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Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

A New Look at an Old Debate

by Carolyn Csongradi


Are The Reasoning Processes Which Manipulate Knowledge Of Objects Similar To Those Used To Maniputate Values And Principles?

As attempts have been made to discover the ways in which adolescents solve moral problems, it is important to remember one fundamental question underlying this area of research: How do adolescents see themselves in relation to others and society at large? This could easily be phrased as: personal versus impersonal, or caring versus justice perspectives. No matter how the researcher explores the data, the continuing question remains one of authentically accessing the capacity of an adolescent to make inferences about what is acceptable behavior and choices extending beyond self.

A large area of research has explored adolescent conflict resolution by studying decision making behavior as related to social institutions and politics. The implicit assumption is that these behaviors are reflective of a more personal moral reasoning strategy. Research has largely centered around the theories advanced by Piaget, Gilligan and two other psychologists, Robert Selman and Lawrence Kohlberg .(14) Selman's work originally focused on interpersonal relationships; Gilligan, on gender differences in moral thinking, and the others, on developmental stages.

Piaget's experiments involved a reasoning process which utilized mathematical concepts and object manipulation. There is no solid evidence to support that the reasoning strategies used in understanding concepts like conservation of volume are applicable to political or moral issues. In fact, some current psychologists believe that a generalized ability for people to make inferences from information learned across different subjects is not likely. Different tasks seem to require different reasoning skills.(41) This generalization is consistent with an earlier criticism of Piaget based on observations that his theoretical formal operations do not appear generalizable across contents.

Kohlberg's theory of moral development, which has six different levels of moral reasoning, makes a similar assumption.(40) Individuals, who are assigned to one particular stage as determined by testing their responses on a hypothetical moral dilemma, will respond to social and political issues at the same level. The hypothetical dilemmas used are at a more personal level than typical political issues and the assumption that these reasoning processes are similar should also be questioned. It is also not clear that responses to moral dilemmas involving fairy tales or other fictional accounts would necessarily be the same as real-life dilemmas.

The work of Kohlberg has been challenged by Gilligan(13) and her followers(14), who have disagreed with both the contrived nature of the stories Kohlberg's group used, and with the fact that he fails to include caring for another person in his descriptions of the different stages. Gilligan argues that females are conditioned through cultural roles to value maintaining relationships - to stay connected. When asked about dilemmas that involve conflicts relating more to justice based issues, this conditioning creates a bias in the responses of young girls who are subsequently assigned a lower moral stage of development.

Selman's work proposes four stages of skills involved in interpersonal negotiations. These stages range from: allowing impulses to settle a dispute (a fight), giving in to the other person(flight), asking the other person to provide justifications, and finally, collaborating on a mutually acceptable outcome. The question remains one of being able to evaluate the adolescent's role of self in relationship with others, and in the broader context of the needs of the community.

One conclusion, which appears as a common thread: significant changes in perspective are happening in the years from ages eleven to fifteen or sixteen. As the content knowledge base enlarges, some students do begin to appreciate that moral decision making involves more than their individual needs and they begin to view the bigger picture. However, it does not appear that processes which integrate knowledge of objects and make inferences are necessarily applicable to the manipulation of knowledge about values or social practices. "...many adolescents habitually reason about everyday moral issues at relatively low levels and find it difficult to see connections between ethical principles and their own lives or political issues involving the common good. In addition, many cannot focus easily on concepts outside their personal experience or perceive reciprocity and mutual interest.".(41)


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