Modes of Moral Judgment among Early Adolescents

By Perry, Constance M.; McIntire, Walter G. | Adolescence, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Modes of Moral Judgment among Early Adolescents

Perry, Constance M., McIntire, Walter G., Adolescence


One of the primary functions of middle schools is to meet the developmental needs of early adolescents. Middle school proponents contend that early adolescence is an important definitional stage in human development during which a person's value system and behavior code is shaped (Levy, 1988). In addition, several reviews of moral development literature suggest that moral reasoning predicts moral action, including honesty, altruistic behavior, resistance to temptation and nondelinquency (Blasi, 1980; Kohlberg, 1984, 1987; Snary, 1985; Thoma, 1986). If one's value system and behavior code, which govern moral reasoning and resultant behavior, are to any great extent shaped during early adolescence, than how early adolescents reason about moral/value questions is of importance.

There is controversy as to the existence and nature of modes of moral reasoning or judgment. Kohlberg (1969, 1981) described six stages of moral development culminating in a focus on justice, using rights and universal principles to make moral/value decisions. Recent research by Gilligan and others (Gilligan, Lyons, & Hanmer, 1989; Gilligan, Ward, & Taylor, 1988) has suggested the existence of an alternative to the justice mode of morality with its emphasis on equality, fairness, and universal principles. The alternative proposed by Gilligan is a mode of care emphasizing responsiveness and interdependence. In listening to women's discussions of moral conflicts, Gilligan (1977, 1982) reported that girls' and women's concerns more often centered on care and response to others than on the rights and universal principles which comprise Kohlberg's higher stages of moral development. She and others have postulated that modern moral psychology's grounding in concepts of justice and rights may overlook this alternative mode.

Evidence from girls attending a private school (Gilligan et al., 1989), a group of educationally advantaged adolescents and adults (Gilligan & Attanucci, 1988), and a sample of 36 people consisting of equal numbers of males and females at specific ages ranging from eight to sixty-plus (Lyons, 1988), suggests that females speak in a predominantly care voice and males in one of justice. Thus, when discussing moral dilemmas, it appears that females more often than males explain their choices by mentioning the importance of caring about others, about relationships, and about relieving the burdens or suffering of others. Although overlap occurs and many females and males use both modes, it appears that males more frequently explain their choices by reasons of fairness, reciprocity (the golden rule) and following standards or principles.

Johnston (1988), in her work using fables as moral dilemmas, found gender differences in moral orientation but also found that the context (which fable) influenced the use of orientation and that males and females were knowledgeable of both orientations. She concluded that the gender differences did not reflect knowledge or understanding of only one orientation but rather a preference for one orientation as a solution to a moral dilemma. She postulated that assumptions about relationships are different for male and female adolescents. Males first try to solve problems by rights and rules unless the possibility of a continuing relationship exists beyond the dilemma. Females use both justice and care modes but more often start by attending to specific needs and, if that seems unworkable, resort to rules. Johnston (1988) also found that boys use the moral orientation of care much less often than girls use the moral of justice. Girls appear more flexible in their use of the two modes perhaps because they learn the culturally valued dominant voice (justice), but also may choose to represent another voice, that of care.


The following questions were examined: (1) Is the two modes of moral judgment model verified in an early adolescent sample? …

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