Cracking the code

Maturity is required in moral thinking

We live in a world of moral failure. We celebrate scandals rather than accomplishments. As a society, we’re infatuated with the glamour of Hollywood and the glitz of sports. Our heroes are celebrities and professional athletes rather than teachers and police officers. American entertainment often comes in the form of humiliation – disgracing those same people we call our role models rather than honoring those who make the world a better place.

The New Orleans Saints just grabbed the attention of the world of sports when they were exposed for placing bounties on injuring opponents, but did anyone hear the story of Spc. Dennis Weichel, who sacrificed his life while saving a child in Afghanistan?

When scandals are exposed to the public, the blame game starts and society plays right along with it – we point fingers at our fallen heroes, and they point theirs at someone else: who squealed? Maybe it’s time to consider if our fingers are pointing in the right direction.

What would you do?

We can easily find ourselves in morally challenging positions. Let’s run through some scenarios.

You looked at your notes without permission during an English vocabulary exam. Your teacher keeps you after class and asks you if you cheated on the test. What’s your first reaction?

A) Deny it. It’s not like your cheating hurt anyone else.

B) Fess up and try to give your teacher an explanation for why you cheated.

You’re playing varsity golf and your ball landed in an unfortunate spot. No one can see you at the moment. You could just nudge it a little with your foot. What do you do?

A) You’d set yourself up nicely for your next shot if you moved the ball just a few inches, why not? No one can see.

B) Leave the ball as it lies; it wouldn’t be fair to your competitors if you moved it, and it’s against the rules anyway.

It’s Monday morning and you get called down to the office. On Saturday night you were smoking pot at a party, and you hope that’s not what this is about. But it is. What do you tell administrators when they ask you about it?

A) You deny it. Is there any way they have enough evidence to find you guilty? You just shouldn’t have partied last weekend because now you might have to deal with a ridiculous punishment. You absolutely need to find out who snitched.

B) You explain what happened and hopefully get treated with some mercy for showing integrity. You’re disappointed in yourself for doing what you did, but you’re not really mad at anyone else.

If you answered “A” to any of the above questions, you’re thinking at a level that psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called Preconventional Morality. In other words, you’re thinking like a toddler or a prisoner. Shocked? You should be.

Moral maturity 

Expanding on Jean Piaget’s theory of moral development and reasoning, Kohlberg’s ideas have been hugely influential over the past half century. He found moral development to be a continuous process of six stages within three different levels that exists throughout a lifetime. The first and most undeveloped level is that of Preconventional Morality. At level one, stage two of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development it’s all about getting rewards and avoiding punishments. Tattling is very bad because it can lead to you getting punished (nevermind whether the punishable action wasright or wrong).

How are high schoolers and some adults possibly able to think at such a morally immature level?

It’s because moral development doesn’t automatically occur with aging. Environment and other factors play a huge role in anyone’s progress towards moral maturity – which may be one of the reasons why high school students and others subject to peer pressure have such a hard time moving forward with their moral thinking.

“We, as human beings, are natural egoists,” explained Sacred Studies teacher Jeff Crafton, who teaches theories of moral development in his Honors Christian Ethics class. “Essentially, what you care about most is yourself.” The challenge for Christians is overcoming that self-absorption in order to serve others.

High school codes

Now don’t get ahead of yourself; being “naturally” selfish isn’t an excuse. Maturity is a major factor in cognitive development and in turn moral progression. Maybe what’s holding some M.A. students back is a blind allegiance to the unwritten “code” of high school behavior.

It seems as if there’s a popular “code” of moral behavior, just as exists in sports. In football, you don’t try to bust the receiver’s ACL. That makes sense, but there’s a code that exists within the halls of high school, but it’s extremely flawed and based on principles that exist in the minds of toddlers, some young adolescents and prisoners. Recently, it seems as if the code in these halls is simple: if you’re guilty, deny it to avoid the punishment; if you tell the truth, you’re a snitch and it’s only a matter of time until you’re an outcast.

“The consequences for this sort of thinking are catastrophic,” said Crafton. “If the only thing that makes something wrong is how I’m affected by it, then there’s no place for love; there’s no place for compassion; there’s no place for concern for others.”

As high school students at a school that provides opportunities to undergo progressive transformation, the time has come to move beyond this foundational level of moral thinking and replace the accepted “code”.

What’s to be done?

If you’re a senior, it’s time to grow up. We have less than two months left in these halls and we haven’t even begun to face our most challenging moral dilemmas.

If you’re returning, it’s time to become leaders who will do their best to forge the path to higher moral standards. If you’re a teacher or a coach, don’t let people off the hook. If you’re a parent, support us high schoolers when we’re doing what’s right and enforce consequences when we’re wrong.

Where is your finger pointing? Maybe it should be pointing back at you – be accountable for your own actions. It’s time to move beyond the blame game and find a place for forgiveness in a swarm of juvenile animosity.

No one has all the answers, but we do have a moral responsibility to leave this a better place than when we found it.

With experience, teaching and maybe a change of heart and mind, we will all have the opportunity to realize that the relationships we have with one another are far more important than any individual event that may occur.

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About Brigid Kelly

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