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 place—new 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 In fact, studies in “development” have in large part been replaced by an emphasis on “formation” (and that remains a rather squishy concept in C.E. circles).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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.