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:
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.”
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.
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.
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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