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74 MARCH 2005
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Equipping youth with mature moral judgment

John C. Gibbs

To enhance the ability of youth to help peers and themselves, the author proposes specific training in mature social decision making to help youth overcome immature moral development and egocentric thinking.

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
According to the cognitive-development theory of Piaget and Kohlberg, youth in the course of interacting with others naturally, but not inevitably, develop more mature or profound moral judgment. Hence, in sociomoral development, this theory emphasizes the development of more mature moral cognition through experiences of taking the perspective of others (Gibbs, 2003). Thinking or cognition in this theory refers to basic patterns or “structures” of mature or immature thought (in the present case, moral judgment). Whether a youth’s moral judgment is mature or immature is important, especially because “as you think, so you act.” “Delay” in thought and behavior is a twofold problem: antisocial youth show both prolonged immaturity in the stage of moral judgment and persistent, pronounced egocentric bias. Both of these aspects of delay are remediated in the moral developmental teaching component of EQUIP.

Delay as Prolonged Immaturity in the Stage of Moral Judgment
We conceptualize Kohlberg’s main stages as developmental levels of moral immaturity and maturity (see Gibbs, Basinger, & Fuller, 1992). Stages 1 and 2 represent immature or superficial moral judgment; an adolescent or adult evidencing exclusively or predominantly these stages should be considered developmentally delayed in moral reasoning. Stages 3 and 4, representing mature or profound moral judgment, should define the cognitive-structural norm for any culture. An adolescent or adult at these levels may hold, for example, that one should keep a promise to a friend to preserve the trust on which the friendship is based or because mutual respect is the basis for any relationship.

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 Egocentric Bias
Another aspect of the sociomoral delay of antisocial youths is the persistence into adolescence of a strong “mecenteredness” (Lickona, 1983) or egocentric bias. Such a bias is a natural feature of thought and behavior in childhood; a young child may declare “I should get it because I want to have it!” or “Whatever I want is what’s fair!” Egocentric bias is perhaps especially evident in spontaneous Stage 2 moral judgment, as Lickona (1983) pointed out:

Especially when Stage 2 is first breaking through, kids” energy tends to go into asserting their needs and desires and making the world accommodate to them. They have a supersensitive Unfairness Detector when it comes to finding all the ways that people are unfair to them. But they have a big blind spot when it comes to seeing all the ways they aren’t fair to others and all the ways parents and others do things for them (p. 149).

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
The rationale for sociomoral programs for antisocial youth is straightforward: To the extent that their antisocial behavior reflects a “delay” of immature moral judgment and egocentric bias, then an effective program should remediate that developmental delay. In theoretical terms, we say that antisocial youth need, among other things, an enriched, concentrated “dosage” of social perspective-taking opportunities to stimulate them to catch up to an age-appropriate level of moral judgment. Just Community programs attempt to restructure the school, group home, or correctional facility in accordance with principles of democracy and justice, such that students, residents, or inmates participate as much as is feasible in the rule-making and enforcement processes that affect institutional life (e.g, Higgins, 1995; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989; Hickey & Scharf, 1980). More small-scale programs focus mainly on peer group discussion, using relevant sociomoral dilemmas or problem situations as a stimulus for perspective-taking experiences. Subjects must justify their problem-solving decisions in the face of challenges from more developmentally advanced peers and from group leaders (e.g., Gibbs, Arnold, Ahlborn, & Cheesman, 1984)

Table 1: The Stages

Immature Moralities: Stages 1 and 2

Stage 1. Power: Might Makes Right Stage

*Morality is whatever big or powerful people say that you have to do. If you are big or powerful, whatever you say is right, and whatever you want to do or get is fair.

*lf you don’t get punished for what you did or no one powerful saw it, whatever you did was okay. It is wrong if you do get punished; the punishment makes it wrong.

*physical damage or other obvious injury, but not psychological suffering, is noticed and acknowledged to be wrong.

*spouting of cliches ("You should never tell a lie") without much understanding of them or obedience to them.

*Critique: Doesn’t understand the moral reasons for rules. Has trouble with reciprocity if it requires taking more than one perspective at a time. Best at taking the perspective of someone physically powerful.
Stage 2. Deals: “You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours”

*Morality is an exchange of favors ("I did this for you, so you’d better do that for me") or of blows. (misunderstanding of the Golden Rule as “Do it to others before they do it to you,” or “pay them back” if they've done it to you).

*You should ask or figure, “What’s in it for me?” before you help or obey others.

*The main reason for not stealing, cheating, etc. is that you could get caught.

*May assert that nobody (even those in legitimate positions of authority) should “boss anybody around.” People should mind their own business. Since everybody has his own point of view as to what’s right, everybody should have the right to think and do whatever he or she wants.

*May suggest that you should “fix things” if somebody gets more than you do.

* Critique: Has trouble understanding the ideal of mutuality in a relationship. Also, tends to be self-centered: better at detecting how others are unfair to him or don’t do things for him than how he (or she) is unfair to others or doesn’t do things for others.

Mature Moralities: stages 3 and 4

Stage 3. Mutuality: “Treat Others As You Would Hope They Would Treat You"

*ln mutual morality, the relationship itself becomes a value: “trust” and “mutual caring,” although intangible, are real and important.

*People can really care about other people, can have trust in them, can feel part of a “we.”

*You should try to understand if your friend is acting hostile or selfish.

*you should try to make a good impression so that others understand you are a well-intentioned person and so that you can think well of yourself.

* Critique: Stage 3 thinking can entail caring about the preciousness of human life. However, Stage 3 thinkers can care so much about what others think of them that they turn into “moral marshmallows” in difficult situations.
Stage 4. Systems: “Are You Contributing to Society?”

*Morality of interdependence and cooperation for the sake of society: Society can’t make it if people don’t respect others' rights and follow through on their responsibilities.

*Honoring your commitments is a sign of character.

*lf you are in the position of a judge, teacher, or some other social authority, you should uphold consistent and fair standards (but also consider extenuating circumstances).

*In difficult situations, retaining integrity and self-respect may mean becoming unpopular.

*Critique: Stage 4 thinking can entail appeals to moral law and to respect for rights and responsibilities as the basis for society. However, Stage 4 societal morality should be considered more as a supplement for than as a replacement to Stage 3 interpersonal morality.

Social Decision-Making Meetings
Sociomoral development is remediated and promoted in EQUIP through social decision-making meetings. Although social decision-making meetings essentially constitute moral education, we say “social decision-making” because “moral education” may have certain misleading connotations. After all, the activity of promoting sociomoral development means the facilitation of moral-cognitive development along the lines that it would naturally take so that young people will make more mature decisions in social situations. It does not mean the interference with private “morals” or the dictating or imposing of a particular group’s morality.

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

Date: ________________________________

Class: ________________________________

Session discussed: ______________________________

In the various phases, did you ask questions to:

Phase 1: Introducing the problem situation

___ 1. Remind the class or group of the ground rules for discussion?

___ 2. Make sure the group understood the problem situation (e.g., “Who can tell the group just what Jerry's problem is?”; “Why is that a problem?”)

___ 3. Relate the problem situation to group members everyday lives (e.g., “Do problems like this happen?”; “Who has been in a situation like this?”; “Tell the class about it.”)

Phase 2: Cultivating mature morality

___ 4. Establish mature morality as the tone for the rest of the session (e.g., eliciting, reconstructing, and listing on flip-pad or chalkboard mature reasons for each positive majority decision)?

Phase 3: Remediating moral developmental delay

___ 5. use more mature group members and the list of reasons (phase 2) to challenge the hedonistic or pragmatic arguments of some members?

___ 6. Create role-taking opportunities in other ways as well (e.g., “What would the world be like if everybody did that?”; “How would you feel if you were Bob?”)

Phase 4: Consolidating mature morality

___ 7. Make positive decisions and mature reasons unanimous for the group (e.g., “Any strong objections if I circle that decision as the group decision/underline that reason as the group’s number one reason?”)?

___ 8. Praise the group for its positive decisions and mature reasons (e.g., “I'm really pleased that the group was able to make so many good, strong decisions and back them up with good, strong reasons; “Would the group like to tape this sheet onto the wall?”)?

In general:

___ 9. Were all the group members interested and involved?

___ 10. was some constructive value found in every serious group member comment?

___ 11. Was the “should” supported, relabeled as strong (e.g., “Yes, it does take guts to do the right thing.”

Reprinted by permission from G. B. Potter, J. C. Gibbs, and A. P. Goldstein, The EQUIP implementation Guide: Teaching Youth to Think and Act Responsibly Through a Peer-Helping Approach, Copyright 2001 by Research Press, Inc.

Sociomoral developmental delay represents a serious handicap for youths attempting to help one another. A youth with lying and stealing problems on the Positive Peer Culture (PPC) problem list, for example, can scarcely be helped by a group whose moral judgment with respect to such problems is Stage 2. In such a group, social decision-making meetings are needed to stimulate a more mature understanding of the value of truth and respect for property. Other social decision-making meetings stimulate more mature understanding with respect to values, such as helping others, peer or family relationships, resisting drugs, and preventing suicide or saving a life. As we noted earlier, even groups with initially immature moral judgment generally make responsible decisions with respect to these problem situations, although some decisions, such as to tell on a drug-trafficking sibling, are not easy. Through responsible decision making, the group not only develops more mature moral judgment but also discovers the common moral values underlying their decisions. Hence, although “equipment” meetings, such as the social decision-making sessions, require an at least somewhat positive group, such meetings also foster the development of a cohesive, prosocial group spirit.


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This feature: Gibbs, J.C. (2003) Equipping Youth with mature Moral Judgment. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol. 12 no. 3 fall 2003. pp 148-153

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