Metacognitive Aspects of Moral Reasoning and Behavior

By Swanson, H. Lee; Hill, Gloria | Adolescence, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Metacognitive Aspects of Moral Reasoning and Behavior


Swanson, H. Lee, Hill, Gloria, Adolescence


A central task of moral development theory is to explain the relation between moral judgment and moral behavior. For both Piaget and Kohlberg, judgment is essential to the determination of actions as moral (Colby, Kohlberg, Gibbs, & Lieberman, 1983; Kohlberg, 1984; Piaget, 1932, 1976). Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that moral judgment has a positive association with moral behavior (see Blasi, 1983, for a review of the literature). However, researchers who have examined the relation between both Piagetian-based and Kohlbergean-based moral reasoning and moral action have reported inconsistent results (see Blasi, 1980, 1983). In some cases researchers have reported a positive association between reasoning and behavior (e.g., Eisenberg-Berg & Hand, 1979; Hains & Ryan, 1983; LaVoie, 1974; McLaughlin & Stephens, 1974); in many others they have not (e.g., Kohlberg & Candee, 1984; Turiel & Rothman, 1972). In part, these results can be explained by the failure of some researchers to assess behavior which is logically related to moral judgment (Blasi, 1980; Smetana, 1985; Turiel, 1983). It seems that in studies where behavior is logically related to moral reasoning, positive associations between levels of moral reasoning and moral behaviors have been found (Blasi, 1980; Eisenberg-Berg & Hand, 1979; LaVoie, 1974).

Researchers have suggested that factors other than judgment may also be implicated in the production of moral behavior (Colby et al., 1983; Smetana, 1985; Snarey, Reimer, & Kohlberg, 1985). Further, theorists and researchers (e.g., Blasi, 1983; Turiel, 1983; Damon, 1977; Kohlberg, 1984; Levine, 1979; Nucci & Turiel, 1978) have called for explanations of moral behavior that acknowledge an individual's awareness of moral knowledge rather than focus solely on moral action or moral stage structures. One construct that has received little attention in the moral development literature is metacognition. Metacognition (Flavell, 1981b; Flavell & Wellman, 1977), or knowing about knowing (Brown, 1978), refers to insights children have about their own cognitive processes. By analogy to the discussions of metacognition, moral metacognition would refer to the knowledge children have about their own morality. More specifically, moral metacognition reflects an individual's knowledge or awareness of the nature, principles, and processes (e.g., strategies) of morality. The application of metacognition to moral reasoning and moral behavior is theoretically defensible since the latter two are influenced by cognitive monitoring (see Kohlberg & Candee, 1984; Rest, 1984; cf. Mischel, 1981). Cognitive monitoring in turn occurs through the actions and interactions of metacognitive knowledge. Cognitive monitoring roughly means keeping track of or regulating thinking processes (e.g., moral judgment) and behavior (e.g., moral action). This "regulating" interacts with a person's metacognitive knowledge (Flavell, 1981a). In the context of moral reasoning and moral action, metacognitive knowledge represents all the knowledge and beliefs about morality that are stored in long-term memory. It can be thought of as a segment (or component, as suggested by Rest, 1984) of stored world knowledge that is automatically or intentionally accessed when a person engages in activities to which the knowledge pertains.

In this study, the notion that a child's awareness of his/her own cognitions about morality may be related to his/her moral reasoning and behavior was investigated. Based on the metacognitive literature, some assumptions were made about this relationship. First, as with moral reasoning, moral metacognition, or knowledge of one's own cognitive states and processes related to the moral domain, is age related. Older children will have more accurate understanding of their moral judgmental processes than will young children (Colby, Kohlberg, Gibbs, & Lieberman, 1983). Second, higher levels of moral metacognition will be closely tied to more advanced moral reasoning and behavior (Hains & Ryan, 1983). …

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