Moral Reasoning


This week we encountered many ideas on moral reasoning. Broderick and Blewitt (2010) presented the work of Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg. Since I have previously stated my opinions regarding both Freud and Piaget, I will say a word about Kohlberg. Kohlberg stressed the pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages of moral development. Personally, I think Kohlberg’s theories are a little too broad and hypothetical. I prefer the ideas of Gilligan (p.229), who dealt with more complex but realistic issues, and the gender differences behind moral beliefs and actions. In my personal experience I have witnessed many incidents where a child has moral reasoning ability (for example he or she understands the concept of fairness) but, despite having this knowledge, chooses to behave in an incongruent manner. Young children (as Piaget reminded us) tend to be egocentric and they are often “self”ish. They may understand the moral obligation to share, however, as the example in the text (p. 229) reminds us, they often justify their ideas of “fairness” to lean in their favor. In my opinion, this is higher-level reasoning—complex thought. So, the awareness may be present long before implied by Kohlberg, however behavior may show inconsistencies. This is similar to the bystander effect in the example describing young Carmen’s disappearance; the adult bystanders clearly had developed moral reasoning, however, their actions were not congruent with their level of reasoning.

Also interesting were the theories regarding temperament and pro-social behavior. In observational studies, Eisenberg, Fabes, et al. (2006) determined that stable temperamental variables may foster altruism, implying that pro-social behavior may be a stable variable as well (cited in Broderick &Blewitt, 2010). The temperamental characteristics believed to contribute to altruism include sociability, social competence or popularity, positive self-concept, assertiveness, and effortful control. As implied in the text (p. 232), it may be difficult to determine the direction if a cause-effect relationship exists, so it seems that these characteristics and behaviors probably develop as a result of some bidirectional influences. At least this is what I would conclude.

This is important to consider in application. For example, encouraging a child to join in social situations, or providing assertiveness training, may result in others responding positively to their actions; this, in turn, may reinforce those traits to develop more strongly and increase the child’s intrinsic motivation to be more altruistic. It seems a circular pattern.

One particular characteristic I believe to be extremely important for pro-social behavior (and other behaviors as well) is effortful control. Broderick and Blewitt (2010) cited an interesting study by Valiente et al. (2004) based on the hypothesis that some children may be unable to moderate empathic emotions, and become too overwhelmed to act in a pro-social manner. While I agree that effortful control is most likely positively correlated with sympathy, empathy, and regulating emotions (p. 233) I am skeptical of the means by which the researchers measured it in this particular study (persistence on puzzle solving tasks without cheating or distraction). I guess I would need to read more about the rationale behind the choice of measure before drawing any conclusions. I strongly agree that proper adult modeling is essential in helping children learn how to maintain effortful control. Further, I strongly advocate the idea of Eisenberg’s “foot in the door effect”; starting children early by modeling and encouraging those pro-social actions may have lasting effects; pro-social behavior should foster more pro-social behavior (p. 233) –which is probably why it tends to be a stable variable. Especially important would be to teach children how to exercise effortful control, or inhibiting those dominant responses that lead them to aggressive actions/behaviors, by strengthening skills that increase perspective taking, empathy, sympathy, and emotional regulation.

In application, I think the Crick and Dodge (1994) Social Information-Processing model is an interesting construct for analyzing pro-social behavior and conflict resolution. I can imagine applying this model in the classroom, or on the playground, in an elementary school setting. This method should be especially effective for those young students with antisocial or aggressive tendencies, who maintain hostile attributional bias (p. 236) by perceiving threats in neutral situations. As the authors stressed, often these biases are part of schemas with functional significance; for children faced with chronic stressful or threatening environments, these schema help child predict and react in threatening situations. If educators participated in the proper professional development, they could provide students with attributional training, using the Social Informational-Processing model. Adults could first model the thought processes during role-playing scenarios and students could practice encoding and interpreting cues appropriately. Subsequently, students would be coached to draw on their training, and apply the steps of the model during real instances, when conflict resolution is needed. Hopefully students would learn to respond or react in more appropriate ways and transfer their learning in a variety of contexts and situations.


Broderick, P.C., & Blewitt, P.B. (2010). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.



2 thoughts on “Moral Reasoning

  1. Hi Lori,

    I enjoyed reading your post and your thoughtful responses to the theories from the reading. I agree with you about the importance of effortful control and appreciate your skepticism about the methods of the study. A good reminder about the lab vs. the real world and the importance of knowing the methods and rationales behind the employed methods. I also completely agree with you about the importance of adult modeling in helping children learn how to maintain effortful control — once again, modeling seems to be a key tool in helping to foster positive behavior and processes in kids.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Take care,

  2. Hi Lori,

    I really enjoyed reading your post this week. I think you brought up a lot of great points and really opened my mind up to various ideas. One of the points you brought up about how you have witnessed a child have moral reasoning ability, but choose not to behave morally. I completely agree. It is great that you bring this up since it is important to remember children can be more complex in thought than we think. It also shows us to not talk down to children and to keep and open mind when working with children. I am glad you bring up these points from a real world experience. Thank you for your insight!


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