Moral Reasoning and Sport

Moral reasoning is focused on what, from a moral standpoint,  a  person  should  do  in  a  given  situation.  Moral  reasoning  addresses  issues  of  right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice. Moral reasoning  seeks  to  answer  these  questions:  What ought to be done? What is the right thing to do? Athletes  use  moral  reasoning  to  make  practical decisions  about  such  topics  as  cheating  and  fair play,  aggression  and  altruism,  disrespectfulness and sportsmanship, doping and honesty.

Moral  reasoning,  while  often  focused  on  the practical  resolution  of  dilemmas  or  problems,  is also a form of philosophical reasoning. Moral reasoning appeals to decision-making criteria, formal or informal, that reflect claims about what is true, right, and/or good. When a young athlete asks herself, Should I risk my health by severely restricting my diet so that I can compete at a target weight? she is asking fundamental questions about human welfare, personal and social responsibilities to self and others, and basic issues of rights and fairness. Her reflections are practical, in that they are oriented to decision making (DM) and philosophical consideration,  in  that  she  is  evaluating  the  moral principles that might inform her choice.

Next, we discuss the use of moral principles to inform moral reasoning, the development of moral reasoning, and moral reasoning in sport research.

Reasoning From Moral Principle

Not all moral action originates from or is guided by explicit moral reasoning. If the right thing to do is unambiguous and clear, there may be very little need  for  deliberative  moral  reasoning.  Similarly, sometimes  a  person  may  act  in  morally  charged situations from habit or intuition. But some situations lead a person to pause and reflect. This may happen, for example, when a situation presents a person with a conflict among values. For example, an  athlete  may  think  about  whether  to  use  performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) because, on the one hand, she values optimal physical performance and, on the other hand, she values health, as well as fairness and honesty. Sifting through and prioritizing these values necessitate moral reasoning.

When  people  engage  in  moral  reasoning,  they make use of moral rules or principles. Moral rules are  specific,  prescriptive  guides  to  action:  don’t cheat, don’t lie, and play fair. In contrast, a moral principle is a generalized guide to behavior, such as the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

There is a long tradition of philosophical debate over moral principles. While there are many variants,  the  two  main  philosophical  camps  are  the utilitarians  and  the  deontologists.  Utilitarians determine the morality of an action by examining its consequences. The most widely cited utilitarian moral principle is to act so as to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. An athlete may  decide  cheating  is  wrong,  for  example,  if that athlete believes that sports will benefit more people  if  contests  are  fair.  In  contrast,  deontologists define moral principles in terms of the quality of the action itself. According to deontologists, an unjust act cannot be justified by appeal to the act’s consequences. For the athlete who embraces deontology,   cheating   is   wrong   not   because of  the  consequences  of  cheating  but  because of  its  inherent  qualities.  According  to  Kant’s famous version of deontology, an act is moral if, and only if, you want all people to act that same way  in  similar  circumstances.  Since  an  athlete does not want everyone to cheat (especially opponents), cheating is inherently wrong regardless of its consequences.

Developmental Stages of Moral Reasoning

In the mid-20th century, the Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg combined a neo-Kantian view of  moral  principles  with  the  constructivist  psychology  of  Jean  Piaget,  and  outlined  a  six-stage sequence in the development of moral reasoning. Kohlberg’s pioneering work represented a fundamental  break  with  the  behaviorist  approach  to morality and psychology that was then dominant.

Drawing  from  the  work  of  the  Swiss  developmental   psychologist   Jean   Piaget,   Kohlberg claimed  that  children  were  not  passively  molded by the environment; rather, children actively seek to  interpret  their  experience;  they  are  meaning makers.  Children  seek  to  form  coherent  understandings of their world. As part of their ongoing effort to construct increasingly complex and comprehensive understandings of the world, children gradually develop more adequate forms of moral reasoning.

A  stage  of  moral  reasoning  is  simply  an  organized pattern of thinking about what makes something right or wrong. To understand what Kohlberg means by a moral stage, it is important to distinguish between the content of moral reasoning and its structure. The content of moral thinking refers to the specific thoughts that a person has about a moral situation. If a coach believes that an athlete should  play  through  injury,  that  belief  is  part  of the content of the coach’s reasoning. The structure of moral reasoning, in contrast, refers to a deeper organized  pattern  of  DM  and  prioritizing  values. The structure of moral reasoning, to use an analogy, is like the “grammar” that gives coherence to a wide range of moral thoughts and decisions. To continue our example, the coach who believes an athlete should play through injury may hold that belief  because  he  systematically,  across  numerous situations  and  contents,  prioritizes  the  value  of winning  over  other  values,  such  as  concerns  for welfare.  Typically,  people  engaged  in  moral  reasoning are aware of their specific thoughts about whatever  moral  issues  they  are  facing.  But  moral structure  operates  below  the  surface;  people  are no  more  conscious  of  the  structure  (or  stage)  of their  moral  reasoning  than  they  are  of  the  grammatical rules that give linguistic structure to their speaking.

Moral stages are defined in terms of the structure  of  moral  reasoning.  According  to  Kohlberg, children  progress  through  a  regular,  age-related sequence of stages. Although the stages of development  are  universal,  children  do  not  always  progress at the same rate, nor do they all stabilize at the same  level.  Children’s  moral  reasoning  development may plateau at any stage.

Growth from one stage to the next is dependent on  experience.  Kohlberg  identifies  what  he  calls cognitive  disequilibrium  as  the  primary  motivator  that  leads  a  child  to  gradually  abandon  one stage  and  slowly  construct  a  more  adequate  one. For  example,  imagine  an  athlete  thinks  that  “the good” is equivalent to “what’s good for me.” The athlete’s  moral  perspective,  which  is  quite  immature, is limited to considering only one viewpoint: that of the self. However, the athlete’s teammates are likely to be impatient with that perspective and may  argue  or  retaliate.  The  contrast  between  the athlete’s  stage  of  reasoning  (which  assumes  that the world revolves around the self) and the negative reaction of others is likely to create a sense of mental incoherence (i.e., cognitive disequilibrium). With sufficient experience, the young athlete’s self-centered perspective becomes unstable, initiating a search for a more comprehensive perspective. The result is the child’s development of a new stage of moral reasoning.

The  six  stages  of  Kohlberg’s  model  of  moral reasoning development are divided into three levels:  the  preconventional,  conventional,  and  postconventional  levels.  The  preconventional  level  is egocentric in the sense that the child, like the athlete  mentioned  previously,  cannot  think  beyond his  or  her  own  needs  and  desires.  The  conventional  level  is  reached  when  the  child  embraces a  social  perspective  that  takes  account  of  others and  group  norms.  For  example,  an  athlete  may start to think in terms of the team and its behavioral  norms.  Finally,  the  postconventional  level is  reached  when  the  person  orients  to  universal values and moral principles. At this level, an athlete’s  moral  reasoning  may  be  guided  by  norms of  fairness  and  welfare  that  are  prioritized  over whatever expectations may characterize a particular team.

The stages can be briefly summarized in the following way:

Preconventional Stages

Stage 1: Morality is equivalent to whatever is rewarded; wrong is equivalent to whatever is punished. Moral reasoning is guided by considerations of authority and power. “Whatever the coach says is right” would be an example.

Stage 2: Morality is equivalent to what is good for the self. Moral reasoning is guided by a desire to obtain benefits. Simple reciprocity is embraced: “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” In sports, it may also take the form of “cheating is okay when opponents cheat.”

Conventional Stages

Stage 3: What is good or right is equivalent to stereotypic notions of what a “good” person does. This stage involves a superficial embrace of group norms. Moral reasoning is guided by ideas about what is nice, polite, or conforming. If the person identifies with an antisocial group, this conformist mode of thinking may take on a more rebellious tone. In sports, conformity to superficial conventions of good sportsmanship may reflect this stage of thinking.

Stage 4: Social maintenance is the core value of this stage. This can vary from a “law and order” orientation to a strong but uncritical embrace of one’s cultural beliefs and practices. Moral reasoning is guided by rules, formal or informal, that serve group maintenance functions. The athlete who defines morality by rigid appeal to rules is likely reasoning at this stage.

Postconventional Stages

Stage 5: This stage is characterized by a humanistic perspective that seeks to uphold universal values. Moral reasoning is guided by allegiance to chosen values that the person believes should be upheld everywhere by everyone. The athlete who thinks about the “purpose of the rules,” rather than just the literal rules themselves, may be reflecting Stage 5 reasoning. For example, consider a skier who shares a pole with an opponent who breaks hers. The skier may do so, even though not required toby the rules, to uphold the “spirit of fairness” that the rules seek to express.

Stage 6: Justice is the core decision-making principle at this stage. Moral reasoning is guided by a concern to apply the principle of justice impartially to all parties. It should be noted,

however, that Kohlberg dropped Stage 6 from later versions of his scoring manual because too few individuals were found who actually demonstrated unambiguous Stage 6 reasoning. He retained the sixth stage only as a hypothetical terminal point to the stage sequence.

Post-Kohlbergian Perspectives

Kohlberg’s  pioneering  work  is  without  parallel  in  breadth  and  scope  and  continues  to  have lasting significance. Still, even before his death in 1987, numerous criticisms of his theory had been advanced. Carol Gilligan, noting that his original sample  was  all  male,  critiqued  Kohlberg’s  focus on  justice  to  the  relative  neglect  of  the  ethical requirement  to  care  for  others.  John  Gibbs  supported Kohlberg’s model up through Stage 4 but suggested  that  the  postconventional  stages  were based   on   philosophical   arguments   that   went beyond  the  empirical  research.  Elliot  Turiel  and Larry  Nucci  conducted  research  that  suggested Kohlberg’s  model  confused  and  blended  moral concerns with social conventions.

Norma  Haan,  whose  approach  has  been  used in  a  number  of  sport  psychology  (SP)  research projects,  studied  moral  reasoning  in  the  context of moral action rather than following Kohlberg’s preferred methodology of relying on responses to hypothetical  dilemmas.  Kohlberg,  for  example, had  asked  respondents  whether  a  hypothetical “Heinz”  should  steal  a  drug  to  save  his  dying wife. Haan, by contrast, recorded people’s actions and utterances as they participated in simulations games  that  required  moral  negotiations  to  occur. She  coded  how  people  balanced  their  own  interests  and  perspective  with  those  of  others  as  they sought to navigate toward shared solutions.

Moral Reasoning in Sport Research

Research  conducted  in  sport  settings  has  demonstrated that the maturity of an athlete’s moral reasoning  has  important  correlates.  Some  research, for  example,  suggests  that  athletes  with  lower stage moral reasoning are more likely to cheat or try  to  injure  an  opponent.  Since  preconventional moral  reasoning  is  guided  by  self-interest,  this  is not surprising.

Some  researchers  have  sought  to  determine whether  participation  in  sports  has  a  facilitative or  inhibitive  effect  on  moral  stage  growth.  Do athletes, compared to their same-age peers, exhibit more or less mature moral reasoning? The research on this question has been inconclusive. There have been a few studies that suggest that participation in  sports,  particularly  at  a  higher  level,  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. People’s experience in sports is highly variable  depending  on  the  sport,  the  competitive level, the culture of the team, the coach, and numerous other factors.

Another  line  of  research  has  focused  on  differences  between  moral  reasoning  about  issues occurring  in  sports  and  moral  reasoning  about similar issues in everyday life. Brenda Bredemeier and  David  Shields  proposed  a  theory  of  “game reasoning” that suggests many athletes use moral reasoning  that  resembles  lower  stage  reasoning when they respond to issues in sport but shift to more  mature  reasoning  when  considering  moral issues   outside   of   sport.   Sometimes   this   shift toward a more egocentric form of reasoning simply  reflects  a  playful  and  nonserious  deviation, but game reasoning can also degenerate into serious moral lapses.

There have been a small number of intervention studies that have sought to increase moral reasoning  maturity  through  physical  education  (PE)  or sport programs. While the number of studies has been  small,  the  results  were  generally  encouraging. When coaches foster opportunities for moral dialogue and negotiation, when they seek to build a culture of fairness, it is likely that they can have a positive impact on the moral reasoning of their athletes.

In  conclusion,  it  is  clear  that  moral  reasoning  is  an  important  process  that  informs  many decisions  and  actions  within  sport  settings.  The adequacy  of  moral  reasoning  that  an  athlete  or coach  exhibits  will  depend  of  a  variety  of  individual   and   environmental   factors.   Certainly, the  developmental  level  of  a  person’s  moral  reasoning  is  one  factor,  but  it  is  not  the  only  one. The content of a person’s moral reasoning is also influenced by socialization and contextual factors. Explicit  efforts  to  improve  moral  reasoning  in sport settings will need to pay attention to all of these dynamics.


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