Does Moral Reasoning Represent Sociomoral Structure or Political Ideology? a Further Exploration of the Relations between Moral Reasoning, Political Attitudes, Consistency of Moral Thought, and the Evaluation of Human Rights in Dutch Young Adults

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The relations between moral reasoning and political attitudes were examined in a representative sample of 2520 Dutch adolescents and young adults. This study was repeated for a second, select sample, 210 Dutch university students. In the latter study both moral reasoning and political attitudes were related to the evaluation of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Moral reasoning was measured using the N2 index of the Defining Issues Test (Rest. 1979a). Political attitudes were measured using 10 Likert-type multiitem scales, representing both the cultural and the economic dimension of general political ideology. Participants' general moral thought was identified through their evaluation of the 30 articles of the UDHR. The intraindividual consistency of the evaluation of the 30 UDHR articles was used as a measure of the structure of moral thought. Factor analyses revealed that moral reasoning represented something different from political ideology. Regression analyses demonstrated that only a minor part of the variance in moral reasoning scores could be predicted by the combined effect of political attitudes. Moral reasoning scores were not related to the consistency of the evaluation of the 30 UDHR articles. Using SEM analyses, several models were tested describing the relations of moral reasoning, political ideology and consistency with the evaluation of human rights. It appeared that these variables all uniquely contributed to the explanation of moral thought.

Keywords: moral reasoning, political attitudes, consistency, human rights, construct validity.

In cognitive-developmental theory, moral reasoning is understood as the manifestation of an inner-psychological and cognitive-developmental structure that governs action in situations in which moral claims conflict (Kohlberg, 1969). As a structure, moral reasoning is sharply distinguished from the content of moral judgments. Moral structures refer to general organizing principles or patterns of thought rather than specific moral beliefs or opinions (Colby, Kohlberg, & Kauffman, 1987, p. 2). The same premises underlie the various measures that are more or less closely related to Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory, such as the Moral Judgment Interview (MJI: Colby & Kohlberg, 1987) or paper-and-pencil tests such as the Defining Issues Test (DIT: Rest, 1979a), or the Socio-Moral Reflection Objective Measure (SROM: Gibbs, 1991). Whatever the specific theoretical claims of these tests, they all have in common the assumption that a general cognitive structure is measured rather than certain moral beliefs or specific attitudes associated with the politico-moral domain. In the determination of moral behavior and moral choices, moral reasoning is claimed to have its unique contribution parallel to other processes (i.e., motivational and ideological processes: see Kohlberg, 1986; Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau, & Thoma, 1999).

Several authors have strongly disputed the claim that moral reasoning represents a general sociomoral cognitive structure rather than a specific politico-moral attitude. Early critiques focused on the "liberal" and "American" bias in Kohlberg's theorizing and research (e.g., Shweder, 1982; Simpson, 1974). More recently, criticism has concentrated on the measurement of moral reasoning, referring to the Defining Issues Test (Rest, 1979a) as the most widely used measure of moral reasoning. Two different, though related, questions are separately raised. Lind (1995, in press) argues that the prevailing paper-and-pencil tests of moral reasoning are essentially preference measures, and in that sense capable of measuring only attitudes. In his view, a more suitable approach of measuring cognitive (or structuring) capacity is to assess the consistency of the individual ratings instead of the expressed preferences. In addition, Emler and colleagues reasoned that the strong correlation of moral reasoning scores with scores on certain political attitude scales in fact demonstrates their mutual origin: an individualistic political-cultural ideology, predominant in Western societies. …