the burdens or suffering of others, and a self-interest model where behavior is based primarily on oneself or on narrowly focused reasoning. There are some indications that gender plays a role in the frequency with which each model is selected,

Both teens and adults frequently have more than one moral "voice" and may shift among these voices depending on the situation. In one context, a person may respond out of empathy and place care for one person over concern for social rules. In a different context, that same person might instead insist on following social rules for the good of society, even though someone may suffer because of it. People also show a lack of consistent morality by sometimes choosing to act in a way that they know is not moral, while continuing to consider themselves moral people. This discrepancy between moral judgment (perceiving an act as morally right or wrong) and moral choice (deciding whether to act in what they believe is the morally right way) can be explained in a numberof ways, any one of which may be true in a given situation: 1) weakness of will (the person is overwhelmed by desire); 2) weakness of conscience (guilt feelings are not strong enough to overcome temptation); or 3) flexible morality (some latitude allowed in moral behavior while still maintaining a moral identity).

The concept of moral balance supports the idea that most humans operate out of a somewhat flexible morality. Rather than expecting moral perfection from ourselves or others, we set certain limits beyond which we cannot go. Within those limits, however, there is some flexibility in moral decision-making. Actions such as taking coins left in the change-box of a public telephone may bedeemed acceptable (although not strictly moral), while stealing money from an open, unattended cash register is not. Many factors are involved in the determination of moral acceptability from situation to situation, and the limitson moral behavior are often slippery. If given proper encouragement and theopportunity to practice a coherent inner sense of morality, however, most people will develop a balanced conscience to guide their day-to-day interactionswith their world.

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