The Inherent Sense of Right and Wrong

Is there an inherent sense of right and wrong within us; a conscience and a morality? Are we born with it? Or, do we develop it?

The essence of performing actions in the society is attached with two broad connotations: right or wrong. It may vary from person to person, but this binary exists, in its own subjective way, for all of us. But then, how do we develop this sense of morality? And how early on do we recognize our sense of right and wrong?

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist who formulated the theory of moral development to trace the emergence and progressive formation of morality in individuals, that forms the basis of ethical behaviour. He contended there were three broad stages all individuals went through before developing their own sense of morality. Each of these stages in turn consisted of two substages to specifically show the transition in development of one’s moral sensibility.

Unlike cognitive or emotional development, moral development begins at a relatively later stage, during late childhood. This is the preliminary stage of moral development, labeled by Kohlberg as the ‘preconventional’ stage. The preconventional stage is largely characterized by egoistic tendencies that is typical of a child’s personality. On the very first sub stage, the child considers the rightness and wrongness of actions on the basis of obedience and punishment, i.e. if obeying a particular order results in reward, or conversely if disobeying results in punishment. Put simply, for a child an action is wrong if he/ she is punished for it. Thus, a child would think eating street food is bad because his mother will scold him if he does. After a few years, the child transitions into a somewhat more egocentric attitude where his moral understanding is driven by one question- ‘What’s in it for me?’ For him/her, actions are examined of their ethical value entirely on the basis of self-interest- essentially, the idea that ‘what does not benefit me is wrong, and what does is right’.

The broader societal implications of morality are something that a child does not realize in this stage.

The second stage of moral development is the ‘conventional’ stage. Here the individualistic-hedonistic tendencies shift diametrically to become largely societal. The idea behind doing the right and wrong is driven by following the conventions laid down by the society. There is no reward or punishment present to reinforce actions, but only the spirit of obeying the conventions of the society. There is a degree of individual component at the beginning, a tendency to tilt towards being a ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’, and gain appreciation in the eyes of the society. However, at a more mature substage, even this component diminishes, and one acts according to the moral precepts laid down by the society because it is good for the society and social harmony. For instance, disrespecting an elder is ‘wrong’ because it threatens the societal structure of the family.

It is at the last stage of morality, the ‘post conventional’ stage, that an individual develops a personal understanding of moral ethics that he/ she places even above societal standards. Several theorists contend very few people are capable of reaching this level of moral development. There is also a common misconception of citing similarity between the preconventional and post conventional levels by asserting they are both egocentric. However, it is crucial to understand in the post conventional stage the individual is completely aware of the general codes laid by the society, and chooses a personal set of codes that values higher ordeals of human life. This stage of morality largely relies on abstract reasoning, the first substage involving orientation towards a ‘social contract’ that prioritizes the good of the people, and formation of laws that serve this purpose than just merely rigid edicts. This is why essentially democracies would be regarded as a better form of government than autocracies by thinkers, because it takes into account an interest of the larger good. The second substage is governed by a universal ethical principal that stays intact irrespective of written down laws. Empathy and a true sense of justice abounds, to an extent that the existence of legal rights may become redundant altogether.

It is not moral to just follow rules as following rules is clearly something that lacks a higher degree of morality. Working towards actions simply for our own gratification is immature. The real understanding of our conscience and our morality comes when we are inherently able to realize the true need of everyone. We must remind ourselves that morality is in its highest form, not merely individualist or collectivist, but a seamless merger of the two, one that seeks to promote the well-being of all, and  of every individual that makes that all.

-Contributed by Tinka Dubey

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