Children Who Murder: A Psychological Perspective

By Robert V. Heckel; David M. Shumaker | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5

Moral Development

In this chapter our goal is to assess how moral development and moral reasoning relate to the factors research studies have identified as predictive of children who murder. What is the role of morality in the method of murder? Is it possible to have normal moral development, yet exhibit violent behavior? How do abusive families and environments prevent children from attaining appropriate moral responses as they develop? Can children be born with “something left out,” preventing normal moral growth? Even more surprising, how can a child experience the overwhelming impact of an unstable family and an unhealthy environment, yet fail to show violent behavior and demonstrate high levels of moral development?

Moral development plays a key role in circumstances that cause or permit the child to commit murder. Whether murderous behavior stems from uncontrollable violence, dehumanization of the victim, or a lack of empathy, at its heart rest moral issues. Psychologists generally agree on the component parts of morality or moral behavior. They also agree that there are distinct stages or phases in moral development. These stages are distinguished by the degree to which the child is able to demonstrate internalization of moral values as a guiding principle for behavior as opposed to showing behavior that is governed by external forces, typically caregivers, family members, or teachers. This transition, from the primitive actions of the young child (typically to age 3) who observes few rules to the adult who is able to demonstrate the highest levels of morality involving abstract

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