Moral development refers to the age-related developmental processes that individuals undergo as they become more knowledgeable, consistent, and responsive in their ethical functioning. Moral development includes cognitive, affective, volitional, and behavioral elements, and developmental lags in any of these areas can result in ethical violations. For example, an athlete who exhibits sophisticated thinking about ethical issues yet has poor emotional control may still impulsively cheat when there is little chance of detection. The following sections introduce major theories of moral development and how they have been used in sport psychology (SP) research.
Jean Piaget’s Approach to Moral Development
The famed Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was the first to conduct a careful examination of developmental trends in children’s thinking about moral issues. Piaget’s classic book, The Moral Judgment of the Child, published in 1932, begins with nuanced descriptions of children playing marbles in the street. Piaget interviewed the children about the rules, their source, and their openness to revision. Drawing from his extensive interviews and observations, Piaget went on to describe children’s thoughts not only about game rules but also about stealing and lying, harm, and justice.
Piaget identified two broad stages in children’s moral development. Initially, children embrace a heteronomous approach to morality. At this stage, morality is viewed as an external set of requirements handed down by authority figures, like parents. Rules are unchangeable. Eventually, as children gain experience in collaborative activity with peers, heteronomous morality gives way to autonomous morality. Children come to see moral regulation as something that is socially constructed and open to revision.
When considering Piaget’s contribution to moral development research, it is helpful to keep in mind his broader contribution to psychology. Piaget was the most influential architect of an approach to psychology known as constructivism. In contrast to behaviorists, who argue that the child is simply the product of environmental determinants, Piaget argued that the child is an active agent. According to Piaget, the mind doesn’t simply passively receive information; it actively seeks to interpret experience. Metaphorically, every child is a budding philosopher who tries to make sense of the world and construct meaning through interactions with physical and social reality.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Development
With Piaget having pioneered the scientific study of moral development, it was Lawrence Kohlberg who brought it into the mainstream of psychology. Kohlberg began his work in the late 1950s, and his theory and research dominated the field for nearly a half century.
Kohlberg began with an initial sample of 50 males, ages 10 to 28, whom he interviewed every 3 years for 18 years. Kohlberg claimed that each of his subjects went through the same sequence of changes in the structure of their moral thinking. Based on his interviews, Kohlberg proposed a six-stage model of moral development. Over the years, the precise descriptions of the stages evolved, and Kohlberg eventually dropped Stage 6. Before his death in 1987, Kohlberg and his colleagues had interviewed thousands of subjects from a diverse range of cultures and found general support for the universality and invariant order of his stage sequence. The next sections describe his theoretical orientation, his methodology, and the stage sequence that he proposed.
Kohlberg’s Theoretical Orientation
Kohlberg’s theory synthesized philosophical and psychological commitments. He was heavily influenced by Kantian philosophers, such as John Rawls, who argue that there are universal principles of morality that can be discovered through reason. But reason doesn’t come fully formed in the young child, and Kohlberg found inspiration in Piaget’s studies of the development of children’s cognitive reasoning.
Kohlberg offered a cognitive developmental theory of moral development. According to Kohlberg, cognition is key to morality. A moral act is one motivated by commitment to moral principles. People may not always act consistently with their best thinking, but sophisticated moral thinking is a necessary, if insufficient, precondition for acting morally. The defining characteristic of mature moral reasoning, according to Kohlberg, is an ability to weigh everyone’s claims in a fair, unbiased, impartial manner. Stated differently, the core of morality is the principle of justice.
To investigate moral thinking, Kohlberg distinguished between the form and the content of moral thought. The content of moral thinking refers to the specific thoughts that a person has about a moral situation—the specific beliefs that they hold. The form or structure of moral reasoning refers to a deeper pattern to the way people think. Consider, for example, an athlete who argues that a baseball pitcher should hurl a fastball close to a batter’s head in retaliation for the opposing pitcher hitting a teammate with a pitch the previous inning. The athlete’s specific belief about what the pitcher should do is part of the content of their moral reasoning. Underlying that belief is a patterned way of thinking about issues of rights, responsibilities, fairness, and human welfare. That pattern of reasoning is the structural level of moral thinking and development.
Kohlberg presented his research subjects with brief hypothetical dilemmas and asked them what the protagonist should do. For example, in his most famous story, people are told about “Heinz,” who must choose whether or not to steal a drug to save his dying wife. Whether the person says that Heinz should steal the drug or not is irrelevant to scoring their stage of development. That decision reflects the content of their moral judgment. Kohlberg was interested in the pattern of reasoning that the person used to reach their conclusion. By asking why a person thinks the way they do and probing their responses, Kohlberg sought to isolate the “moral grammar” beneath their judgments. Thus, stages are defined in terms of the structure of moral thinking.
Kohlberg’s research methodology is time-consuming and expensive. An alternative approach, based on a similar developmental model, was developed by James Rest. His Defining Issues Test (DIT) was developed to provide a paper-and-pencil alternative to Kohlberg’s interview method. The DIT presents some of the same moral dilemmas as Kohlberg uses but then provides a set of possible responses to the dilemmas. Respondents rate the adequacy of the responses and then select the responses that most appeal to them. Rest’s assessment methodology has been used in a number of sport investigations. In addition, his later elaboration of moral functioning processes, which extend beyond developmental issues, has laid the foundation for significant sport research (see the entry Moral Judgment, this encyclopedia).
Kohlberg’s Moral Levels
According to Kohlberg, children move through a regular, age-related sequence of stages. While the stages of development are universal, children’s progress through the stages can occur at varying rates, and many people plateau in their development without reaching the highest stages. Growth from one stage to the next is facilitated by experiences that lead them to question the adequacy of their existing stage of reasoning.
Each stage in Kohlberg’s model is said to be better than the previous stage. By better, Kohlberg meant that each stage is an advance both philosophically and psychologically. From a philosophical standpoint, each stage improves upon earlier stages because it is more comprehensive in the kinds of moral issues that it considers and more internally coherent in the way that it address them. Psychologically, each stage is said to be better because it is more stable, comprehensive, and coherent than the previous stage (for a brief description of the stages, see the entry Moral Reasoning).
Though Kohlberg’s theory has been the most influential, there have been many critics and alternative proposals. Carol Gilligan, noting that his original sample was all male, thought that Kohlberg neglected women’s voices. If he had listened equally to women, she argued, he would have realized that his focus on justice needed to be complemented by an equal concern for care and interpersonal responsiveness.
Others have critiqued Kohlberg’s philosophical commitments and how they shaped various aspects of his theory. For example, Norma Haan developed an alternative moral development model based less on Kantian-style reasoning and more on how people create informal norms of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships. Through Haan did not hold to all of Kohlberg’s strong claims about stage development, she did present a five-level developmental sequence that characterizes increasingly adequate forms of moral thinking.
A number of theorists have also focused on “prosocial behavior,” which is behavior intended to benefit others (regardless of motive), rejecting Kohlberg’s more stringent requirement that moral action arise from moral reasoning. The behavioral focus also characterizes those who divide moral action into antisocial and prosocial behaviors, both of which are defined independent of underlying reasons or motives.
Since Kohlberg’s pioneering work, the field of moral development research has evolved to focus on a number of other major dimensions of morality in addition to cognition. Augusto Blasi, for example, has written extensively on the concept of moral identity, which refers to both how salient moral concerns are to one’s sense of self and what specific dimensions of morality one elevates to highest concern and how moral identity serves as a bridge between moral thought and action. Jonathan Haidt, among others, has highlighted the development and role of unconscious processes in moral functioning. Some researchers have also sought to elucidate the biological and evolutionary underpinning of moral development, though this line of investigation has not yet had much of an impact on sport morality research.
Moral Development in Sport Research
In the 1980s, Brenda Bredemeier and David Shields pioneered a line of sport morality research drawing from both Kohlberg’s and Haan’s theoretical paradigms. They found that the maturity of an athlete’s moral reasoning has important correlates. Research, for example, suggests that college basketball players with lower stage moral reasoning are more likely to be rated by their coaches as more aggressive; they are also more likely to accept potentially injurious behavior as legitimate. Similarly, children who are less mature in their moral reasoning are more likely to use aggressive tactics than assertive or submissive ones.
Some researchers have sought to determine whether participation in sports has an impact on moral stage growth. To date, research on this question has been cross-sectional, so no cause–effect conclusions can be reached. Moreover, the existent research is inconclusive. A few studies have found that participation in some sports, particularly at higher levels, is associated with lower moral reasoning maturity, but these findings have not been robust. It is unlikely that any conclusions about “sports” in general will hold up since sport experiences are so varied. Other influences, such as education and diverse role-taking opportunities, are likely more influential.
There have been a small number of intervention studies that have sought to increase moral reasoning maturity through physical education (PE) or sport programs. The primary intervention strategy is to provide participants with structured opportunities for role-taking, dialogue, and negotiation about moral issues. The results of these pilot investigations have demonstrated that leaders, equipped with training, can promote moral development.
Recent trends in SP have been away from an explicit focus on moral development in favor of other dimensions of moral functioning, such as moral reasoning and behavior and how these are influenced by other variables of interest. One reason for this trend may be the difficulty of assessing moral development; existent measures, such as the interview methods of Kohlberg and Haan, require considerable time to learn, administer, and score. Even the paper-and-pencil DIT is lengthy. Still, moral development has been documented to be an important influence on moral action in sport, and future researchers are likely to shed additional light on this important dimension of the sport experience.
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- Haan, N., Aerts, E., & Cooper, B. (1985). On moral grounds: The search for practical morality. New York: New York University Press.
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