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Psychological theories of morality and moral development and the issue of the incarceration of ‘juvenile delinquents’ as a means of punishment

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Introduction

In this essay I will discuss some of the psychological theories of morality and moral development and link them to the issue of the incarceration of 'juvenile delinquents' as a means of punishment. I will consider aspects of a particular 'high profile' case to illustrate some of my points. In conclusion I will summarize the main arguments to demonstrate the view that imprisonment is generally an inappropriate form of punishment for children. I acknowledge that there are cultural and gender issues, in that young black males are over represented in the prison population as a whole and there is an increase in the conviction rate of females. However, given that I will focus on the case of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the perpetrators of the James Bulger murder, I am unable to give these issues the consideration that they deserve within this piece of work. Morals are a set of values, principles and rules which people learn in order to function in society. They may be written down (for example, as laws) or unwritten (for example, respecting one's elders). Morality is a universal concept (Brislin, 1990), which means that it applies to all cultures. The emphasis may change but members of all societies must have a set of social guidelines in order for the structure of society to prevail. Psychologists make a distinction between moral thought and moral behaviour, that is: knowing the difference between right and wrong and acting in such a way that conforms to this knowledge. ...read more.

Middle

'Bad' behaviour is punished and 'good' behaviour is rewarded. The researchers found that a few of these 'short sharp shock' systems seemed to work, as the children that had been through them show a "marked improvement in attitude" (BBC, 2001) while in the camp, and for a period following release. This improvement however does not usually last and most of the children end up re-offending. Cognitive perspectives would reason that children in this type of institution are merely learning how not to be punished while in this particular situation and are not actually internalising the 'good' behaviour, so as soon as they are in a different situation they will revert to behaving in ways that are in accordance with their moral development. Psychologist's working from a cognitive perspective see moral development in terms of a transition through stages, which are linked to stages of cognitive development (see appendix). Piaget identified three stages of moral development and Kohlberg, working from the principles of Piaget's work, identified six (Crain, 1980). The cognitive perspective places very little emphasis on social interaction as a determinate of moral development. Whereas social learning perspectives emphasise principles of 'modelling' by important adults, according to Cognitive perspectives the child is 'responsible' for learning and internalising moral reasoning. This can only be done through interaction with peers. Hoffman (2000:2) states "relation to adults produces a heteronomous respect for rules and authority which interferes with moral development." In other words a child must develop at his/her own rate and trying to instil a set of values or morals into a child will only complicate the process. ...read more.

Conclusion

Schaffer (1996:307) states: "when the predominant technique is the use of power the child is likely to develop a moral orientation that is based on fear of detection and punishment." Again parallels could be made with the boot camp system of punishment and reward, in that children who were forced to comply with demands were likely to comply while in the institution - where detection was more probable - but less likely to continue with the 'good' behaviour long-term. By all accounts, the secure units in which John Venables and Robert Thompson were placed set an emphasis on education, care and rehabilitation and the boys are no longer thought to be a danger to society. There are many factors which might have influenced them and caused them to carry out the actions which they did. However this can only be supposition because of the lack of public insight into circumstances prior to the crime and even details of the crime itself. The only thing that can be surmised with any degree of certainty is that it is not simply a matter of them being inherently 'evil'. The public have a right to be protected from violent individuals, but if we are to assume that young people who commit violent acts will be set free into the community eventually, then it makes sense that some form of intervention should take place which will minimise the risk of these people perpetrating violence again. If psychological understanding and treatment can help people to act in more socially acceptable ways, then surely this is more desirable than simply putting people into prison and hoping that they will emerge morally sound at the end of their sentence. ...read more.

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