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Moral: What is it? How do we develop morals?

"And the moral of the story ..." – That’s exactly how the majority of fairy tales ends. This expression serves the purpose of bringing home once again, the message (moral) which is already expressed throughout the story, however, subtle and between the lines. The crucial statement, why the story was told in the first place.

But what is morality? Where does it come from, how does it develop and why do we have certain morals?

Preachment | ©: Sandy Schulze - Fotolia

To answer these questions, let's look at first how morality is defined in scientifically. This is a collective term for the ethical and honorable norms of human behavior. This sounds a bit complicated at first, at a closer look however; it is relatively easy to bring to a common denominator. Standards are social or ethical guidelines, according to which a person acts. Summarizing all these standards, gives the term morality. Ergo, the so-called morality is precisely the norm that you could wish for in other people and for their actions. Now let's look at the whole thing a little more in detail. The standards are the fundamental building blocks for the development of morality within a community. This means that the relevant morality may vary from community to community quite strongly. Under community we understand, for example, the population of a country, the members of a particular religion or - on a smaller scale - the members of a family and even the partners of a relationship.

Thus, morality is defined within a community but does not necessarily apply to all people equally. Also, many different factors play into the structure of morality in any given community. These include personal factors such as self-imposed standards and motives, as well as factors from the immediate and wider community, e.g. such as the family, the church, the employer, etc.

How does morality come into being and how does it develop?

In this context, a fundamental question bears to be asked: Is the development of morality of people ever completed?

Before this question can be answered, let us first attend to when does the moral development in humans begin and what course does it take. Various scientific studies show that the development of morality of growing young people passes through different stages. There are three accepted stages.

Stage 1: The moral realism

Around the 4th - 5th year the little person makes its first encounter with standards and corresponding morals. Even though, since birth mandatory standards surround the child, it truly takes the age mentioned above until the child starts to recognize those standards. To be clear about this: it is true that even younger children accept rules as instruments of morality. However, at this age they understand them as dogmas and do not recognize that those rules are compromises or meaningful implementations to life.

The child recognizes only prohibitions but does not understand that those implementations serve to build morality. For this reason, the first stage of the development of morality is referred to as a penal and obedience-oriented phase. Hence, the child is not dealing with the deeper meaning and morality behind this concept. The child only recognizes the possibilities on how to behave in the face of rules. It does what it is asked – is obedient, or it has to face the consequences of his disobedience. In this stage, morality is brought to the child from the outside. It does not develop within the child.

2. Stage: Purpose and exchange orientation

At this stage the terms individualism, exchange and sense of purpose play a decisive role. The child's perspective is changing; it sees itself as an individual and understands that morality is defined differently for different individuals. In addition, the child understands that morality serves a particular purpose. This becomes obvious in feelings of revenge. Those feelings are contrary to morality, yet they are closely linked to each other. For example, if a person realizes that another person does not oblige to certain morals it will let slip morals just as well.

3. Stage: Increasing social orientation

The third stage does not longer only include the own interests but as well the interests of others. Sometimes the interests of others are even put above the own interests. This can also mean a larger group of people up to the whole of society. The young person starts to question what others may think about certain statements they make, actions and attitudes. In this process, the whole of society with all its rights, obligations and interests moves more and more into the focus of the young person. Some scholars divide this development again into three stages with several sub-steps in which different interests of different groups come to the forefront, right down to feeling being responsible for other individuals.

In the 3rd stage teenagers or young adults recognize that they have to provide certain benefits for the society to meet the highest moral standards. Human rights take priority to statutory regulations. Therefore, in this particular phase it can happen that those statutory regulations are overstepped to reach certain defined moral objectives. Examples of this are the numerous animal and human rights organizations that enjoy the highest popularity by people between 15 – 25 years. In this time span, the young person is exactly in this third stage of his moral development, as described above.

The positive influence of religious education on the moral development

Unfortunately, religious education is becoming less and less important in our schools. Partly it is no longer part of the curriculum; partly it is optional or can be replaced with other subjects. However, by now it is scientifically proven that religious education has a positive influence on the moral development of young people. In particular, the skill of moral judgment develops faster and also deepens recognizable stronger.

An answer to the crucial question

Finally, we come back to the initial question; whether the development of morality of a person is ever completed. To answer that we first have to take a look at the further development of morality during adulthood.

The development of morality during adolescence and the development during adulthood are greatly different from person to person. Furthermore, there are differences in the development of morality between men and women. Women are often morally more evolved than men. Even between individual cultures there are differences in the development of morality. For example, in Islam the moral concepts are much stronger than those in Christianity or other religions.

Concluding it can be said that according to scientific knowledge, the development of morality in humans has not been completed yet; not even in adulthood. With age every individual can question rules and if necessary change his morality accordingly. This indicates that morality is depending on any given situation and cannot be generalized.

The suffering from morality

Religion and Moral
Religion and Moral | ©: Slaweek - Fotolia

Therefore, morality has been developed and may change over time. Moral values and ideas are conveyed by children, young people, parents, and the person’s environment. Such as school, friends, caregivers, church, etc.). This process can either be conscious or unconscious. This, if you so want, this constitutes a “corset”, in which the child, the young person, every human being exists.

The so-called moral high ground ensures that moral codes are respected. If not, then there are consequences being faced. Possible fear of exclusion, punishment, fear of the moral error itself can be so debilitating, to the point that children and young people suffer. And if they do, the child or young person is suffocated by guilt. In those situations, man, with all his mental and psychological needs, is no longer in the foreground. All that counts is the strict observance of the moral code. Sadly, many so-called moralists are themselves so entrenched in fear that they believe they are going to be punished if they don’t rigorously condemn and punish their fellow humans in their “fallible humanity”.

Especially in Christian youth work, the person with all its troubles and needs should take up priority. Identifying these needs without condemning, accepting and helping the individual through his trials would be the task.

Last but not least: they also say: "You have to be more holy then the Pope." Would it be possible, just for once, to question one owns convictions? This exercise in self-reflection would lessen the bias and replace it with a sense of belonging, a sense of real togetherness.

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