Check in with Your Moral Reasoning


In these politically heated days, I don’t think anyone would argue that we are all a little bit on edge regarding our moral and ethical values and how they may be being upheld or stomped on in these trying times. Moral reasoning for some is working. For others it is definitely not. But we are all living in the same place, yes? We are all seeing the same things, aren’t we?

Hmm . . . that’s a tough one to answer.

Because we are definitely not living the same experience. And we certainly have different moral reasoning and codes that color that experience, making it incredibly unique for each person or group.

With that in mind, I wanted to explore this idea a bit more.

Defining a permanent, universal construct of moral reasoning is a tough one. To put it as simply as possible, moral reasoning is the ethics and code by which one defines his or her life. This is instilled in us as we grow and depends on our environmental and social influences. And believe it or not, it can develop, change, and take a ninety degree turn at any time. According to Santrock (2009), moral development is defined as “changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regarding standards of right and wrong” (p. 476).

Wow, that is a loaded explanation!

So, let’s unpack it a bit.

There is much more to moral reasoning than a one sentence definition. Moral reasoning is a malleable construct based on such variables as culture, family, gender, and even the land in which you live. For example, Miller and Luthar (1989, as cited in Miller, Bersof & Harwood, 1990) explained that morality in India is based on a general action of right or wrong involving social duty and obligation. This is strikingly different in comparison to the American ideal in which morality is defined as a “personal choice” based on individual rights. See where we are going with this?

Kohlberg’s Moral Reasoning Theory stands out as one of the leading theories regarding how we learn about morality (Santrock, 2009; Snarey, Reimer & Kohlberg, 1985). Without noting the role of gender or culture which definitely muddies the waters, he proposed three defining stages to learning our subjective sense of right and wrong.

1) During the Preconventional Stage, we first learn about the sense of right and wrong through punishment. Whatever avoids punishment is considered to be right. We also figure out that there is an exchange. For example, if I am nice to my brother, I may just get a cookie out of the deal. It is straightforward and leaves little wiggle room.

2) In the second stage called the Conventional Stage, we understand that being “good” is “right” and we take on our parents’ or caregivers’ values as our own. We also understand that there are even more rules and laws of good or bad that are outside of our caregivers – that even they have laws they have to go by. At this juncture, we realize that we all abide by rules in order for society to function well. We start paying attention to the “other” For example we may wonder why someone else is getting away with something that we can’t – what’s that about?

3) In the third and final stage, the Postconventional Stage, which many of us may never achieve, we began to understand that those laws may not actually be for the good of all (Wood, Wood & Boyd, 2008). If we get to the final sub-stage of Postconventional stage, we may achieve a sense of moral conduct based on what we believe to be true and right, regardless of the laws set in place and we may act on those regardless of the consequences. If you have ever been arrested for standing up for what you believe in, chained yourself to a tree as the truck is coming to take it down, or been on a march lately, you know what I mean. In this stage, which many of us are pretty darn uncomfortable with, we are willing to go the extra mile to say “Hey, this is not working for all – what the heck is going on? This need to stop – we need to rethink!” Those in this stage are not really liked by those just going by the rules in the second stage. And those in this stage often wonder why those in that other stage aren’t standing up, too.

So that’s the basics. Complicated enough, yet?

As we mature, Kohlberg indicated that we have options to change our moral learning. We can exceed, embrace, or discard any or all of what we have learned to be right or wrong. Kohlberg did not address culture and gender or the influence of others, however (Miller, 2001). But you can’t have one without all the others. It’s never that easy.

For instance, the principles of collectivism versus individualism in moral reasoning as seen when comparing India and America above must be explored as well. The idea of individualism within morality is what Gillian would acknowledge as the “justice perspective” while morality based on collectivism may be seen as part of the “care perspective” (Santrock, p. 483). Caring perspectives tend to be based on stories of experience (Miller, 2001; Sunar, 2002). When comparing the culture of genders, justice perspective more often than not focuses on a male point of view, while care perspective takes a more female approach. For instance, historically, a sense of community and connectedness is much more a dominant female trait than a male’s, according to Gillian (Santrock, 2009).

Developmental patterns indicate that we often associate and learn from those who raised us. The political upheaval that many of us are feeling come from this complicated play of culture, family ideals that we may agree or disagree with, experience, and sex and gender influence that often times is still not acknowledged. When it is, there is often backlash to the status quo of that Conventional stage where so many just simply don’t want to rock the boat.

When discussing how gender may or may not play a role, one must take into account the social rules that children embrace (Miller, 2001). Children imitate what they see – both positive and negative – and internalize those rules of right and wrong (Sunar, 2002). We are kidding ourselves to think that this is not gender based on some level. Boys are raised to be tough and strong. Girls are raised to be calm and collected. Boys should not cry while girls can. Men learn to internalize their sadness which turns into a more acceptable emotion of anger. Helfritz, Stanford, Conklin, Greve, Villemarette-Pittman and Huston (2006) found that many men have little insight regarding their own anger and sadness and its overt behaviors. As it stands, research shows that girls internalize much more on a conscious level than boys and have higher scores overall on measures of moral reasoning (Sunar, 2002).

The newer generations are blurring these lines, and fantastically so, in that there are not two extremes but rather fluidity in such ideals and expectations. But that would be more in line with that third, Postconventional line of moral reasoning. Many are very happy to not rock that boat and stay in the Conventional area of reasoning with definitive lines.

Thus, some confusion all around, depending on where you are in those stages.

Why does this all matter?

Every day, we receive messages from the media which are gender bias and incongruous whether we realize it or not (Miller, 2001). Every day, we are bombarded by influences that either support our moral reasoning or go against it. Every day, we make a choice to consider something new, or keep things the way they are, or say yes or no to whatever comes along based on our moral reasoning.

So, I encourage all of you to think about your moral reasoning. Where do you fall in the stages? Why do you think the way you do? Maybe you need a tune up. Maybe not. It’s all up to you.


Helfritz, L.E., Stanford, M.S., Conklin, S.M., Greve, K.W., Villemarette-Pittman, N.R., & Houston, R. J. (2006). Usefulness of self-report instruments om assessing men accused of domestic violence. The Psychological Record, 56, 171-180.

Miller, J.G. (2001). Culture and Moral Development. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The handbook of culture and psychology (pp. 151-194). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Miller, J. G., Bersoff, M. D., & Harwood, R. L. (1990). Perceptions of social responsibilities in India and in the U.S.: Moral imperatives or personal decisions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(1), 33–47. Retrieved November 7, 2010 from the PsycARTICLES database. (AN psp-58-1-33)

Santrock, J. W. (2009). A topical approach to life-span development (custom ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sunar, D. (2002). The psychology of morality. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 2, Chapter 11). Retrieved from

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