Three moralities, culture, and development

The big three model did not describe how the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity develop as individuals grow older. However, based on the cultural psychological approach to morality and moral socialisation (e.g., Shweder et al., 1987, 1997), Lene Jensen (1997, 2008, 2011) developed a model that integrates the notions of developmental changes occurring throughout the lifespan and the differences between individuals in their cultural understandings of what is considered moral. Within this model, culture is defined as a community that shares key beliefs, values, behaviours, routines, and institutions (Jensen, 2015a). The model is based on the acknowledgement that culture-based models underestimate the role of individual development, while the cognitive-developmental models underestimate the role of culture in trying to understand the development of morality. Therefore, the cultural-developmental template integrates these two lines of research.

The cultural-developmental model describes how the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity are used throughout the lifespan. In practice, the model describes trends in the use of ethics at different ages along with changes in the kinds of concepts that are typically used at different ages, for example, whether community-based concepts used by children are different from those used by adolescents or adults (Jensen, 2008, 2011). In this model, development is broadly defined as the changes and consistencies in an individual’s thinking patterns, looking at either increases or decreases and quantitative or qualitative changes in moral thinking. Moreover, change can be characterised as occurring either gradually or in stages. This definition for development is intentionally broad and flexible and is different from the definition used in cognitive-developmental approaches, which conceptualise development as universal, directional, irreversible, and inevitable (Kallio & Marchand, 2012; Kohlberg & Annon, 1984).

According to this model, the ethic of autonomy is already used in early childhood, and its use continues in more or less the same way throughout adolescence and adulthood in individualistic cultures. However, there are changes in the way autonomy is used. For example, factors related to equality and fairness seem to emerge more frequently in adolescence. In collectivistic cultures such as India, which emphasise the importance of community, the use of autonomy decreases with age, which may reveal the impact of culture (Kapadia & Bhangaokar, 2015).

In adolescence and adulthood, the use of the community ethic increases and becomes conceptually more varied and richer. In addition, the scope of what belongs to one’s community broadens with age; it begins with one’s own family and friends in childhood and eventually develops through wider consideration to embrace society at large during adolescence and adulthood (cf. Kohlberg’s idea of broadening social networks and social perspective).

According to Jensen (2008, 2011), developmental changes occurring in the ethic of divinity are not yet well known. The development of a divinity-based moral discourse appears to be more group-oriented than other moral codes, which typically means something like, for example, belonging to a liberal or conservative religious community shaping the development of divinity-based moral thinking. The ethic of divinity is used rather infrequently in childhood, used increasingly in adolescence, and is used most frequently in adulthood (Jensen, 2008; Jensen & McKenzie, 2016). This may happen because, in some cultures, the concepts around supernatural forces are so abstract that it is not possible to understand them in early childhood (Jensen, 2008, 2011).

The cultural-developmental template assumes that individuals in all cultures share these three ethics or moral codes. However, the model does not assume that age-related development follows the same trajectory in all cultures or communities, as cognitive-developmental models suggest (e.g., Kohlberg, 1984). More specifically, Jensen (2018) identifies two lines of moral development that differ in terms of how moral codes are hierarchically related to each other. These two lines are linked to whether an individual’s approach to religion is liberal or conservative (e.g., Bellah, 1987; Jensen, 1998, 2000, 2006). Religious conservatism is associated with the view that a moral code is created by a transcendent authority as well as a concern that contemporary societies are distancing from God. Conversely, religiously liberal individuals are more likely to regard moral issues as being subject to change due to societal developments. Therefore, it is expected that differences between religiously liberal and conservative individuals are such that conservative adults use the concepts of community and divinity in their reasoning more often than autonomy. Religiously conservative individuals emphasise the ethic of divinity as their main moral code, whereas religiously liberal individuals place more emphasis on the ethics of autonomy and community equally (Jensen, 2008, 2011, 2018; Vainio, 2015).

Furthermore, cultural communities may shape an individual’s course in life, which in turn, may eventually influence which moral codes the individual regards as most relevant. For example, individualistic cultures such as those in North America emphasise youth and a prolonged phase of concentrating on oneself, which means that the autonomy-based moral code may be used rather than the community-based moral code during adolescence and young adulthood (Jensen, 2008, 2011).

Jensen’s (2008, 2011) cultural-developmental and Shweder et al.’s (1997) big three models were empirically tested across five national samples from Brazil, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. A total of 792 emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 23 participated. The novelty value of this study is increased by the fact that there are but few (intercultural) studies of moral thinking among young adults. In practice, it was explored whether, in the course of emerging adulthood, young adults differ in their moral thinking due to a cultural context and age. The key findings indicated that all three ethics were used by young adults in all countries. However, the level of endorsement varied between countries. For example, Japanese young adults endorsed the ethic of divinity significantly less than did young adults from other countries. However, researchers suggested that one explanation for a lower endorsement may be an effect from the type of items included in the method used (('.ADS divinity subscale; see Jensen, 2015b) which may not necessarily cover some important aspects of Japanese folk and formal religions. Thus, more longitudinal studies focusing on the development of moral codes in different cultural contexts are needed.

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