Adolescence and Moral Development

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Two major reasons exist for studying moral development during adolescence. First, cognitive changes that occur during adolescence are related to moral development. Formal operational thinking allows the adolescent to interpret the social environment in new and different ways. Second, because adolescents are capable of devising new and idealistic social orders to which all are expected to conform, we may view them as moral philosophers.

A number of researchers have noted other changes in moral development that point to the importance of adolescence as a transition stage in moral development. Unlike children, the adolescent is concerned with what is right as opposed to what is wrong. Also, adolescents become more preoccupied with personal and social moral codes. As they gain the competency to understand alternative points of view, they see that the moral codes are relative, not absolute. The above changes result in some conflict between moral conduct and moral thinking during adolescence.

Early writing in the area of moral development was left to philosophers, who evolved three major doctrines of morality, each of which is represented in contemporary psychological theorizing. The "doctrine of the original sin" assumed that parental intervention was necessary to save the child's soul. Current-day vestiges of this viewpoint may be found in theories of personality structure and the development of the conscience, or superego, which argue that the child internalizes parental standards of right and wrong.

The "doctrine of innate purity" argued that the child is basically moral, or pure, and that society, especially adults, are corrupting influences. This view is represented in the theorizing of Piaget, who argues that morality develops from the acquisition of autonomy emerging from the need to get along with peers. Moral thinking develops through peer-to-peer interactions that lead to an understanding of rules, according to Piaget. He also believes...