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Explanatory Limitations of Cognitive-Developmental Approaches to Morality

发布时间:2017-11-30  发布作者:Krebs, Dennis L [Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University]  点击数:

Explanatory Limitations of Cognitive-Developmental Approaches to Morality

methodologic limitations. 2 Expecting stage of moral development to be related to all forms of delinquency in the same way seems unreasonable. If a relationship were to exist between global stages and behavior, we would expect it to pertain to global measures of (delinquent) lifestyle patterns of behavior, not to specific acts. One of the lessons learned from decades of research on the relationship between attitudes and behaviors is that general attitudes, which are significantly less global than are structures of moral reasoning, do not predict specific behaviors (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1974). To predict specific behaviors, researchers must assess specific attitudes about intentions to behave in specific ways.

In addition, the tendency for the mean stage scores of delinquents to vary across studies—as much as one full stage in some studies—is problematic for the cognitive-developmental approach. Why do not delinquents who have achieved a Stage 3 level of moral development behave differently from delinquents who score at Stage 2? In a similar vein, the reported difference between delinquents' and nondelinquents' stage of moral development is usually less than one stage, and sometimes as small as one fifth stage, raising the question, why are people who are slightly less advanced than others in the same stage of moral development more likely to commit delinquent acts, or at least be classified as delinquents, than those who are slightly more advanced?

The Case Study

As a way of summarizing many of the points we have made, consider the case study cited by Gibbs. Why did the White youth intervene to help the Black youth? Attributing the White youth's behavior to the structures of reasoning that define his stage of moral development seems gratuitous, because we have no information about the boy's stage of moral development or whether he engaged in any kind of moral reasoning in the situation in question. Indeed, most notable about the incident is that the youth behaved in a manner that was inconsistent with his previous thinking and behavior. How could the boy be in one stage when he joined his friends in taunting the Black victim then suddenly change stages before he rescued the youth?

Revisiting Automaticity

In interpreting this incident, Gibbs cites criticisms published by Pizarro and Bloom (2003) and Saltzstein and Kasachkoff (2004) of Haidt's (2001) social intuitionist model of morality that postulates that moral judgments may stem from evolved intuitions and that moral reasoning may be invoked post hoc to justify them. Haidt (2003, 2004) has published insightful rejoinders to these criticisms that correct misconceptions and find common ground. All parties to the debate agree that people may derive moral judgments from specific forms of moral reasoning in some circumstances, and all parties agree that moral deliberation—thinking about particular moral issues and discussing them with others—may affect moral judgments. However, none of the parties argues that the kinds of global structures of moral reasoning that define cognitive-developmental stages of moral development are a significant source of moral judgment or moral behavior. Our pragmatic approach would lead us to hypothesize that the behavior of the White rescuer might have been determined by such processes as fear of reprisal (the situation was shaping up as very serious), empathy, sympathy, moral intuitions, and judgments of responsibility.

Toward a More Pragmatic Approach

In this rejoinder, we have said relatively little about the pragmatic approach we outlined in our target article, because Gibbs did not question any of the propositions on which it is based. Although Gibbs asserted that this approach “provokes some serious concerns,” we found only one concern (relating to flexibility), which was based on a misconception of our position. In closing, we want to clarify that the approach we outlined does not laud self-interest or applaud instrumental manipulation, though it recognizes that people may behave in self-interested and manipulative ways. In arguing for a more pragmatic approach to morality, we are arguing for an approach equipped to explain the types of moral judgments and moral behaviors people make in their everyday lives. Our goal is to outline an overarching framework able to accommodate the insights derived by cognitive-developmental theorists and by theorists from other theoretical orientations. To understand morality, we need to understand how the mental mechanisms that give rise to moral judgments, moral emotions, and moral behaviors evolved, how they change with development, and how they are activated in real-life contexts. We need to understand how the cognitive and affective components of the mediating processes interact. This understanding will not be achieved by any one approach, and it will not be fostered by knocking down straw-man misrepresentations of approaches advanced by others (Haidt, 2004; Krebs, 2004). It will be promoted by integrating the insights of different theoretical approaches, as we tried to do in our target article and in other articles (e.g., Krebs & Van Hesteren, 1994; Krebs, 2005), and by engaging in informed debate, as we tried to do in this rejoinder.


1 Dropping Stages 5 and 6 entails an enormous departure from Kohlberg's model. It entails accepting forms of moral reasoning that Kohlberg viewed as inadequate as the end points of moral development. Kohlberg argued that his stage sequence was defined by Stages 5 and 6.

2 For example, Smetana (1990) acknowledged that, “There is…considerable conceptual confusion in the findings” (p. 169), and that “these findings still leave a number of unanswered questions. Primary among these is a developmental explanation for why these deficits occur… . Those who focus on the moral reasoning of delinquents need to remember that juvenile delinquency is multiply determined and that immaturities in moral reasoning are only one variable influencing behavioral disordered children's behavior… . Research on delinquents' moral reasoning needs to be incorporated in more multidimensional models.” (p. 177).


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