Sunday, November 18, 2012

Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning is a process humans undertake, usually on a daily basis. In essence, this type of practical reasoning is the process of determining right from wrong, and the criteria used to assess circumstances and make decisions regarding this determination varies widely across populations as well as genders (Santrock, 2008). The goal of this paper is to define moral reasoning and compare this cognitive process across genders and cultures.

                                                         Defining Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning concerns one aspect of moral judgment, specifically the cognitive process through which one determines the difference between right and wrong in a given circumstance and makes decisions accordingly (Raaijmakers, Engels, & Van Hoof, 2005). Part of the process includes determining the morality as well as the consequences of the decision's repercussions. Kohlberg's theory suggests moral reasoning develops in stages characterized by "a sequence of qualitative changes in the way an individual thinks" (Santrock, 2008, p. 477).

                                          Comparing Moral Reasoning Across Genders

When considering moral reasoning across genders, it remains important to refrain from bias, stereotypes, and perpetuating gender myths (Wilgus, 2009). Although some research suggests remnants of evolutionary mechanisms exist in the basic reasoning of the genders, contemporary research suggests there exists a less gendered expectation for moral reasoning (Wilgus, 2009). It may be more appropriate to look at factors other than gender in the development of moral reasoning, such as socioeconomic class, cultural expectations, community norms, and individual family experience (Wilgus, 2009). Some research suggests women's stereotypical roles contribute to the underlying foundations of their moral reasoning, and the caring and nurturing of children and family affects their overall functioning and reasoning (Wilgus, 2009). A feminist standpoint regarding morality is born out of the stereotypical notion of women's work, specifically childcare and participating in roles that seem more submissive and passive than the typical roles played by their male counterparts (Gilligan, 2005). Along these lines, if men engage in typically female behavior such as caring for siblings during childhood, they may acquire a more feminine moral reasoning (Wilgus, 2009).

There has been a substantial amount of history in gendered moral reasoning (Gilligan, 2005). Even Freud was unable to find a clear sense of it in women, but neither could he determine women's definitive sense of self (Gilligan, 2005). Perhaps by perceiving gendered roles more diffusely than has been accomplished in the past, the idea of moral reasoning takes on a less gendered stereotype. Gilligan (2005) suggested that perceiving women from a male point of view skews the perception of moral reasoning in women. If perceived from a non-gendered approach, the differences between moral reasoning in both genders may be different, but perhaps not solely because of gender (Gilligan, 2001). Gilligan explains that differences in moral reasoning may be based on how individuals relate to others, their connectedness to others, and the strength with which they value interpersonal communication (Santrock, 2008).

                                       Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning

"Cultural meaning systems vary around the world, and these systems shape children's morality" (Santrock, 2008, p. 482). Culture related differences in moral reasoning are not well understood at least partly because assessments may not be culturally valid, so may not provide adequate or genuine results (Carlo, McGinley, Roesch, & Kaminski, 2008). In observing family-related moral reasoning in Israel, it is apparent that it shapes the rules of family interactions differently than it governs family interactions in the United States (Ayalon, 2010). In Israel, non-conformity to norms and standards as it applies to elder care, places shame on family members (Ayalon, 2010). For example, caring for elder family members is routine in Israel, and placing them in the care of an establishment is considered shameful, whereas in the United States, elder family members are routinely placed in the care of homes for the elderly, or other types of privatized care.

In the United States, many articles suggest there is no shame in placing elderly family members in institutional care because the demands are too great for untrained individuals. In Israel, children are devoted to caring for their parents and elderly family members, and they are far more inclined to take responsibility for the extraordinary burdens that accompany caring for the elderly (Ayalon, 2010). When considering moral reasoning cross-culturally, it is prudent to understand how different cultures construct ethical systems, values, and their overlying world views (Haste & Abrahams, 2008). Cultural standards and norms are fundamental elements of psychological functioning, so when trying to understand the differences in moral reasoning and behavior, it is important to understand moral development as the result of the relationship between individuals and their culture (Haste & Abrahams, 2008). Cultural processes are created within a social environment wherein "meaning is scaffolded, negotiated and constructed" (Haste & Abrahams, 2008, p. 391).


Moral reasoning is a cognitive human process that determines right from wrong. Cultural standards as well as gender identification are deeply entwined within the cognitive framework that supports moral reasoning (Haste & Abrahams, 2008). Perhaps of greatest salience is understanding when members of one culture observe and judge the moral reasoning of another, they perceive and make judgment through their own cultural lens and culturally expected moral reasoning (Haste & Abrahams, 2008).


Ayalon, L. (2010). The perspectives of older care recipients, their family members, and their round-the-clock foreign home care workers regarding elder mistreatment. Aging & Mental Health, 14(4), 411-415. doi: 10.1080/13607860903586110

Carlo, G., McGinley, M., Roesch, S. C., & Kaminski, J. W. (2008). Measurement invariance in a measure of prosocial moral reasoning to use with adolescents from the USA and Brazil. Journal of Moral Education, 37(4), 485–502.

Gilligan, C. (2002). Learning to speak the language: A relational Interpretation of an adolescent girl's suicidallity. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 3(Part 3), 321-340.

Gilligan, C. (2005). Images of relationship. North Dakota Law Review, 81(4), 693-728.

Haste, H., & Abrahams, S. (2008). Morality, culture and the dialogic self: Taking cultural pluralism seriously. Journal of Moral Education, 37(3), 377–394.

Raaijmakers, Q. A. W., Engels, R. C. M. E., & Van Hoof, A. (2005). Delinquency and moral reasoning in adolescence and young adulthood. International

Journal of Behavioral Development, 29(3), 247–258. doi: 10.1080/01650250544000035

Santrock, J. W. (2008). A topical approach to life-span development (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wilgus, G. (2009). Male early childhood teachers negotiate classroom dilemma: Class, family, community and culture in models for moral reasoning. Journal of Gender Studies, 18(3), 215–230.

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