Two major reasons exist for studying moral development during adolescence. First, cognitive changes that occur during adolescence are related to moral development. Formal operational thinking allows the adolescent to interpret the social environment in new and different ways. Second, because adolescents are capable of devising new and idealistic social orders to which all are expected to conform, we may view them as moral philosophers.
A number of researchers have noted other changes in moral development that point to the importance of adolescence as a transition stage in moral development. Unlike children, the adolescent is concerned with what is right as opposed to what is wrong. Also, adolescents become more preoccupied with personal and social moral codes. As they gain the competency to understand alternative points of view, they see that the moral codes are relative, not absolute. The above changes result in some conflict between moral conduct and moral thinking during adolescence.
Early writing in the area of moral development was left to philosophers, who evolved three major doctrines of morality, each of which is represented in contemporary psychological theorizing. The “doctrine of the original sin” assumed that parental intervention was necessary to save the child’s soul. Current-day vestiges of this viewpoint may be found in theories of personality structure and the development of the conscience, or superego, which argue that the child internalizes parental standards of right and wrong.
The “doctrine of innate purity” argued that the child is basically moral, or pure, and that society, especially adults, are corrupting influences. This view is represented in the theorizing of Piaget, who argues that morality develops from the acquisition of autonomy emerging from the need to get along with peers. Moral thinking develops through peer-to-peer interactions that lead to an understanding of rules, according to Piaget. He also believes that parents do not allow autonomous thinking to develop because parent-child relationships are basically heteronomous, that is, the child is ruled by the parents. Therefore, the parents retard moral development.
The last philosophical doctrine is the “tabula rasa” notion, which assumes that the child is neither innately pure nor corrupt but the product of environmental influences. The current-day representatives of this position are the learning theorists, who believe that development is the result of reinforcement and imitation mechanisms. In addition to these differing philosophical and theoretical views regarding the origin of morality, we must keep in mind the distinctions between three concepts: systems of morality, moral behavior and moral character. Systems of morality are evidenced in the rules that guide social and interpersonal behavior. That includes rules that are written down and those that are not. This broad definition includes all types of social behaviors, not just those we consider moral behavior.
Moral behaviors are those behaviors that are consistent with rules of morality. Like moral systems, moral behaviors include social behaviors of all types. This definition of moral behavior also includes behavior contrary to that expressed in moral code. Immoral behavior is simply a subclass of moral behavior.
Moral character is a much more difficult concept to define. It is mostly hard to define due to the fact it involves an individual’s motives for behaving in a particular way. The basic problem in defining moral character is to determine those personality dimensions that determine it and vary as a function of it. Moral knowledge , socialization, empathy, autonomy, and moral judgement are the major concepts defining moral character.
In order to have successful peer and adult relationships, the adolescent must learn the rules of the society and act in accordance to these rules. Individuals who successfully master these tasks are said to possess moral character. Among psychologists, the writings of Freud and Piaget have had the greatest impact on research in moral development. Following their early works, there was little written about moral development. In the last two or three decades, there has been considerable research and theorizing about the process underlying moral development.
According to the principles of psychoanalytic theory, morality is part of the individual’s conscience, or superego. The acquisition of morality is explained by the information of the superego, which results from resolution of the Oedipal complex and identification with the same-sex parent. Society ensures its survival through this identification process by imposing its cultural standards, as represented by the parents’ behaviors, attitudes, aspirations, on the individual. Although the exact basis is unclear, Freud’s theorizing has stimulated considerable research into the effects of parental behavior on the child’s moral development. The major research concerns have centered on moral character , the consistency of moral behavior across situations, and the role of parental disciplinary techniques in shaping moral behavior.