Nine Works on Moral Development

Nine Works on Moral Development

February 4, 2019—Study and research on moral development was a standard area of study for Christian educators some decades ago. As with many disciplines, some studies wane as others take their placenew fads, emerging fields of study, whatever is deemed currently cool, or a shift into a new direction. Such seems to have been the case with moral development as a part of religious education. In fact, studies in “development” have in large part been replaced by an emphasis on “formation” (and that remains a rather squishy concept in C.E. circles).

One consequence is that as disciplines move toward new areas of focus, important knowledge can be lost. That may be the case with the loss of moral development as part of what Christian and religious education needs to give attention, and apply, to its practice. Which is a shame, if not tragic. Reading the state of affairs in multiple sectors of our society and culture, morality can stand some attention. Here are nine works of moral development that may help re-introduce the topic to religious educators.


1. Wonderly, Monique. “Children’s Film as an Instrument of Moral Education.” Journal of Moral Education 38, no. 1 (March 2009): 1-15.
Wonderly posits a thesis regarding children’s moral education that rejects longstanding assumptions that children are incapable of moral reasoning. Citing scholars as divergent as Aristotle, Rousseau, Piaget, and Kohlberg, Wonderly critiques the position that children are “egotistical and pre-moral” and holds that recent empirical research has demonstrated children are equipped to engage in philosophical inquiry. The second part of the thesis is that moral education ought to both inculcate the capacity to engage in moral discussions as well as educate the emotions so as to encourage empathetic responses to moral dilemmas. In this regard, Wonderly argues for a pedagogical approach that deemphasizes indoctrination and prefers mythologies that encourages moral reasoning though developing empathy. The final portion of the paper’s thesis is that art, and specifically film, provides a vehicle that is highly attuned to engaging moral education through a narrative framework that engages the viewer in an empathetic response to the moral dilemmas presented in the film. Bridge to Terabithia is a film that conforms to the author’s rubric and Wonderly discusses this film and its coherence to the thesis in detail.

When considering Wonderly’s assertions, the obvious concern is the inability of empirical research to assess what children are actually thinking due to response limitations as well response bias. That aside, while film can provide a compelling narrative that is immersive, evidence also exists that suggests television and film impacts critical reasoning centers of the brain and impinges on the ability of the viewer to engage in critical reasoning and reflection due to the immersive effect. This seems a pivotal question when accepting the validity of the second part of Wonderly’s thesis. If the medium impairs elements of critical reasoning by suppressing brain function as it relates to critique and self-reflection, the moral education that is taking place would tend to resemble indoctrination, but in a potentially insidious medium that masked the indoctrinating effect. To Wonderly’s credit, the article recommends that the use of film in oral education be accompanied by rigorous discussion led by adults to ensure that the moral education occurring is deftly guided. This does not, however, mitigate the real potential of subversion of volition through manipulation.



2. Sanger, Matthew and Richard Osguthorpe. “Analyzing the Child Development Project using the Moral Work of Teaching Framework.” Journal of Moral Education 38, no. 1 (March 2009): 17-34.
Sanger and Osguthorpe argue that when assessing the results and implications of large, longitudinal studies such as the Child Development Project (CDP), a robust evaluative framework that is complex and robust enough to address the nuances incumbent in such a study is needed. The authors propose the Moral Work of Teaching Framework (MWT) because it addresses four evaluative domains (psychological, moral, educational, and contingent) related explicating the key characteristics of any approach to moral education. Each domain in the model are subdivided into more descriptive subsets such that observed phenomena related to a empirical study can be classified and evaluated in a structured and systematized manner.

Sanger and Osguthorpe’s conclusions are influenced by the evaluative methods of the Child Development Project. Their stated purpose for offering the MWT as an alternative is essentially corrective in that the MWT is held up as a far more complex, nuanced tool for evaluating the observations related to studying moral education and as such, offers the researcher a toolset that will offer greater explanatory power. As an example, they indicate that the MWT suggests that the “caring school community” is less genetically founded and more instrumentally realized than much of modern research would suggest. Consequently, what might have been imagined as an ontological basis for moral education might have been a misconstrued instrumentalization of perceived expected values by the students. The point being that the methodology currently used is less equipped to identify nuanced observations than the proposed MWT.



3. IJzendoorn, Marinus H., Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Fieke Pannebakker, and Dorothée Out. “In Defence of Situational Morality: Genetic, Dispositional and Situational Determinants of Children’s Donating to Charity.” Journal of Moral Education 39, no. 1 (March 2009): 1-20.
For religious educators interested in how to “teach stewardship,” this research may be of interest. The authors test the just-community approach to moral education in a study designed around children donating money to charity. Essentially, the experimental design targeted differentiating between moral performance motivated by some ontological factor such as genetics or inborn empathetic capacity versus an externally motivated situational explanation. Based on recent groundbreaking studies, an argument for an evolutionary, prosocial behavioral pattern supporting inborn empathic altruism can be made. However, twin studies have not supported a genetic basis for altruism over and above situational factors. Interestingly enough, the studies do support a higher coefficient of correlation with genetics as test subjects increase in age, implying a dependent correlative effect between parents and children.

The research the authors performed seems to suggest a significantly higher correlation between situational factors over and above genetic or neurobiological factors. The evidence of some studies based on questionable ethical constructs by Milgram in the 1970’s and Stanford in the 2000’s strongly argue that moral and immoral behaviors are significantly impacted by situational factors over and above all other factors. Returning the experiment with children giving to charity after watching a video, the researchers specifically tested for empathetic responses as developed and encouraged by the children’s mothers. The results demonstrate that growing older is inversely proportional to the development of empathy. Additionally, charitable donations in children with parents that are charitable givers were equally inconclusive when attempting to correlate parental giving with their children’s giving.

What the research showed was that either parental or teacher intervention is the only statically significant predictor of donations among the test subjects. By the time subjects reached the age of seven, very little empathic influence is observable until an observer engages in probing activities that question the child as to their views. This find led the authors to question Kohlberg’s just community approach as too optimistic without the added element of direct intervention by an adult. Further, the authors argue for a differentiation between moral competence (the capacity for moral behavior) and moral performance (the actual moral act) so as to offer a critique of the idea that a just community is sufficient to engender moral education.

This research seems to support the impression that while the capacity for faith, for example, might be an inherent capacity, the learning process that translates the capacity of moral behavior into actual performance involves external intervention by some authoritative figure as well the existential component of obedience.



4. Reed, Don Collins and Riley M. Stoermer. “Toward and Integrated Model of Moral Functioning: An Overview of the Special Issue.” Journal of Moral Education 37, no. 3 (September 2008): 417-28.
Reed and Stoermer provide an overview and synthesis of the material published in a special issue of the Journal of Moral Education devoted to taking a fresh look at Lawrence Kohlberg’s research program on the 50th anniversary of his doctoral dissertation. The focus of the Special Issue is to identify forward-looking perspectives and propose avenues of further research based on Kohlberg’s perspectives. Reed and Stoermer identify the lack of a central comprehensive defining model that integrates the multiple levels of moral functioning in terms of individual and group dynamics as the core deficiency in the research field of moral cognition/moral function.

The range of scholarly inquiry in this issue entails biological, psychological, and interdisciplinary research modalities, all addressing aspects of moral functioning. Each places emphasis on early development and the implications of interactions at a socio-cultural level on that development. The sharpest disagreement exists in the area of determining the implicit, neurobiological components of moral functioning versus the explicit, eternally impressed impact of socio-cultural forces on the neuropsychological structures that form in the early stages of human development. As some researchers note, differentiating between the implicit and explicit factors that drive the development of moral functioning is, at best, tenuous and subjective.

Another area of scholarly debate exists in how to account for socio-cultural perspectives when developing models of moral functioning. Some researchers hold that culture imprints so thoroughly that its effects extend to the neurobiological and neuropsychological levels, while others argue for a model that postulates a basis for moral functioning that is identifiably independent of culture. The authors engage this topic in an interesting discussion of the cultural mediation of moral functioning as it relates to postmodernism. Reed and Stoermer argue that all notions that morality are described in terms of human flourishing, a concept that, in and of itself, is culturally contextualized and mediated. Consequently, what some might argue is moral relativism is more appropriately described in terms of a postmodern awareness that the thinker and the thought are not able to be neatly disentangled.



5. Gilead, Tal. “Progress or Stability? An Historical Approach to a Central Question for Moral Education.” Journal of Moral Education 38, no. 1 (March 2009): 93-107.
Gilead, in view of a current trend in the literature related to moral education to associate moral education with progress and suggest that the aim of moral education should be constant progress, examines the historical underpinnings of that notion. Additionally, Gilead locates the historical overview by concluding the article with a series of comments regarding the assumptions regarding the goals and potentialities of moral education.

The author traces the inception of modern ideas regarding moral education to the eighteenth century and key educational and philosophical thinkers in France and Britain. With the advent of the Enlightenment, conceptions regarding the gamut of human endeavor shifted because of the underlying supposition that humanity and human happiness were the ultimate aim of human endeavor. Consequently, moral education necessarily shifted to accommodate this new orientation. However, the change in perspective also engendered a debate among educational philosophers related to the nature of society and its ideals. One group argued that the existing ethical environment, based on Church and tradition, was the apex of the ethical environment and so moral education’s goal should be to reinforce and sustain that environment. The other group argued that the existing ethical environment was artificial in that it was tied to religious constructs that rejected reason as their primary ontology.

The group that advocated for a moral education based on reason prevailed and in the subsequent periods, the argument shifted from the basis of moral education to whether moral education should inculcate an inherent ethical flexibility to permitted those being educated to adapt to new moral environments or whether moral education should establish an ethical framework that would seek stability and social order. Initially, the positivism of modernity led moral education to the idea of a continuous improvement paradigm, whereas the failures of modernity in the twentieth century called the ever-improving utopian view of the ethical society into suspicion.

The current state of moral education is largely embodied by John Dewey, on the one hand, whose ideas hold that constant moral progress is the ultimate goal of moral education and postmodern scholars that attack that idea on a number of levels, but primarily in rejecting the implicit idea that sufficient universals exist so as to make the possibility of constant progress possible. What is interesting is that the arguments that can be observed in an historical review continue to play out in the present. Gilead notes this in his conclusion when he critiques Dewey’s overly optimistic assertion that moral education can both ground people in their societal milieu and, simultaneously, educate them such that they are willing to make constant changes to that society.



6. Barni, Daniela, Sonia Ranieri, Eugenia Scabini and Rosa Rosnati. “Value Transmission in the Family: Do Adolescents Accept the Values Their Parents Want to Transmit?” Journal of Moral Education 40, no. 1 (March 2011): 105-21.
Banri, Ranieri, Scabini and Rosnati have designed a study to measure the extent to which values are transmitted by parents to their adolescent children. The study isolates the relationships of the family into tuples (father/child, mother/child) to attempt to measure the impact of parental gender, adolescent gender, and agreement between parents as a predictor of value transmission. The study was designed to provide a basis for assessing predictability, not just descriptive statistics.
The study was based on the theoretical framework offered by recent research of values transmission that posited a deterministic paradigm of direct cause and effect between parents and adolescents. The paradigm suggested that the interaction was unidirectional and explicit. This study’s findings suggest that this simplistic paradigm fails to account for a several factors that are demonstrably predictive and statistically significant. Among these elements are the level that the parents provide for the adolescents volitional activities in the values transmission process (i.e. there is a bidirectional interaction that accounted for the adolescents volition), the perceived level or extent of agreement between the parent by the adolescent, and quality or closeness of the relationship between the parents and the adolescent. 
7. Glover, Rebecca J., Lance C. Garmon, and Darrel M. Hull. “Media’s Moral Messages: Assessing Perceptions of Moral Content in Television Programming.” Journal of Moral Education 40, no. 1 (March 2011): 89-104.
Glover, Garmon, and Hull have designed a study to assess, on a predictive level, which viewer characteristics contribute to perceiving moral messages embedded in television media. The authors used Generalisability Theory to assist in assess and assigning sample and response error so as to facilitate applicability of the study’s findings as well as permitting them to assess the explanatory contribution of each of the study’s variables.
The study also was designed to provide feedback regarding the Media’s Moral Messages (MMM) assessment model and its reliability related to analyzing program content. The model has been the subject of numerous validation studies during the past ten or so years, and on of the stated goals of the study was to expose the MMM to an experiment with a larger than usual sample size to reevaluate its validity. The model evaluates moral message in two overarching domains of positive and negative message content. The positive domain consists of six categories of message content while the negative domain consists of four categories. The authors’ study yielded results that supported the hypothesis that MMM is a reliable model for assessing moral perceptions in media content.The remaining hypotheses related to age, education, gender, moral expertise and program content familiarity yielded unexpected results on a number of levels. Gender did not contribute statistically significant predictability, nor did program content familiarity. In fact, familiarity tended to be inversely related, leading the authors top theorize that familiarity tended to cause the viewer to discount or disregard moral content inconsistent with the viewer’s perception of the established behavior of a character. Intuitively, this seems correct based on two elements that are in play in that scenario. First, the viewer establishes a relationship with the character and discounts behaviors that tend to undermine that relationship and second, the filter of the pseudo-self that exists in the perception of the viewer tends to exert a normative influence on the perceptions of the viewer related to that self. In short, the tendency is to interact with the acquired identity or self rather than reacquire the sense of self with each interaction. Finally, the results indicated that education and familiarity demonstrated some evidence of multicolinearity.



8. Narvaez, Darcia and Jenny L. Vaydich. “Moral Development and Behaviour Under the Spotlight of the Neurobiological Sciences.” Journal of Moral Education 37, no. 3 (September 2008): 289-312.
Narvaez and Vaydich survey research related to neurobiology and its relationship to moral judgment. They note much of the current neuroscience research reveals a physiological connection between brain function (going so far as to locate specific areas in the brain where these functions occur) and moral judgment that was unavailable when Kohlberg published his dissertation. While many current researchers have seen the neuroscience research as intriguing and, at times provocative, some researchers in moral psychology consider the research to be irrelevant based on Kohlberg’s Standard Model that rejects calling behaviors moral or immoral in the absence of explicit moral reasoning.

The authors, contra that position, see significant benefit in leveraging the neurobiological research, specifically in two main areas. First, the impact of injury or maladaptation on moral reasoning and judgment provides explanatory power for model and modes of moral judgment research because behaviors that fall outside the expected values in empirical terms can, potentially, be explained when considering anomalies in brain function and physiology. Second, the physiological component of what has typically been described in terms of psychology (specifically in area of attachment in developmental psychology) has been the subject of numerous studies that have suggested a strong interconnectedness between psychological development and brain physiology. This interconnectedness is bidirectional in that changes in either seems to have traceable, direct influence on the other. Finally, this research in neurobiology is increasingly pressuring the Standard Model’s axiomatic supposition that moral behavior cannot occur intuitively or automatically.

The relationship between biology and psychology has been a longstanding area of contention because of the implication and consequences of altering fundamental conceptions of human volition and cognition. If human behavior is the product of physiological stimuli, the societal norms and the sanctions established for non-compliance become troublesome based on the elimination of motive and intent. Are behaviors programmed such that they are unavoidable? Do some of these behaviors include things such as moral judgment or religious observance? The implication of research in neurobiology is that the bright lines that have been drawn are artificial and cannot withstand granular scrutiny.



9. Lapsley, Daniel K. and Patrick L. Hill. “On Dual Processing and Heuristic Approaches to Moral Cognition.” Journal of Moral Education 37, no. 3 (September 2008): 313-32.
Lapsley and Hill survey the state of research related to Kohlberg’s theoretical and empirical assertions regarding moral theory. Asserting that Kohlberg’s genius lay in his synthesis of structural child psychology and Kantian ethics in such a way as to provide for a philosophical framework that supported the psychological research, effectively limiting the tendency of psychological research to turn to purely behavioristic explanations that render morality a relativistic enterprise. By insisting that the philosophical underpinnings of any moral theory was required prior to the behavior itself, if it were to function as moral theory, (this assumes that with out moral intension, no moral decision can be made) Kohlberg shut the door on moral theories that involved automatically generated responses.

The authors assert that in the intervening fifty plus years since Kohlberg’s dissertation, sufficient research has be performed to call into question Kohlberg’s fundamental moral phenomenological approach that requires moral intention to generate a moral act. Research suggests that a preponderance of moral decisions occur at the precognitive state such that intentionality is established, cognitively, after the fact. Researchers have broadly classified this as a heuristic or rule based approach to describing morality. A number of different proposals have been proffered regarding how to explain the cardinality of the heuristics, with some researchers rejecting the bright line between automatic responses and cognitive responses.

The question that comes to mind is related to how these heuristics form. On their face, many behaviors seem to be automatic and initiated by heuristics. However, if a given fact pattern occurs often enough, a response designed to optimize the decision point might generate an automatic response that would effectively obscure the reasoning that informed the initial behavior. This might be analogized by looking at how a child might learn their multiplication tables. Initially, the process is highly cognitive, but over time, the responses become so commonplace that they appear to occur prior to a cognitive stimulus. In essence, a thoroughly learned moral decision might take the characteristics of an automatic response, but the underlying moral reasoning is still present, just not explicit.


Special thanks to Terrence R. Daniels and Eric B. Salo.

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