Child and Youth
Equipping Youth with Mature Moral Judgment
John C. Gibbs
If they are to be effective, programs for antisocial youth must have a moral component. The EQUIP program emphasizes the positive moral potential of antisocial adolescents. Almost all antisocial youth affirm the importance of moral values, such as keeping promises, telling the truth, helping others, saving a life, not stealing, and obeying the law (Gregg, Gibbs, & Basinger, 1994). When antisocial youth are faced with a choice of possible worlds, most of them say they would prefer a world that is nonviolent and caring. They are also likely to suggest responsible decisions with regard to many hypothetical social problem situations (Gibbs, Potter, & Goldstein, 1995). Believing in antisocial youths positive moral potential means respecting them and holding them accountable as persons who are capable of thinking and acting responsibly and of helping others to do the same.
EQUIP also emphasizes the limitations of antisocial youth, limitations that make it hard for them to live up to their positive moral potential for helping one another and themselves. For example, we know that when it comes to why moral values such as honesty and valuing property are important, a distressingly high percentage of antisocial youths give reasons that are developmentally “delayed’ or immature (e.g., Gregg, et al., 1994). Unless these limitations are remedied, the prospect of these youths’ helping one another effectively is not good.
In this article, we introduce the cognitive-developmental theory of sociomoral development and delay, briefly review sociomoral-cognitive programs that have attempted to remediate this delay, and outline the EQUIP program’s procedure for remediating this typical limitation of antisocial youths.
Sociomoral Development and Delay
Delay as Prolonged Immaturity in the Stage
of Moral Judgment
Superficiality is the mark of sociomoral immaturity. Stage 1 is superficial in so far as concrete or physical appeals are made in justifying moral values, for example, “the father’s the boss because he’s bigger.” Saving the life of more than one person is especially important because, in the words of one of Kohlberg’s (1984) young subjects, “one man has just one house, maybe a lot of furniture, but a whole bunch of people have an awful lot of furniture” (p. 192). Stage 2 is more psychological but is still superficial in a pragmatic way. For example, a Stage 2 youth will justify keeping promises to insure that others will keep their promises to you and do nice things for you and to keep them from getting mad at you. With the advent of Stage 3, moral judgment advances beyond superficiality to a beginning mature understanding of moral norms and values. Stage 3 goes beyond pragmatic thinking to achieve a mutuality of perspectives. Piaget (1932/1965) characterized this transition as one from “reciprocity as a fact” to “reciprocity as an ideal” or “do as you would be done by” (p. 323). As the adolescent interacts in the larger world through campus, workplace, travel, etc., the Stage 3 understanding of the need for mutual trust expands into an appreciation of the need for commonly accepted, consistent standards and interdependent requirements of Stage 4. As one of Kohlberg’s older adolescent subjects put it, “You’ve got to have certain understandings in things that everyone is going to abide by or else you could never get anywhere in society, never do anything” (Colby, et al., 1987, p. 375).
In sum, then, the youth normally progresses from relatively superficial (physicalistic, pragmatic) to more profound or mature levels of interpersonal and societal sociomoral understanding. The stages of moral judgment development are further depicted in Table 1. Youths who, even in the adolescent years, show little or no moral judgment beyond Stage 2 are considered to be developmentally delayed. At home, school, or in the community, they have not had enough opportunities to take the roles or consider the perspective of others (Gibbs, 1994). In a study analyzing moral judgment delay by area of moral value, we found delay in every area (Gregg, et al., 1994). The area of greatest delay concerned the reasons for obeying the law. Nondelinquents generally gave Stage 3 reasons, for example, people’s mutual expectations of adherence to the law, the selfishness of lawbreaking, and the resulting
chaos, insecurity, or loss of trust in the world. In contrast, the delinquents’ reasoning generally appealed to the risk of getting caught and going to jail (Stage 2).
Delay as Persistent and Pronounced
With continued experience in social perspective-taking (and the maturing of working memory), egocentric bias normally declines. In other words, usually during childhood we increasingly see our self-interest in light of the welfare of others involved in the situation. Of course, our expanding social awareness does not eliminate the potential for egocentric bias. Even as mature adults, we experience our own points of view more or less directly, whereas we must always attain the other person’s view in more indirect ways... We are usually unable to turn our own viewpoints off completely, when trying to infer another’s viewpoints (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002, p. 182).
“Not turning one’s own viewpoint off completely” is an understatement in the case of antisocial youths, whose egocentric bias typically has remained at the pronounced levels characteristic of childhood.
Equipping with Mature Moral Judgment
Table 1: The Stages
In social decision-making meetings, the group strives to develop the capacity to make mature decisions concerning specified problem situations. Unlike moral dilemmas, the problem situations generally do have right or responsible answers, for example, deciding to try to persuade a friend against taking a ride in a stolen car. The “problem” is that the right answer may not be immediately apparent (for example, the group may decide to take the ride if it is mislabeled with the cognition distortion of “doing fun things with a friend”). Similarly, problem situations in which the right answer is to tell on a friend (for example, if the friend is dealing in drugs) may at first be experienced as dilemmas because the peer norm against “ratting” or “narking” is so strong.
The problem situations are designed to create opportunities for participants to take the perspectives of others; on a question that is controversial, this opportunity can involve active challenges from peers (or, if necessary, from the person serving as group leader). Even among antisocial adolescents, group majority positions and reasoning on the problem situation questions tend to be positive, responsible, and mature. A student who makes a negative decision and justifies it at Stage 1 or 2 may lose to a more mature challenge and experience the conflict or “disequilibration” of having to acquiesce to the majority. Disequilibration may be crucial for a group member using predominantly immature stages of moral judgment to achieve more mature sociomoral development.
The group leader promotes sociomoral development in four phases: (1) introducing the problem situation, (2) cultivating mature morality, (3) remediating moral developmental delay, and (4) consolidating mature morality. At the close of each session, the group leader should conduct a self-evaluation using a checklist (see Table 2; Potter, Gibbs, & Goldstein, 2001) that corresponds to the four phases.
Phase 1: Introducing the Problem Situation
To have an effective social decision-making session, all group members must understand clearly what the problem situation is and how it relates to their lives.
Phase 2: Cultivating Mature Morality
The purpose of this phase is to cultivate a group atmosphere of mature morality characterized by both positive decisions and mature moral reasoning. The makings of a mature moral climate are typically available from the group members themselves (at least from the majority). The group leader’s job is to cultivate the resources available in the class in order to render mature morality prominent and to set the tone for the remainder of the meetings. The group leader highlights mature morality by asking group members who indicated positive decisions about the reasons for those decisions and then writing those reasons on the flip pad or chalkboard for the group to consider (The leader should write down reasons offered for a negative decision separately after the reasons for the positive choice have been listed.)
Phase 3: Remediating Moral Developmental Delay
If a mature moral atmosphere has been cultivated in the class, the group leader has accomplished crucial preparation for the next phase, which addresses the reality that despite majority tendencies toward mature reasoning, many of today’s adolescents are at least moderately developmentally delayed and in need of moral judgment remediation (particularly with regard to reasons for the importance of not stealing; see Gregg, et al., 1994). These group members can seriously undermine the group “culture” and will do so if allowed. The mature moral atmosphere established at the outset is a crucial defense against the onslaught of these group members as they are brought into the discussion and challenged.
In theoretical terms, remediating moral developmental delay means creating social perspective-taking opportunities or challenging individuals to consider other, especially more mature, viewpoints. Such opportunities can reduce self-centered, cognitive distortion by engendering disequilibration and stimulating more mature moral judgment. Exposure to mature moral reasons for positive decisions will already have provided delayed group members with an opportunity or a challenge to grow. But mere exposure is not sufficient. The group leader should (1) invite the negative group members to explain their views, (2) publically record on a flip pad or chalkboard their explanations or reasons for their decisions, and (3) invite members of the majority to respond.
Particular types of probe questions are especially helpful in creating perspective-taking opportunities. Self-centered reasoners should be challenged to generalize (“What would the world be like if everybody did that?”) or to consider the point of view or feelings of another party in the problem situation. Group members with puzzling or contradictory answers should be asked to clarify. Quiet group members should be brought out, and members with “can’t decide” responses should be probed for both sides of their thinking.
Phase 4: Consolidating Mature Morality
Once mature morality has been cultivated and challenged, it needs to be consolidated. The group’s mature morality is consolidated and the group’s culture becomes more positive and cohesive as the group leader seeks consensus for positive decisions and mature reasons. In the process, group members with initially immature moral judgment reasons continue to feel pressure to defer to and even reconstruct for themselves mature morality. In the discussion of the problem situation, the goal is to convert as many of the positive majority positions as possible into unanimous group decisions.
Table 2: Checklist for Group Leader Review/Self-Evaluation
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