Appraisal and Competence in Moral Judgment and Behavior

Sonja B. Holt (Ph.D., 1980)

Thesis directed by Associate Professor Peter G. Ossorio

In an attempt to broaden our general understanding of moral development, this research provides a conceptualization of moral judgment which delineates the logical components of competence, and suggests that a competence formulation more adequately applies to our understanding of how persons acquire an ethical perspective. This conceptualization provides a set of distinctions which allows us to describe a variety of the morally relevant aspects of behavior, and helps to formulate empirical questions regarding moral development.

As a moral critic a person acquires the ability to use moral concepts in making judgments and in resolving the variety of morally relevant problems that arise among persons living together. Competence in any domain includes the ability to make appraisals as to the correctness and/or appropriateness of another person's or one's own behavior; and the ability to regulate one's behavior accordingly. At different points in the development of a competence, there are at least four general ways in which persons express the extent to which that competence has been mastered: (a) in the knowledge of the relevant concepts and the inter-relationships among these concepts; (b) in the ability to recognize the relevant circumstances in which these concepts apply; (c) in the use of these concepts to reason, justify, or negotiate behavioral choices; and (d) acting in ways that express the use of these concepts.

The empirical contribution of this research tackles the relationship between a person's participation in social practices, and his corresponding ethical appraisals. The overall conceptual hypothesis was that a person's participation in a social practice provides the opportunity for greater appreciation of that social practice, and that differential experience or appreciation is reflected in a person's appraisals or judgments of various infractions of a social practice.

A group of students in the fourth grade and another group of students in high school were asked to participate in this study by first learning the rules of two card games. Upon demonstrating their knowledge of the game rules, they were given the opportunity to participate in the playing of one of the two games. Later, they were asked to make ratings of the seriousness of various game infractions and on the severity of the punishments for wrongdoers.

In general, results supported the hypothesis that among persons who know the rules, persons with actual participation will (a) appraise serious infractions more seriously, and (b) appraise the less serious infractions less seriously than persons who have not had actual experience participating in that social practice.

Results related to severity of punishment were inconclusive. Analyses of these results indicate that when persons are asked to make appraisals on the basis of punishments they would inflict, their values regarding punishment tend to interfere with their judgments. Thus, it appears that explicitly asking someone to decide on a punishment does not provide an appropriate measure of their understanding and appreciation of a social practice.

Age differences on both sets of ratings indicated the younger group consistently rated infractions as more serious and punished wrongdoers more severely than the older group. These results were discussed in terms of their correspondence with findings of other researchers, and a general paradigm for learning was posited as an explanation.

This research concludes with comments on the general applicability of the approach to research on moral judgment and the use of the conceptualization for teaching parents and educators about the systematic features of moral judgment. [186 pp.]