Three-year-old judge decides right and wrong


By David Joel Miller.

6 ways to tell right from wrong.

Preschool kids seem to be so very good at telling what is right or fair. They tell us often enough – “That’s not fair!” So how come they so often do things that we say are wrong? Maybe we should appoint three-year old’s to the Supreme Court? Is the understanding of right and wrong something people are born with or do they learn it? And if they learn moral values, how do they learn it?

In the early grades the ways in which kids decide the difference between right and wrong starts to change, at least for some of them. It is important to understand how it is that people learn right from wrong. Why some don’t seem to learn might also be a good thing to find out.

People who study child development probably learned about some theories of how an understanding of right and wrong developed. Counselors are often taught about the stages of moral reasoning, in some developmental class and then seem to promptly forget it once they start working with real clients. But isn’t right and wrong, and conflicts over how that should be decided one major reason we see clients in counseling?

Lawrence Kohlberg researched and wrote about moral development. So did Lickona who wrote a very readable book “Raising Good Children.” I would recommend it to any parent struggling to teach their child the difference between right and wrong. Somehow all this work is getting forgotten despite the constant reports of high crime and failure of discipline in the home and school. We spend a lot of time these days emphasizing math and science in schools, but less and less time in our homes and schools is spent on right and wrong. So how is a sense of right and wrong likely to develop? Let me give you a brief description of Lickona’s ideas as I remember them. For the full details you might want to look for the book but here is my short version of the 6 stages of moral reasoning as I understand them. Lickona numbers the stages zero to five. The fact that he arranges them this way does not mean everyone agrees that a lower numbered stage is, in fact, better than another stage with a larger number.

0. Getting what I want is fair!

This is the default way of deciding right and wrong. It’s not fair – I wanted ice cream and I didn’t get any. Some people seem to be able to go through their whole life thinking this way. They take what they want and that is fair to them. Some of them go to prison. Some learn to hide what they are doing. Some of these folks end up elected to public office or working on Wall Street. These folks make lawyers rich when they try to get out of trouble for doing what they want. If we don’t want more of these folks around we need to work on teaching kids the more advanced ways of deciding right from wrong, or we need to build more prisons.

1. Teacher said – the authority approach.

Some kids learn this at home before they go to school, for a variety of reasons. Most kids learn this in school. It starts by learning to do what the teacher says. Eventually, the appeal is to some higher authority like the principal. Some people get really legalistic. It says on page — of the revenue code, that I can do this so it must be right. In some places, with statute law, if there is no law against it, you can do it. In most places in the United States, we have common law which says you should use common sense unless there is a law otherwise. Then we have lots of layers of appeals courts because we are so short on common sense. We see lots of people who appeal to religious writings as their rule book, sometimes to good effect and sometimes to some awful results. The problem here is not especially with the particular religious writing, but some of the bizarre ways people can interpret those writings. The philosopher, Charles Shultz once reported, something to the effect that “There is nothing in the book of Leviticus that prohibits the wearing of contact lenses.” See how hard I am trying to be politically correct here?

Some people would separate “The Teacher said.” part from the “The rule is.” Both are resorting to authority but one is putting your faith in a person and the other in some specific set of rules.

2. One hand washes the other.

This commonly heard, usually, in business, expression says right and wrong is something we trade.  We take turns. Most kids learn this on the playground really fast. If you don’t take turns with the ball you may not get to play at all. In congress, this is called trading votes. You vote for my bill and I will vote for yours. It is pragmatic, gets things done. But is it the best way to determine right and wrong? We need to study this. Send me a million or so in federal money and I will be glad to work on this approach. At a million dollars a year we may need years of study. See how problematic trading one thing for another might be as a way to separate right from wrong?

3. I want you to like me.

So if I want you to like me I should do what you think is right. This is the “what will people think of me” approach. This type of social conformity can keep people acting in a socially positive manner – sometimes. The issue here is what people’s opinion do I care about? This goes to the discussion of peer pressure which I wrote about in an earlier blog. Take a look at that one – now if you want, it’s ok. I can wait here while you look.

You back? So you see that if my peers are good law-abiding people I probably will follow the law. But if my social circle includes convicts, murders, rapists, bankers, politicians and other undesirables, I might decide that stealing your money was an acceptable thing to do, so long as I steal it using the same methods as my peers.

So using other people’s behavior as a guide to right and wrong may reduce the conflict we have in life, but it is no sure way to figure out right and wrong or to stay out of prison. Ask the group from Enron.

I may be a little hard on this stage. It is great to be a good son or daughter or a good parent. But that may not be enough, especially if you didn’t have good role models. This step in the development of morals is mostly about your relationships with people close to you.

4.  What is best for all of us?

This is the stage where people may do things that have personal costs because it is the thing that is best for our society. This stage of moral reasoning gets people to join the military or become volunteers. This is an altruistic stage, most of the time. It is also a way of moral reasoning that has been used to excuse some horrific atrocities.

Today in America we value diversity. Some of us do anyway. But can you see how someone in another place and time could do some awful things and justify it as “what is best for us?” Think genocide here. Could someone do that thinking it was what was best for their group? The difference between being a volunteer to work with the poor and trying to run a minority out-of-town hinges on who you define as us.

5. Something’s are right just because they are right.

This is an easy one to explain in theory, until you are faced with the choice, then it is easy to default to an earlier stage of moral reasoning. Sometimes people are faced with things going on in their society that are just not right. And often it costs to do the right thing at these times and for sure there is nothing in it for you when you do the right thing at these times. This is about respecting everyone just because they are.

So there is my explanation of stages of moral reasoning as I understand them. Can you see how hard it is to figure out the right thing to do sometimes? Some parents are able to teach their children right from wrong despite all the influences around them to the contrary, but what about the other kids? It feels to me like we should spend more time in our society on the ways to determine right and wrong and less on some celebrity’s outrageous behavior. But that’s just my opinion. What do you think about how we learn to tell right from wrong?

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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2 thoughts on “Three-year-old judge decides right and wrong

  1. I remember studying Kohlberg way back in high school days in my AP Psych class. I always liked his approach. I remember the 6th stage being something that most people don’t get to. My teacher explained that it probably took a major life crisis to really get to that level rather than being raised in a certain way because it requires a type of self identity and moral conviction that is personal. What are your thoughts on the matter? Can we be raised to obtain level 6, or do we need a crisis to get us to that level?

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    • Some people experience a single changing event; often a traumatic one and they experience what is sometimes called Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). There is some disagreement among professionals as to why when two people experience the one trauma, one might develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the other would develop Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). I think PTG is what your teacher was referring to. There could be other reasons someone might develop a higher sense of morality, like internalizing a moral code and applying it a creative way. Some philosophers would say all people can and should develop that higher sense of morality but in fact most people use a criteria with a lower number than 6. Thanks for Commenting.

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