Same Same? Moral Development across Continents

My first extended stay in Southeast Asia in Singapore nearly five years ago served as a true eye opener. Yes, I was fully aware that I was about to enter a country that was different from what I had known so far. I was eager and curious to learn and broaden my horizons to whatever might come. However, the first days were rather disappointing: nothing much different from what I knew. Sometimes it was hard to comprehend 'Singlish' (as Singaporean English is being referred to) and, at least for European standards, to get used to the extreme heat and humidity. It was only slowly that I discovered many on at first sight hidden differences.

For example, my Dutch reference code for behavior at the University in student-lecturer interaction seemed no longer meaningful. Liberal traditions being upheld at most Universities in the Netherlands did not provide any useful frame for behavior in Singapore. Relations between students and professors were incomparably different. Not only did all the professors want to be addressed with their titles, but it was also by no means acceptable to challenge their ways of argumentation.

Even though I admit that these might seem rather easy-to-tackle differences which can be mastered by re-learning behavior, other far more fundamental questions are related to these differences. Why do these differences exist? Where do these differences come from? What, other than behavioral, differences can be encountered? Is it because I was on a different continent or is life in every country no matter where so different? And far more important, what does that mean for psychological behavioral theories that claim universal validity?

After a very short period of intensive psychological research in Europe after the rise of psychology as an independent discipline, the centre of psychological research shifted to North America and remains there today. About 85 % of all psychologists worldwide live in North America. Nowadays, North American psychologists contribute to most of the influential research findings. They conduct their studies in a North American setting with primarily North American research subjects (Gilbert, Fiske & Lindzey, 1998).
During the last decades doubts have come up as to whether research findings discovered within one cultural setting are applicable to other cultural settings, especially Asian and African settings. As a consequence of these doubts the field of cross-cultural psychology developed. This discipline investigates whether theories that came about as a result of particular social psychological research are valid for different cultures across continents. Cross-cultural psychology reaches even further and attempts to explain possible deviances across different cultural settings. Findings that are achieved within cross-cultural psychological settings and supposedly valid for populations across continents are referred to as universal findings while those findings true for a certain cultural population only are called culture-specific findings (Matsumoto, 2000).

However, how do we understand the term culture? Matsumoto (2000) defines culture as ”a dynamic system of rules, explicit and implicit, established by groups in order to ensure their survival, involving attitudes, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors, shared by a group but harbored differently by each specific unit within the group, communicated across generations, relatively stable but with potential to change across time”. In this article I will illustrate the practices of cross-cultural psychology by examining moral development in populations across different continents.

One of the important developmental stages a child goes trough is learning how to behave and interact with other people in a socially acceptable way. This stage in cognitive development can be marked as the development of moral reasoning. Moral reasoning refers to “the cognitive process by which individuals make decisions about moral issues and justify these decisions, regardless of the content of the issue” (Gardiner et al., 1998). Morality is in more simplistic terms, whatever we consider as being righteous, correct or good. Honesty or truthfulness are good or right behaviour, thus are considered morally responsible. Theft or murder are considered wrong or bad, thus immoral behavior. One of the most influential theories on development of moral reasoning was developed by Kohlberg (1981).

Kohlberg postulates that the development of morality occurs in stages. The levels and stages he defined are: the Preconventional level (stage one and two), the Conventional level (stage three and four) and the Postconventional/Autonomous/Principled level (stage five and six, see table 1).

Kohlberg (1981) explains the meaning of the single stages as follows: 

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