Elliot Turiel on the Development of Morality

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Morality. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Child and Adolescent Development: An Advanced Course (pp. 473–514). SAGE Publications.

This is a great summary of trends and theoretical orientations in the study of moral development by Elliot Turiel. I will only comment on a couple of minor points.

First: I like the fact that Turiel considers children as active social agents that face conflicts and meaningful moral experiences in their everyday life. Moral development is not about absorbing information about moral rules or values, it is about actively constructing a moral understanding of the social world and of one’s own life. “…in many current formulations morality is not framed by impositions on children due to conflicts between their needs or interests and the requirements of society or the group. Many now think that children are, in an active and positive sense, integrated into their social relationships with adults and peers and that morality is not solely or even primarily an external or unwanted imposition on them.”

He also emphasizes that morality is not primarily negative (as one might infer from Freudian or behavioristic formulations); in other words, it’s not about the inhibition of aggressive or sexual impulses. Today, we know that children experience empathic feelings towards other people spontaneously; that our species has a natural tendency to do things within groups and to help each other. “The findings that young children show positive moral emotions and actions toward others indicate that the foundations of morality are established in early childhood and do not solely entail the control and inhibition of children’s tendencies toward gratifying needs or drives or acting on impulses. However, that the foundations of positive morality are established in early childhood does not necessarily establish that significant aspects of development do not occur beyond early childhood; that judgments, deliberations, and reflections are unimportant; or that many experiences, in addition to parental practices, do not contribute.”

Against the work of J. Haidt and R. Shweder, Turiel claims that:

“Studies of moral development suggest alternatives to the propositions that emotions are primary in morality, that moral acquisition is mainly due to effects of parental practices on children, or that morality largely reflects the acquisition of societal standards. Dunn et al. (1995) found differences in the two types of situations they assessed (physical harm and cheating) and documented that relationships with siblings influence development.” This suggests that children have a spontaneous capacity to reason according how they determine the domain they are dealing with (moral, societal, personal) or the kind of moral problem at hand.

Children do not receive passively the moral prescriptions upheld by adults; rather, they show a certain degree of autonomy early on. “By 2 or 3 years of age, children display a fair amount of teasing of mothers, physical aggression, destruction of objects, and an increasing ability to engage in arguments and disputes with mothers (Dunn & Munn, 1987). This increasing variety in young children’s social relationships is consistent with the findings reviewed by Grusec and Goodnow (1994) showing that parental practices are related to type of misdeed (e.g., moral or conventional), children judge the appropriateness of reasons given by parents when communicating with them, and parents may encourage ways of behaving that differ from those they engage in themselves… With acts entailing theft or physical harm to persons, young children (4 to 6 years) give priority to the act itself rather than the status of the person as in a position of authority.”

“Children’s judgments are not based on respect or reverence for adult authority but on an act’s harmful consequences to persons. Children’s judgments about harmful consequences emerge early in life along with emotions of sympathy, empathy, and respect (Piaget, 1932; Turiel, 2006b); at young ages children go well beyond social impulses and the habitual or reflexive, attempting to understand emotions, other persons, the self, and interrelationships (Arsenio, 1988; Arsenio & Lemerise, 2004; Nucci, 1981; Turiel, 1983, 2007). A great deal of research has demonstrated that young children make moral judgments about harm, welfare, justice, and rights, which are different from their judgments about other social domains.”

All this is consistent with my view of children as active, institutional agents.

Turiel notices that the differentiation between the societal, personal and moral domains appears early in life (at three years of age) but that doesn’t mean that it’s innate. Rather, he believes it might originate in the experiences and interactions children engage in during their first years.

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