Encouraging Ethical Reflection

Ethical Reflection:

Developing the cognitive side of character through reading, research, writing, and discussion

Key Ideas:

    1. Encouraging ethical reflection means helping students develop the cognitive side of character: (1) being morally aware; (2) having an understanding of virtues and how to apply them in concrete situations; (3) being able to take the perspective of others; (4) being able to reason morally (why are some things right and others wrong?); being able to make thoughtful moral decisions (the virtue of prudence); and having self-knowledge, including the capacity for self-criticism (the virtue of humility).

  1. Children's moral thinking develops through a series of stages (summarized in Raising Good Children, p. 12). Some individuals move faster through the stages, and some get farther. At each higher stage, students have a better understanding of what's right and the reason why a person should do what's right. What promotes development through the stages is any kind of interactive moral experience (e.g., being asked a thought-producing moral question, moral dialogue, a class meeting, cooperative learning, conflict resolution) that engages the child in perspective-taking and solving moral problems (e.g., what's fair?).


    1. Teachers can foster ethical reflection in many ways: reading; research; discussion of hypothetical moral dilemmas, historical dilemmas, and moral issues from students' lives and the world around them; essays; journal-keeping; and debate.

  1. Teachers can develop their insight into children's moral thinking, and their ability to stimulate development to higher stages, by studying the moral stages and interviewing students one-on-one.

For example: Here is an interview with Amy, age 8. She shows "stage mix," using more than one stage of reasoning in responding to "Kenny's dilemma" (stage mix is typical):

Kenny is walking to the store. It's his mother's birthday on Saturday. He's feeling bad because he hasn't been able to save up enough money to get her the present he'd like to give her. Then, on the sidewalk, he finds a wallet with $10 in it ­ just what he needs to buy the present! But there's an identification card in the wallet telling the name and address of the owner. What should Kenny do?

Interviewer: What do you think Kenny should do?

Amy: Kenny should return the money.

Interviewer: Why do you think that would be the best thing to do?

Amy: If anyone found out that he kept the money, he would get in trouble. His mother would punish him for lying. Anyway, keeping the money that didn't belong to him would be like stealing. Someone might tell the police.

Amy's reasoning here is Stage 1. Fear of punishment is the basis for deciding what's right to do. In response to the interviewer's continued questioning, however, Amy demonstrates that she is capable of higher-stage reasoning:

Teacher: Are there any other reasons why Kenny should return the money?

Amy: If Kenny returned the money, he could tell his mother what happened. She would be glad he'd been honest. That would be birthday present enough.

Interviewer: Is it always easy to be honest?

Amy: No, it's not always easy, because sometimes telling the truth can get you into trouble, like if you did something wrong. But at least everybody trusts you if you tell the truth. Being honest is best.

Interviewer: Should Kenny return the wallet even if he won't get a reward?

Amy: Yes. It would be doing a good deed. That would make Kenny feel better. He wouldn't have a guilty conscience either.

Amy's responses to these latter questions all fit Kohlberg's Stage 3. She shows Stage 3's concern with gaining social approval by being a good person; an understanding of the role of trust in human relationships; and an understanding of conscience as an inner standard that is the source of good feelings when you follow your conscience and guilty feelings when you don't.

Amy's stage mix offers a caution to parents and teachers: If a child's initial responses to a moral dilemma are at a lower stage, don't assume that that's the highest stage of which the child is capable. Further questioning ("Can you think of any other reasons...?") may reveal the true upper reaches of a child's moral reasoning.

If the teacher were presenting Kenny's dilemma to a class (rather than interviewing a child), she would ask Socratic questions that would try to draw out higher-stage thinking and get less mature children to respond to the reasoning offered by more mature peers.

Further Examples:

Elizabeth Saenger's Ethics-in-Action Journals (children note moral events in their school lives, how they responded, whether they could have responded more ethically; they bring these to ethics class)

Thought-of-the-Day Journals

Richard Gulbin, 7th-grade: Creating a parallel moral dilemma

Richard Gulbin, a 7th-grade student teacher at Cortland College, caught a boy cheating on a social studies test. He took the boy's paper and asked him to see him after class. Their conversation went like this:

Teacher: Why do you think I took your paper?

Student: Because I was cheating.

Teacher: Don't you think it's wrong to cheat?

Student: No, it's just wrong to get caught.

Teacher Gulbin decided the whole class would benefit from an open discussion of cheating. He decided to approach the issue by presenting a parallel hypothetical dilemma:

John and Mary are students in 7th-grade social studies. On a test, Mary notices that John is looking at her paper and writing down answers. Mary knows John was at the game room at the mall the night before while she was studying hard for the test.

What should Mary do? What would you do if you were Mary?

Students suggested a variety of things Mary might do: cover her paper, tell the teacher, try to get John to tell the teacher he had cheated, or tell John after the test why it wasn't fair for him to cheat.

The main value of the discussion, teacher Gulbin felt, was to begin to develop a student consensus that cheating wasn't fair to all the people who were working honestly for their grades.