This paper explores how moral and ethical beliefs are formed in our society. We further explore how the moral and ethical beliefs that a child learns at a very early age evolves as that child enters the school community and then finally the business community.
Morals and Ethics
Society’s acceptance of certain behaviors throughout time is what formulates the current moral and ethical beliefs. What was immoral 50 years ago may be considered acceptable or tolerable behaviors now. The basic moral and ethical beliefs are standards of conduct that indicates how we should behave based on our moral duties and virtues, which themselves are derived from our principles of right and wrong. Ethics are about how we meet the challenge of doing the right thing when it will cost us more than we want to pay. Morals describe our beliefs, customs and traditions that are reflected in our personal convictions about right and wrong. Values are our core beliefs or desires that guide or motivate our attitudes and actions. They also define the things we value and prize the most, and, therefore, provide the basis for ranking the things we want in a way that elevates some values over others. Thus, our values determine how we will behave in certain situations.
Moral Development of Children
When people discuss moral development, they are referring to their conduct and attitude towards others in society. They look to see if others follow the societal norms, rules, and laws. In terms of children, we are describing their ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Two individuals, Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, studied the moral development of children. Piaget looked at how children develop moral reasoning. He found that young children have a much more primitive understanding of right and wrong behavior than do older children.
Piaget determined that younger children judge bad behavior by the amount of damage caused by a person’s behavior. He would tell children a story with a moral dilemma. He would ask them to tell him “who is naughtier?” a boy who accidentally broke fifteen cups or a boy who breaks one cup trying to reach a jam jar when his mother is not around. Younger children attributed the “naughty” behavior to the boy who broke the most cups regardless of the other child’s intent. This type of moral reasoning was called Objective Morality or Moral Realism.
Older children attributed bad behavior to the boy who broke only one cup because his motives where bad. This, more advanced form of moral reasoning was called Subjective Morality or Autonomous Morality. Piaget expressed that children do not fully achieve this stage of moral development until the ages of twelve or thirteen.
As the later stages of moral development reveal, children can make a choice not to follow society’s rules or laws. Parents must accept that reality, that’s part of parents’ on-going moral development. It also provides parents do motivation to improve and develop morals at an early age. Understanding moral development allows parents to assess their children and have a better target for their individual development. It redefines our roles as teachers and guides over the unpleasant tasks of police and judges. Hopefully, the end result is that our child will be the one who will stop and wait for someone in need, regardless of what the crowd says he or she should do.
Children listen to their parent discuss and sometimes argue about certain issues, politics, social problems, moral issues and even opinions about how others behave. In the early years a child looks to their parents as the final authority on any subject. It’s not uncommon to overhear a child explain something as being absolutely true because their mommy or daddy said so. During this time we teach our children about fairness, friendship and kindness.
During this most influential time in a child’s life, parents have the opportunity to mold a kind and giving child. Kindness involves some type of giving or sacrificing of something of one’s own money, time or safety for the good of someone else. If a child is taught to be kind, he or she will inevitably be faced with the question of how much they should give. In making moral decisions we all are faced with this and similar questions. How much of our money and possessions and time should we give away to people in need? How much risk should we take to protect others? To what degree should we neglect our own interests in order to help someone else? As the child becomes more committed to treating people kindly, these kinds of moral dilemmas will grow in importance to he or she and they will remain with them for the rest of their lives, even through adolescence.
During these influential years, children learn the basic foundation for moral behavior that will drive how they act or refrain from acting in the years to come. As a child grows older and enters the school community, they see the world through outside influences. This is where conformity to social norms plays a greater role in the child’s life. School is often a child’s first opportunity to think for themselves. They experiment with ideas and values of their own. Children begin to form new beliefs and ideas of their own. The family influence is still there, but just not as strong as it once was.
Adolescence can be a particularly stressful time for children and their parents. The influence of peers and hormones has begun to replace the influence of parents. Competition is now intensified in many important arenas of the child’s life, from school, to sports, to sex. The adolescent’s inner conflicts, enthusiasms and fears often seem excessive to parents. Parents commonly complain that their sweet child has turned in to a self-centered and rude teenager who is overly dependent on friends and uncommunicative at home.
From the adolescent’s point of view the world is a tough place. It is filled with rules not of their making. It presents the child with moral conflicts that don’t permit simple solutions. At times the child finds himself virtually overwhelmed by sexual and romantic feelings. The child also quickly discovers that he or she inhabits a society of peers in which drugs and alcohol are commonplace, yet illegal in the society at large.
In some settings they are encouraged to be kind and cooperative, yet the business of the world seems to be based on self-interest and competition. In addition, religious beliefs and values that his parents try to hand down to him seem outdated or hypocritical. During this time, the child is expanding their belief system and intertwining the old with the new.
Moving From The Family To Business Community
At some point during early adulthood, the young adult will begin to take his or her place in the economic life of our society. It will not take long for the young adult to discover that although there are business ethics and roles on how one may and may not compete, the code contains no requirement for kindness. When he or she is competing with someone for the same dollar, he or she is not expected to be concerned about that person’s needs. This is due to the fact that everyone is racing to climb the corporate latter. In a competitive system like ours one is rarely faulted for pursuing too much wealth.
When the young adult leaves the family community and moves into the business community, the morals that they were taught in the family community will come into play. The values that you embrace as a young adult are not the same values that you were raised with. Usually this age group is more liberal with their ideas and convictions until they mature, marry and begin having children of their own. Normally when the young person begins having children of their own they embrace the conservative convictions that they were raised with.
Businesses create ethical codes in recognition of the obvious facts that the way in which individuals conduct their business affects the well being of others. But beyond these codes and laws, it’s no holds barred. If one businessman drives his competitors out of business, it’s their loss and his gain. Their financial setback is their problem, not yours. In essence, competition prevents the bonds between people that promote kindness.
Some individuals may be faced with working for a company that is engaged in questionable moral and legal practices. He or she may get a clear message that employees are expected to participate in, or at least shut their eyes to, the practice or lose their jobs. This is where tradeoffs come in to play in the business community. Most individuals are well aware that business ethics involves tradeoffs, the hard part involves deciding when to make the decision to tradeoff one’s ethics and at what price. When deciding whether or not to be unethical you need to ask yourself the following questions:
a)If I carry out this decision, would I be comfortable telling my family about it? My clergyman? My mentors?
b)Would I want children to take my behavior as an example?
c)What would I think if the decision I made were published in the newspaper?
d)Can I live with this decision?
This means accepting responsibility for your choice. It also means accepting the possibility that you might be wrong or that you will make a less than optimal decision. The object is to make a good choice with the information available, not to make a perfect choice. Learn from your failures and successes.
I feel that most people are raised with a good ethical/moral foundation. During adolescence, the foundation may become shaky and may be even shakier as the individual enters the business community. I believe that most people want to be “good” upstanding citizens, but most are unethical to some degree.
The convictions that we were raised with definitely change, even though we may teach these same morals to our children. We usually try to lead by example with our children, but usually fail to some degree.
Our society would fair much better if we embraced morality as an act of kindness as opposed to involving religion. Linking God with morality is prevalent in our society. The reason for this is the belief that without God one has no reason to be moral. Without the fear of God, we would have no reason to suppress our basic selfish impulses. But treating others well out of a fear of punishment is just the opposite of what we ordinarily think of a morally motivated behavior. It doesn’t take a moral sense to behave honestly when a gun is put to your head. That’s just self-preservation. We call someone moral when he can be trusted to do the right thing even when he can get away with doing otherwise. Those who believe in a punitive God are convinced they can never ultimately get away with doing the wrong thing. In a sense, the gun is always pointed at them. One can’t sneak past God, they believe, and He has all eternity to make you pay for your sins. Since He can read minds, even bad thoughts are dangerous. The belief in a punishing God can have a powerful controlling effect on behavior, but has nothing to do with encouraging good intentions towards others.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, How Could You Do That?!, 1996
James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense, 1993
Michael Schulman, Ph.D., Bringing Up A Moral Child, 1994
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., Raising Ethical Children, 1994
Sara Bullard, Teaching Tolerance, 1996
Karl Jahn, The Foundation of Ethics, http://karljahn.tripod.com/ethics.html 1999