The origin of the moral sense. What principles and values ​​in children?

How many times a day do we wonder, randomly or not, what is right to door whether an action we have performed can be considered one good action or even, very trivial, how we should behave for behave well?

THAT moral judgmentstheir definition, expression and justification are topic of philosophical discussion for more than two millennia. All this time, moral philosophy has been pushing to tackle the most diverse issues in this sense. If really we know well, we can do not pursue it? A judgment descriptive can validate a prescriptive? A good deed is a good deed when it is in accordance with one code of well-defined laws when it produces one effect positive towards reality, or when it originates from oneintention virtuous?

The most famous thinkers in history have struggled with these and many other similar questions, but any attempt at an answer has brought many other issues. Probably for those who are even less fascinated by the big dilemmas regarding moral philosophy (because he studied it in school, does academic research in this field or is simply a fan of the comedy series The good placeperhaps one of the most successful philosophical themed pop culture products of the last period) many times the questions are even more interesting than the answers.

But just as interesting is to ask if and how it is possible to investigate with scientific method some typically philosophical questions like those concerning the origin and development of the moral sense in growing people. Precisely these topics are the subject of the study moral psychologywhich has its roots in the theories developed by Jean Piaget And Lawrence Kohlberg Which one, in the second half of the twentieth century they wondered how and when i children came to evolve a sense of commitment mod a moral norm. Experimental studies examining the presence and development of the moral sense of children they still continue today. Professor Luca Surian, from the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Trento, has been conducting research on the subject for more than thirty years. We asked him to tell us how the moral sense is deepened in connection with developmental psychology and what are the main questions we are trying to answer.

Why is a good deed a good deed?

“Currently, the latest lines of research in the field of moral psychology are focused on the study of moral judgment both in development and in adulthood, with particular attention to the analysis of reasons attributed to moral judgments, ”explains Surian. In other words, the subject of the study of moral psychology is the understanding of Why people believe that a particular opinion or action is morally correct.

Until the late 1970s, the model most used by developmental psychologists to consider the development of moral justifications was the model outlined by Lawrence Kohlberg, the most famous accuser of Piaget’s studies, ”explains Surian. “According to the Kohlberg model, they exist three levels which characterizes the development of moral reasoning; the first is it pre-conventionaltypically for children between four and ten years of age where the rules are observed for fear of punishment otherwise it is the second level conventionalreached in adulthood or adolescence, for which certain moral norms are respected willingness to adapt to a group identity and be in other words “well regarded” by one’s own business, while the third level, it post-conventionalis what a subject achieves when it recognizes in a given rule a inherent moral valuesuch as what we associate with human rights, for example.

The first to partially question the model defined by Kohlberg was the psychologist Elliot Turielif studies have shown that even children aged three or four are able to express judgments post-conventional that before then it was thought that they were only suitable for adulthood. If we think about it for a moment, this it is not entirely surprising. Think, for example, of a four- or five-year-old boy stomping his feet on the ground and screaming indignantly: “that is not correct!” unconsciously making his own an extremely abstract principle like that Justice“.

Recent research lines even found post-conventional moral competence in the children who were between the first and second year of life and they were still unable to express themselves well in words. For example, a study conducted by Professor Surian in 2011 showed that children between 12 and 18 months prefers to witness situations where resources are distributed fairly, rather than in an unbalanced way.

“Of course, this tendency in elections cannot be compared to a mature and completely moral judgment – comments Surian – precisely because an assessment of this type requires the presence of a conscious justification. Yet it can be assumed that this early preference for impartial conduct constitutes a kind “First brick” from which during growth it will then be possible to build mature judgments ”.

Is the moral sense innate or acquired?

Then another important central question arises spontaneously in the contemporary debate: we can talk about one innate moral basiswhich in a sense is “a priori” in terms of cultural education?

“This is a much-discussed topic in the scientific literature on the subject – confirms Surian – but which should be addressed after clarifying. the meaning to be given to the concept of “innatism”;. If we with the term “congenital” want to describe a faculty “already present at birth”, then it is now a common perception, in the context of moral psychology, that it is rule out the possibility that newborn babies are endowed with moral sense. Yet there is also one another way where we can talk about “innate”, using the term with the meaning of “not learned”, in the same way as what Chomsky when it defines language as one innate abilities in humans. In fact, the famous linguist did not intend to suggest that humans are capable of expressing themselves in words when they come into the world, but that they are naturally endowed with some specific skills who makes them able to acquire language skills while growing up“.

We can therefore imagine something similar in terms of morality: there are some “innate” – ie “unlearned” – skills that enable the child to acquire the ability to make moral judgments when he or she grows up.

“Both Piaget and Kohlberg had discarded the idea that a child could acquire an authentic moral sense through the mere process of “conditioning”, ie through a traditional learning path consisting of rules, reprimands, punishments and praise ”, explains Surian. “According to these scholars, in fact, such methods of indoctrination they are not enough to produce a high-value moral judgment in children, but only to make them passively adopt the rules and principles that dominate the reference culture. On the contrary, their hypothesis was that humans were capable of perfection actively their moral abilities and independently prepare certain moral notions through reflection and reasoning “.

Well, the more recent research lines are laying up an extra piece to this theoretical framework. “Some researchers refer to a model developed in 2009 by Graham, Haidt and Nosek called Theory of moral foundation (Moral Foundation Theory), which identifies five basic principles of human morality and argues that they are present in humans from the earliest years of life, regardless of the reference culture“.

The moral principles in question are particularly relevant treatment of those who are helpless or needy, with impartiality and justice in the allocation of resources, with respect and obedience toauthoritywith loyalty to the group of affiliation and with the preservation of “purity” through the refusal to perform acts considered morally reprehensible and to avoid “contamination” with substances, objects and persons considered “unclean”.

“Recent lines of experimental research are concerned with detect and quantify the presence of these principles in children of about one and a half years, ”Says Surian. “Of course, the most difficult principle to experimentally examine in children is that of preserving purity, for which no appreciable scientific evidence has been gathered so far.”

Research constraints and (yet) unanswered questions

Although recent studies of moral assessments in developmental age have sometimes yielded results surprising and extremely useful in approaching the understanding of the psychological mechanisms underlying the moral sense in humans, it is impossible not to take into account some factors that actually limit research in this area.

As Professor Surian actually points out, “when conducting experimental research on very young children, especially preschool children, it is difficult to formulate reliable hypotheses about. real motives behind their moral preferences. When we observe a child showing that he prefers fair behavior rather than unfair behavior, it is impossible to determine with certainty Why of that choice; the evidence in this regard is often numerous weak And interpreted in different ways. This is still an open issue and can only be partially overcome through advances in scientific research and the continued collection of empirical evidence.

In addition, it must be remembered that the study of moral psychology is aimed at understanding not only gods judge morality, but also gods behavior. Well, it has been observed that despite the children showing off recognize certain moral valuesoften their behavior is inconsistent with the moral judgments they express. It would therefore be interesting to examine the cognitive and social processes through which an individual gradually achieves a greater consistency, during his life, between the behavior and the moral principles of which he recognizes the value of. This is a question that is still unanswered and that currently represents a boundary that still needs to be explored ”.

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