Moral Reasoning Theory and Offending Behavior
A good deal of emphasis has been directed toward social information processing with the intent of forecasting an individual’s chances of committing a certain crime (Palmer, 2003). This paper extensively explores moral reasoning mechanisms and dynamics with the intention of understanding how this concept can be used as an effective crime control tool. The paper expounds on how moral reasoning can be essential for solving crimes outside judicial systems without involving organs such as the such as the courts, the police or the correctional facilities. Although many researchers have previously attempted to make a connection between moral reasoning and the propensity of an individual to commit a crime. It is Palmer (2003) who has managed to establish a viable model for this concept.
Different schools of thought will also be assessed to scrutinize the manner in which each has impacted the field of criminal justice. Psychology has for a long time concerned itself with an exploration of this relationship between moral reasoning and behavior. The prevalent consensus has been that these individuals rely on their moral reasoning to make decisions and take actions, either privately or publicly (Carpendale, 2000). Recent years have seen such psychological studies permeate the field of criminal behavior. Researchers have attempted to understand whether an individual’s knowledge of what is wrong and right informs an individual’s decision on whether to engage in an offense or not. This school of thought complicates this relationship further also considering the fact that an individual’s mindset also bears the potential to change attitude towards laws and morals (Gibbs et al.
For instance, most people have a negative attitude towards some vices such as drug and substance abuse but later change these attitudes upon indulging in such activity. Cognitive developmental theories may be the most appropriate to use when attempting to explain the relationship between moral reasoning and criminal behavior. First developed by the French psychologist Piaget and later enhanced by Kohlberg, cognitive developmental theories examine the influence of the experiences that an individual undergoes at different stages of their lives and their perception of behavior towards moral norms and laws (Carpendale, 2000). The theory suggests that an individual’s perception of the world, and hence their behavior, is informed more by the experiences that they have had in different stages of their lives rather than by the content of their moral beliefs (Carpendale, 2000).
Here, the individual is more concerned with maintaining his or her social contract. This conviction sometimes overrules the individual’s own inclinations and desires. At the post-conventional stage of moral reasoning, an individual has not only gained a clear understanding of the social conventions of morality and universal justice but also develop their own concepts of morality (Carpendale, 2000). As such, actions are informed by the predominant moral conventions but may be often overruled by the individual’s personal morals and ethical perceptions and considerations. Ultimately, the individual is more likely to adhere to their own moral framework of reference instead of conforming to social conventions. Snarey (1985) would later carry out a different study only this time examining the progression of moral reasoning of different individuals across different cultures.
Nevertheless, his research revealed that stage five was the highest that could be attained and was only achieved by subjects from the western culture. None of his sampled individuals reached the fifth stage from other cultures. (Snarey, Reimer & Kohlberg, 1985). After the realization that none of the individuals had developed to attain stage six of moral reasoning. His study recognized the behaviors of individuals living within a specified society as well as their mutual ability to progress through the developmental stages of moral reasoning. Furthermore, Gibb’s model omitted the fifth and sixth stages of Kohlberg’s model because of the low number of people that attained it. He realized that these stages could not be attained spontaneously or naturally since they required most people to have a dynamic philosophical understanding.
Therefore, stages five and six were recognized in this model as meta-ethical phases that could only be achieved from achieving normative-ethical capabilities that already existed in the first four stages of the Kohlberg model (Gibbs et al. Like the Kohlberg model, the Gibbs model posited that the movement from the immature stages to the mature stages was a progression from moral judgments achieved through superficial and often egocentric reasons, like understanding the needs of the society and appreciation of personal relationships (Gibbs et al. However, as the person develops a higher level of socio-moral reasoning, a different form of distortion is developed that is more complex and less primal than egocentric notions. In the third and fourth stages of the socio-moral reasoning model, the individual develops secondary distortions that are more informed by self-preservation and a desire to maintain social contracts and interpersonal relationships.
The most common secondary distortions at this time are based on a need to attribute blame and intent onto others, often by assuming the worst of every situation, or a tendency to minimize behavior and its consequences (Gibbs et al. Actions and behavior are guided by the conviction that there are no consequences and if there are, then they are not that bad. Secondly, behavior is guided by an assurance that if the worst happens then the blame will be apportioned to many individuals and not laid on one individual (Gibbs et al. An individual’s behavior is likely to be influenced by the manner in which they view morality, social norms, laws, and justice (Palmer, 2003). For instance, if an individual becomes convinced through their life experiences that upholding morality, social norms, and the law is a noble endeavor and that those who deviate from these obligations are served due justice, they are likely to retain such notions into adulthood (Palmer, 2003).
The vice versa is expected too. Therefore, moral reasoning has a great influence on the direction that a person’s behavior takes in regard to the law and their propensity for committing criminal activities. A clear understanding of the effects of moral reasoning, and moral knowledge by extension, on criminal behavior is important as it may inform the solution of crimes that lie outside the judicial systems by not involving organs of the system such as the courts, the police or the correctional facilities. Offenders are considered to have experienced stunted development in moral reasoning at a point in the moral maturity spectrum. Immature reasoning can sometimes extend beyond childhood as a result of persistent egocentric biases on the moral reasoning process (Langdon, Clare & Murphy, 2011).
Such an assertion may oversimplify a highly complex process but for clarity, it is important to differentiate between offending behavior and criminal activity. Offending behavior is that which is deviant from social norms, and sometimes may extend to breaking laws, thus becoming criminal behavior (Langdon, Clare & Murphy, 2011). Behavior has to be consistent with predictable patterns in an individual's actions in certain situations. For those who have attained at third stage Gibb’s socio-moral reasoning model are more concerned not only with justifying the crime but also with averting any blame from the society and themselves (Gibbs et al. They have to convince themselves that their actions cannot be blamed back to them by passing the blame to others or intent unto others in an attempt to preserve their self-concept.
People who have attained this level of socio-moral reasoning are also likely to feel guilty for their actions and empathy for others. In order to preserve their own moral well-being, they are highly likely to form the second secondary distortion by attempting to minimize the action or its consequences (Gibbs et al. They tend to make it look like the action was not that bad and its consequences were not so severe in an attempt to stop themselves from feeling bad about their actions. Kohlberg is quick to point out the effect of social interactions in the development of moral reasoning capabilities. He emphasized on the need for role-taking opportunities to enable people to progress from the immature stages that are marred by egocentric bias into the more mature stages where people are more a bit more concerned with the needs and perspectives of others in the society (Carpendale, 2000).
This position suggests that early interactions with parents and peers will influence the development of moral reasoning capabilities. Research on the effects of social interactions on the development of moral reasoning capabilities has mainly concentrated on peer relations at the expense of parents and families. Studies have shown that peer interactions have a greater influence on an individual moral reasoning cognitive development than adult-child interactions (Worrall, 2018). The main way in which parents interact with their children in regard to morality is the development of moral knowledge (Palmer, 2003). However, as this paper has shown, moral knowledge rarely has any influence on behavior, especially pertaining to offending behavior. Moral reasoning theory can be used to inform decision-making for policymakers in an attempt to solve crimes that lie outside the judicial systems by not involving organs such as the courts the police or the correctional facilities.
The aim of the criminal justice system should be the evasion and prevention of crime, rather than the punishment of crime. By understanding the factors that underlay criminal behavior, policymakers could come up with viable ways that can be employed to evade crime and deter criminal behavior before it has even developed. Both liberals and conservatives seem to have taken very rigid positions on their understanding of crime and its causes. These positions have prejudiced the criminal justice system for a long time and to varying degrees. Conservative theories of crime seem more concerned with defending individual choice individual responsibility and rationality (Miller, 1973). Effectively, they put forward that each individual must be held accountable for their actions and behavior. Hence, conservative policies tend to be more severe as they aim to punish crime as well as deter criminal behavior from anyone who may be inclined to commit a crime (Ren, Zhao & Lovrich, 2008).
Therefore, the essential conservative view of crime is that humans are criminal by nature and the best way to fight crime is by suppressing or finding ways to disincentivize the behavior. Thus, the best approach to crime control according to the conservative school of criminology is by creating harsh conditions and penalties for criminal behavior in order to ensure that any persons who may feel inclined to commit crime are afraid of the consequences (Ren, Zhao & Lovrich, 2008). The liberal school of criminology views crime as the natural reaction to social injustice. According to proponents of this school of crime, to fight crime directly is tantamount to fighting the symptoms while ignoring the disease. In that context, it would be more prudent to address the injustices rather than addressing the crimes (Ren, Zhao & Lovrich, 2008).
If a person or a population group is continually and persistently labeled as being inherently criminal, they may choose to adopt criminal behavior as a way of accepting their fate. Labeling is especially more potent in informing criminal behavior is it is practiced by persons, entities or institutions that are in positions of power. While both schools of thought exhibit evident deficits in their explanations for crime, this researcher holds that the liberal views are more representative of the moral reasoning theory discussed in this paper. Liberal theories seem more concerned with an exploration of the factors that lead to crime than the crime itself. While one cannot ignore crime and there remains the need for tough laws for the purpose of crime control, it remains important for the development of policies that also examine the underlying factors for criminal behavior.
There are four main developmental stages of socio-moral reasoning, divided into, two immature stages and two mature stages. At the immature stages, persons hold an egocentric bias as a distortion to justify offending behavior. In the mature stages, a person holds distortions that leads them to apportion blame, project their intentions onto others and to minimize their actions and their consequences. Effectively, this theory suggests criminal behavior is more common among people who have experienced delayed socio-moral development and are still in the immature stages. Therefore, a clear understanding of the socio-moral reasoning factors and dynamics could a very potent tool for crime control and crime prevention. doi: 10. 1006/drev. 0500 Farrell, G. Labelling Theory of Crime. Crime Science, 2(1), 5. 2307/1129963 Langdon, P. , Clare, I.
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