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Ethics: Where are you? part 6

June 26, 2010

Conscience is shaped by heredity, learning or environmental factors, and conscious moral direction (Boss, 2008, p. 232). Conscience is universal, but is influenced by one’s culture. “A human without a conscience, according to Plato, is not a person and lacks moral standing in the community” (p. 192).

Sociopaths have a defect in the affective/emotional side of the brain. Psychologist Carl Jung believed that conscience includes both our conscious and unconscious thoughts, and dreams. Greek philosopher Plato stated that conscience is an “activity of the soul that directs us toward the good” (p. 1.92).

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that sometimes people listen to voices outside of their conscience; they become persuaded to follow others’ leads. Nietzsche called this “herd morality” (p. 192).

Science has shown that there is a correlation between the frontal lobe cortex in the brain and moral decision making. Sociopaths were compared to nonsociopathic criminals and the sociopaths had frontal lobes that were malfunctioning. Freud stated that our conscience is our superego, which is like having the voices of authority – from God, from our parents, from our teachers, from society – in our head guiding us in the moral decisions we make.

Aristotle’s theory of habituation is the belief that the application of virtuous behavior is important in developing moral character. Determinism is the belief that “there is no such thing as conscious moral direction” (p. 198). Marginalized groups have a hard time becoming autonomous because of oppression and the need to fit in with society.

The affective parts of conscience such as sympathy, compassion, “helper’s high,” moral outrage, resentment, guilt, and shame are “emotions that move us to feel moral approval or disapproval” (p. 200). The cognitive parts of our conscience are “involved in making rational judgments about what we ought to do” (p. 207). Rationalization is making excuses for decisions that are based on nonmoral values.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is that we are born with the need for inner growth. He also stated that one’s culture and profession may determine what stage of moral development one will reach. Cross-cultural studies support Kohlberg’s assertions that “stages of moral development are universal” and that “some cultures are more prone to promote virtue in their citizens” (p. 215).

Criticisms for Kohlberg’s stages are that his subjects were mostly students and thus statements such as little “change in the level of moral development after the age of 25” are not supported by his research. He also stated that children want to be good because they are afraid of the repercussions, but research has shown this is not true (p. 216).

Another criticism is that Kohlberg’s research on the stages of moral development did not take into account the stages that women go through. He used “only male subjects” (p. 217).

Gilligan’s feminist critique of Kohlberg’s research is that she found “men tend to be duty and principle oriented” and that women’s moral judgment “is characterized by a concern for themselves and others” aka the “care perspective” (p. 218).

I think Kohlberg’s theories are useful today in assessing moral decision-making because the awareness of influences on moral character is a starting point in fixing what can be fixed to create a better society people by more people with higher moral development.

Gilligan says that women speak in a different voice because they experience relationships and issues of dependency differently than men. Men are “threatened by intimacy” while women are “threatened by separation” (p. 219).

A feature of Gilligan’s care perspective is that women’s moral decision making springs from “responsibility within relationships, attachment, and self-sacrifice” while a feature of Kohlberg’s justice perspective is that men “tend to be duty and principle oriented” (p. 218). The two can be reconciled by instilling in men a more contextual and narrative way of thinking and instilling in women the goal of individuation.

A real life moral dilemma in which one may use both the care and justice perspectives to understand it is abortion. I think a woman facing such a decision would struggle between the care of and her relationship with the unborn and feelings of oppression toward raising an unwanted child.

James Rest’s four components of moral behavior include moral sensitivity, moral reasoning/judgment, moral motivation, and moral character. Moral behavior is partly biological and partly social. Experience and exposure to new ideas play a role in moral development as they offer “opportunities to see the world from other people’s perspectives” (p. 225). Being able to critically analyze values and having confidence in one’s own values are also important to moral development.

The study of moral development is both a philosophy and a social science. People who strive to live a good life and reach their potential are happy people. Human conscience is developed through reasoning, critical thinking, and feelings and is shaped by heredity, learning or environmental factors, and conscious moral direction.

The affective parts of conscience are emotions to which we respond with approval or disapproval. The cognitive parts of our conscience deal with reasoning and judgments.

Larry Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is that we are born with the need for inner growth which is influenced by one’s culture and profession. Carol Gilligan’s care perspective states that women’s moral decision making springs from feelings of responsibility and attachment.

James Rest’s four components of moral behavior include moral sensitivity, moral reasoning/judgment, moral motivation, and moral character. Moral behavior is partly biological and partly social. Moving beyond ethical relativism includes experience and exposure to new ideas, being able to critically analyze values, and having confidence in one’s own values.

“Why the Middle Matters” from

The article is about how political extremes – the right/Tea Party versus the left/Power – are divisive and how moderates can exhibit moral courage to take control of morality. The moral dilemma is what does one do when one becomes aware of wrongdoing at work and blowing the whistle may cost you your job and you need your job to support your family and pay your bills. This is seen as a “right-versus-right dilemma.”

When people have the courage to speak up and do not lose their job for whistle-blowing, and the wrongdoers are the ones who face repercussions, this sends a good example for moral courage. A right-versus-wrong situation is one in which the whistleblower is financially secure and losing a job is not important to paying bills. In that case, there is no moral dilemma.

Moral motivation is an area that politicians who have extreme beliefs may want to develop so as to put their “moral values above competing nonmoral values” (Boss, 2008, p. 226). Politicians with extreme beliefs are insensitive to the needs of others and should practice moral sensitivity. Politicians are loyal to their political party above the needs of their constituents and should develop moral reasoning so as not to obey their party blindly.

The first whistle-blowing situation include “truth-telling versus loyalty and of short-term needs versus long-term solutions.” The second situation is the moral dilemma of right versus wrong because the repercussions to the whistleblower are minimal if any.

The political arguments between the two extreme political sides leave no room for moral dilemmas because each side believes its argument is totally right and so the opponent’s is totally wrong. There can be no discussion as to whether the opponent might have valid points, too. “Cultural relativism is divisive and creates an us/them mentality” and those in power can easily become oppressors of the lower/weaker classes (Boss, 2008, p. 141).

Politicians in America need to be careful that they are not following an American civil religion in which people believe that “America’s prosperity and status as a major world power are regarded as evidence of God’s favor” (Boss, 2008, p. 177). That is an arrogant point of view. Moderates have various viewpoints and are able to accept the fact that both sides might be correct. Once the moderates move past theories, they must come to a decision about which argument is right and they will look for a solution that is good for more people.


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