If you pay a visit to a preschool, you will see that morals and ethics are not innate concepts. You will see young tots grabbing toys from one another, crying when things do not go their way in games, and using violence to solve their problems a great deal of the time, at least until a teacher intervenes. Lessons like learning to share, having fun in games without winning, and negotiating your way out of an impasse all take time and reinforcement from older siblings, parents, teachers and other authority figures. The ways that authority figures intervene to teach ethics and morals change over time, as children grow and learn increasingly sophisticated ways to process input, meaning that the strategies a kindergarten teacher uses to inculcate morals differ from the methods of a high school coach for building discipline within a team.
When I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I received a clear sign that children do not have an innate sense of right and wrong. This social construct, according to Freud, nestles itself into place above our ids at an early age and keeps our deeds within the boundaries of ordinary society. When the young boys in the story find themselves shipwrecked and alone on the island, without any adult supervision, it does not take much time at all for things to go horribly wrong in the society. Instead of organizing themselves into a peaceful community, the boys rapidly split into two factions that vie for power, and the outcomes become violent as the entire situation spins out of control. The boys simply lack the social skills to organize themselves peacefully, so without any structure in place, the boys just do what they want, for the most part. While they do have an awareness of right and wrong, that awareness has not solidified to the point where they can leave peacefully on an independent basis.
I have made similar observations in my own life about the moral development of individuals. My cousin has attempted to reason with her children since they were old enough to walk instead of being more of an authoritarian parent. This has led to many situations in which her children argue back and forth with her when it is time to perform simple tasks such as making their bed or loading the dishwasher after dinner. They have not reached a point of moral development in which the simple knowledge that it is right to help out your family and do chores takes hold. She has not yet instilled the disciplinary response in which her children automatically obey her, leading to these debates over fairly simple things.
Lawrence Kohlberg developed a set of three levels of moral development, each of which has two stages, and the vast majority of people progress through these stages as they age and mature, based on their interactions with authority figures and peers. Each person’s journey through these stages differs significantly because of the precise role that the authority figures play in their lives. Preconventional morality is the first stage through which children go, as well as older people who never progress. The interplay between obedience and punishment comprises the driving force for morality early on, as infants and toddlers learn what is acceptable and what is not, not through the interplay between logic and reason. A toddler wanders toward a stove with his hand held up high toward the handle dangling off the end. if he grabs the handle and yanks on it, a pot full of boiling water ends up on his head. His mother could stop him and reason with him, or she could grab him and swat him on the rear end. A toddler cannot understand reasoning, so she uses the swatting hand. The painful lesson is to stay away from the stove, because getting close to it causes pain.
The next stage has to do with individualism and exchange. This is where the “ Golden Rule” comes into play. “ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the driving force in this consideration. This is often the defining morality until the child enters his first social situations. The child is willing to meet the needs of someone else if the child gets a need met in return. Asking for a toddler to hand you something and then praising the child is just one example of this sort of ethical interaction.
Conventional morality takes hold once children enter society, generally through the earliest years of education. Elementary school teachers use such motivational tools as stickers, leadership roles, verbal praise and other distinctions to teach conformity to a set of rules, all of which are based on social expectations. The emphasis is being “ nice” to one another. This follows with the desire to maintain social order. If people bring their backpacks to class, those backpacks could contain weapons. As a result, students leave their backpacks in their lockers. If everyone ignored traffic signals, the streets would be chaos. As a result, people heed traffic signals (by and large), with just the occasional violator zipping through. Thomas More described the law as a bridge that people could use to walk safely through society, over the dark forces of chaos and unrest that lie in wait for those who do not live according to precepts.
Postconventional morality includes two stages that do not always occur, even into adulthood. The idea of the social contract and individual rights involves the individual accounting for the differing beliefs and values of others. While the rule of law is important, the members of a society should have input as to what those laws are. The final level involves the recognition of universal principles of ethics. People in this final stage follow their own internal ethical compass, even if there is a conflict with existing laws.
In my own case, I believe that I am at the final stage. I do not think that I would accept laws that go against my concept of universal ethics. One current example is the federal regulation suspending the payment of emergency death benefits to the families of soldiers who die while on active duty, as long as the government is in its “ shutdown.” The federal government has identified expenses that are “ essential” and “ non-essential,” and it keeps the essential personnel in place. As long as active duty personnel are expected to maintain ongoing operations during a shutdown, every form of support available to them should stay in place, or the active duty should be suspended, and the troops should be moved out of harm’s way. As long as someone has the chance of dying while in the military service of our country under active duty orders, the government has the responsibility to honor that commitment.
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Hannah, Sean, Avolio, Bruce and May, Douglas. “ Moral Maturation and Moral Conation: A Capacity Approach to Explaining Moral Thought and Action. Academy of Management Review
McLeod, Saul. “ Lawrence Kohlberg.” http://www. simplypsychology. org/kohlberg. html