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Black White or Shades of Grey: An Analysis

On The Moral Development of Children & Teens

Trenton Clark Rindoks

Liberty University

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 This paper is an analysis and assessment of a study conducted by Ellen S. Cohn, Donald Bucolo, Cesar J. Rebellon & Karen Van Gundy and published in 2015 titled, “An Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning and Rule-Violating Behavior: The Role of Legal Attitudes (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).” Legal socialization theory is a method to predict the correlation between legal reasoning how one’s actions in regards to obedience, understanding  and conformity to rules and the law form a relationship in the role of ethics and rule violation. Moral development theory is a predictive model of an indirect and direct link of behavior and the intent and action of individuals to break rules or engage in delinquency (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). The purpose of the study is to integrate moral development, moral development and legal attitude in to a predictive model and assess and analysis the development of morality and delinquency in middle school and adolescent teens.


Keywords: Moral development, Moral Reasoning, Legal Reasoning, Legal Attitude,

Child & Adolescent Development, Delinquency, Ethics, Moral Identity



Black White or Shades of Grey: An Analysis

On The Moral Development of Children & Teens


The life-long process of ethics, or one’s moral evolution, is dynamic and individualistic and additionally both intrinsic and extrinsic in character. Moral identity and moral development is dependent on both physiological and environmental variables that develop over the various stages in the continual life process of all people. While most people have a symbolic self-image, or moral concept, and thus strive to serve a higher purpose for social order and common good, all people are additionally motivated in their pursuit of ethics and morality by their drive of passions and inclinations towards a particular objective or goal.  Furthermore, moral identity and ethical disposition is influenced by whether or not an action or behavior will be beneficial or harmful and in some instances by the perspective of an outcome of a similarity of past actions. This introspective viewpoint often has a significant role in how one both views the ideal self and actualized moral agent of the individual and influences present reactions and actions (Jordan, Mullen, & Murnighan, 2011).

Finally, cultural, biological, social, political and religious views also play a part in the development of morality, as does the influence of family and peers. The cultural approach uses a template to analyze the influence of autonomy, divinity and community over the lifespan of an individual. In cultures where spiritual influences are encouraged during childhood the use of scripture and the alignment to ones’ virtues of God play a role in moral development and is commonly most expressive beginning in teens when abstract cognition develops. This form of postconventional moral – legal reasoning continues to blossom throughout life with individuals reaching self-actualization or enlightenment, or a concept of integrity typically during the developmental period of middle age to late adulthood (Martorell, Papalia, & Feldman, 2014).

If societies and families place a de-emphasis on such views, a sense of autonomy or self- interest developments often over the common good of community. This view also known as egocentric or independent places ones’ self in the highest position in the hierarchy of ethics and one has a tendency to strive for the achievement of ones wants for goals, possessions, gains over the needs of others or society (Berger, 2011). However, many who possesses such a trait tend to become effect motivators, powerful leaders and entrepreneurs (Martorell, Papalia, & Feldman, 2014).

Finally, the role the community or family, peer and society in general is determined by positive and negative experiences and views expressed during social engagement. This cultural-glocalization approach is a method to quantify and qualify both individual and group development and overcome differences to achieve unity and understanding of diversity in regards to worldview and the impact it plays on morality. Ethical development is a lifelong process in stages influenced by a multitude of variables thus; morality is often expressive in a dynamic manner over the lifespan of individuals and cultures (Jensen, 2008).


Black White or Shades of Grey, the influence of moral reasoning , attitude and legal disposition and the role it plays in delinquency and development in preteens, adolescence and throughout life is the basis of the Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning. In examining the strengths and weaknesses of the study and the possible implications for law-enforcement and education through the applications of the findings, an understanding of moral development and diversity summarized within this paper seek to give insights and alternatives to encourage further growth in the field of psychology and other areas pertaining to the discipline of ethics.

Moral reasoning is one’s view “or judgement of right or wrong on issues of morality” (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).  Legal reasoning is “ones consciousness and ability and appraisal or rules, regulations or laws within a culture or society” (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Finally, “culture refers to any community of people who hold a commonality perspective of views, customs and values and does not imply any association to any particular ethnicity or nation” (Jensen, 2008).


Age is often a prediction and determining factor of delinquent behavior. Previous research from other studies have indicated that moral development occurs in stages beginning in early teens and develops through life (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Additionally, “delinquent behavior escalates in late teens then declines in most young adults providing a reason why many crimes are committed by teen offenders (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Cognitive testing on teen offenders have indicted less sophisticated abstract reasoning skills in teens who commit crime although a certain degree of moral reasoning existed in the same individuals. Moral and legal reasoning both form a correlation to rule violation among teens. However, most researcher have examined the two variables separately (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). The Integrated Model of Moral Reasoning and Rule Violating Behavior combines these variables as well as legal attitudes into one model as a means to predict moral development as the possibility of delinquency (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

The model is comprised of a logical framework that examines various studies that may influence the ways that rule violation, legal reasoning and legal attitude combine to influence ones’ behavior and outlook on moral action. The numerous variables, causes and effects are compiled and tested using the structured educational model and then the results are equated to see how the differences and similarities between the various groups correlate within the cohorts studied (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

The current study of middle and high school teens was performed to predict the development of morality, moral identity, and the probability of delinquency and in what manner various influence shape moral perception, ethics, cognition, and culture influence moral development and conformity (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).


Legal reasoning is one’s committed sense of legal obligation to their community a sense of right or wrong and their wilfulness to act accordingly and is often subdivided into three categories. The lowest class or ethics begins to emerge typically in youths around the age of 2-7 and is called preconventional legal reasoning (Martorell, Papalia, & Feldman, 2014). This basic form of morality and cognition is commonly associated with the avoidance of punishment. The second class is conventional legal reasoning and is associated with the maintenance and preservation of law and order within society and culture. Most people global tend to develop only to the conventional level. Conventional reasoning is associated with the development of concrete learning, the ability to classify objects, spatial recognition, and view other people’s perspectives but not with abstract concepts and thus emerges around the age of 7-11 (Martorell, Papalia, & Feldman, 2014).

The last classification is postconventional legal reasoning and involves the ability to challenge authority and advocate change for the prosperity of the higher order of society or culture (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Individual’s exhibiting traits of postconventional reasoning exists a higher knowledge of the working of the legal system, a perception of the system to be just, and a lower likely hood of committing delinquent acts than people with lower legal reasoning abilities (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Additionally although many people have a degree of postconventional reasoning abilities which begin to develop during adolescence with the blossoming of the ability to grasp abstract concepts and the ability to think outside the box. Postconventional reasoning develops throughout the various life stages, only reaches maturity in a few individuals, and often is considered a deviant or divergent trait in many societies and cultures (Martorell, Papalia, & Feldman, 2014).

Legal consciousness, or one’s legal attitude, has been attributed to offenses by many criminologist and psychologist (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).  Social bonding theory indicates that people are less susceptible to commit offenses when their peers or families hold them accountable to beliefs that are inconsistent with their own self-interest or that of their culture (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Yet prior to committing a delinquent act many people rationalize or neutralize their values in order maintain a temporary equilibrium while committing an immoral action or offense (Jordan, Mullen, & Murnighan, 2011). Finally, people tend to learn delinquent and criminal behavior by modeling from peers. (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010) Individuals have a tendency to view the legal system in a negative perspective from past involvement with law enforcement either personally or from the negative experiences of people close to them within their culture or subculture (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Legal attitude is one’s acceptances of values and the social norm and includes one’s regard towards justice and the legal system and as such, a lower value would be an indicator of a predisposition towards delinquency with a higher value indicative of an approval of law enforcement and the justice (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

In the absence of research on the correlation of one’s legal consciousness moral reason and rule violation  plays in conjunction with either legal attitude and moral consciousness,  The integrated model is the first to compare and analyze all three variables in an attempt to understand the relationship all may play in moral development.

Moral reasoning, or the ability to differentiate right from wrong, is a cognitive skill that developing first in children and then becomes increasingly more advanced in most people over the course of a lifetime.  Moral reasoning is the means in which people justify a given behavior or action and in males is commonly focused on a belief of justice and logic or Judgement over rationality of Behavior or emotional response (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

However, self-reporting measures of delinquency and moral reasoning have given a variety of results indicating both a direct and indirect link of moral reasoning and the possibility of other variables in moral development and delinquency in youths and teens. In an attempt to explain these inconsistencies the Structured Equation Model, or SEM, was used in conjunction with a three stage longitudinal study developed from legal socialization theory.

The SEM, “which predicts normative status, enforcement status, attitude and meditation between legal reasoning and rule violation” from which a three stage self-reporting quiz was then developed, implemented and analyzed (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010). Phase 1 tested attitude, phase 2 tested normative and enforcement status and phase 3 evaluated attitude in correlation with reasoning and delinquency.

Finally, a separate model was develop to test the two cohort groups to determine the rate at which reasoning and attitude developed in each group and the overall model to gain a better association of all variables od development (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).



This model is part of the New Hampshire Youth Study, which is an ongoing longitude study on moral development in early and late teens. Four communities were chosen with respect to diversity and testing was conducted with the classroom of various middle school and high school upon receiving parental consent and informing the participants and all parties of the intent of the study. Each participant was compensated with a ten-dollar gift card for each of the five sessions. 1040 students were initial chosen for the study. 935 complete the first session in 2007, while 939 completed the second phase. In the spring of 2008, during the last phase, only 831 finished the study.  Finally, after accounting for missing or incomplete data only 671 students completed the entire process. By comparing the means and standard deviation of those who completed all three sessions and those who did not or those with missing data there was no indication of a significant difference or variance among the cohorts (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Participants were composed of students from eight middle schools (384) and five high schools (287) and were 2/3 Caucasian with a gender composition of approximately 60% female in both groups. Additionally, participants reported religious affiliation, parents education level,  in addition to age, year in school, ethnicity and a composite score was calculated to obtain a SES score from 2-12 with the mean being 7.07 and SD 3.54.



The test was composed of a three-stage test based in the Delinquency Component of the National Youth Longitudinal Study given over 18 months. The first phase property offenses, and theft, the second violence and the third substance abuse. Each test was given in various places within schools and participants were asked to raise their hands to any question they had trouble understanding and each test was subdivided into two parts with a short break between sections. Each section took about 35 minutes to complete and all participants were guaranteed the right to privacy and confidentiality, Furthermore each student was separated a set apart avoid plagiarism. Finally, each student was assigned Id number to link the survey with each student. Upon returning for each additional phase, each student would give the researcher his or her name to be matched with an Id number to continue the next phase of the study.


Preliminary findings were indicative that middle school students had a more positive perspective of the legal system and higher moral reasoning with females having a more advanced scores than boys. In the areas or enforcement, normative status and views towards law enforcement/ criminal legal systems there was not a significant difference between any of the groups.

By estimating the SEM and comparing against separate models for both middle schools and high school students and controlling for gender differences, a framework was established to create a more accurate analysis of the data sets.  During the first stage, moral reasoning had a direct correlation to delinquency. Additionally a year later individuals with higher normative status, lower enforcement status and lower legal attitude scores engaged in more rule violating behavior (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).  Additionally, moral reasoning indirectly predicted rule violation during stage 1 and 2 of the experiment. Legal reasoning however, indirectly predicted a correlation of rule violation and legal attitude. In individual with higher levels of legal reasoning, a more positive regard to the legal system was expressed. A direct correlation between delinquency and legal reasoning was determined with individual with lower legal reasoning ability scores having an association with rule violations and offenses (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Finally, moral reasoning among middle school students had a direct link to delinquency when correlated with the social normative status and criminal- legal disposition. It however also played an indirect role in overall legal attitude.

The results additional indicated legal reasoning forms an indirect correlation with legal attitude and perception of justice in middle school aged students. In contrast both moral and legal reasoning in high school students predicted delinquency.

Additionally, normative status and enforcement are directly linked to rule violation in this group. Finally both moral and legal reasoning as well as overall legal disposition form an indirect link as indicted by the relationship and presence of normative and enforcement status in all stages of testing (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Thus, the findings indicate that individuals who have either or both higher scores in legal or moral reasoning tend to approve of punishment for offenses, are less likely to break rules even when a certain approval of rule violation behavior occurs or when deviation from the social normative is present in individuals as is often present in high school students. Finally, those who exhibit a less positive legal attitude have a greater probability of committing offenses (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).




The Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning allows researchers to better quantify and qualify ethical standards and predict the possibility of delinquency in people. Yet as the current study omitted social-economic variables and the sample, group was ethnically disproportioned towards the white majority and other cultural influences were not included in the study. A modification of the model including additional cultural, and SES variable could be conducted in other regions congruently in the United States and globally to give a better representation of moral diversity and developmental maturation in general.

Furthermore, although confidentiality and anonymity was respected and assured in the process, some participants of self-reporting studies fear exposure of responses and repercussions as a result may not fully respond in nonbiased manner. Thus, observation studies of individuals and groups within their cultural environmental need to be conducted, contrasted, and compared to gain a more accurate picture of ethics.


Despite the drawbacks of the current study, is indicative moral and legal reasoning as well as cognitive level and legal attitude are predictive of delinquency in adolescence of all age groups. Additional studies conducted on other groups and cultures shall have a high possibility of yielding similar results. Intervention strategies to decrease delinquency in adolescent may be developed using the model and shall be focused on the offense committed, reduction in risk taking behavior, prevention of negative crisis events, and positive, family, community and legal awareness as well as cognitive and moral-legal development skills.


Relevancy & Practicality of Article

One such program that incorporates moral development and education is the PYD designed to implement rules and policies to increase moral reasoning. Other programs such as cooperation with law –enforcement in teen courts and other programs that focus on positive exposure to law enforcement and the legal system in general shall deter delinquency and aid in ethics and moral development (Cohn, Bucolo, Rebellon, & Gundy, 2010).

Furthermore, educators and students of all social sciences and law / law enforcement can use either the model or the present study to understand the relationship of legal and moral reasoning and attitude and the relationship of delinquency as well as the influence of cognitive development in people as it pertains both to ethics, morality as well as development in general.





The process of moral identity or the importance of ethics, social order, and other values are to an individual develops in various stages of life and is influenced by many variables including moral and legal reasoning, legal disposition, culture/ socio-economic, biological function, cognitive ability, and one’s peers and past and present experiences as well as spiritual views (Hardy & Carlo, 2011). The Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning is on tool used to quantify and qualify these various variables and predict deviance from social normative values,  the probability of delinquency, and other element of moral development. Yet the current model is not without flaws. Black White or Shades of Grey moral development and identity is both uniquely subjective to individuals and culture yet develops in a similar fashion among many people. Future studies using the models need to include variables of gender, SES, and be conducted in more ethnically and culturally diverse settings. However, the current findings suggest individuals who exhibit a less positive legal attitude have a greater probability of committing offenses and both higher scores in legal or moral reasoning tend to approve of punishment for offenses, are less likely to break rules even when a certain approval of rule violation behavior occurs or a deviation from the social normative occurs. Finally, the result may be applied to created policies to deter delinquency and increase social and legal awareness while advancing programs to blossom cognitive, legal, and moral developmental skills.


While the Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning shows promise for reduction of delinquency and is indicative of the role of cognitive moral and legal reason and legal disposition in preteens and teens as the study only is apprehensive of the social normative of a selective white majority within a selective region of the United States. The study needs to be conducted over more regions within the U.S. and Globally to give a more accurate picture of moral identify and legal and moral reasoning and attitude and the factors it plays in delinquency and ethics.

Additionally, the study does not account for cognitive, social or biological development factors of morality in early development that influence morality and conduct although the Integrated Model may be used to study Early Childhood or Infants as well.  Further studies extended to other developmental groups such as adults, middle age and late adulthood. The results obtained from such studies shall be compared and contrasted in a systematic model to give a universal understanding of moral and social identity and the impacts of delinquency and attitude. The application of a universal study on all groups as promising possibilities

The implementation of better strategies for education and awareness and  improvement in law enforcement and cultural and social sensitivity and diversity shall work towards striving of coexistence and universal diversity and unconditional positive regard and mutual respect as all people trudge the road towards self-actualization and enlightenment or oneness with the Creator of All Things.


Berger, K. S. (2011). The Developing Person Through the Life Span. New York: Worth Publishers.

Cohn, E. S., Bucolo, D., Rebellon, C. J., & Gundy, K. V. (2010, August). An Integrated Model of Legal and Moral Reasoning and Rule-Violating Behavior: The Role of Legal Attitudes. Law and Human Behavior, 34(4), 295 – 309. doi:10.1007/s10979-009-9185-9

Hardy, S. A., & Carlo, G. (2011, September). Moral Identity: What Is It, How Does It Develop, and Is It Linked to Moral Action? Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212 – 218. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00189.x

Jensen, L. A. (2008). Through two lenses: A cultural–developmental to moral psychology. Developmental Review, 28(3), 289 – 315. doi:doi:10.1016/j.dr.2007.11.001

Jordan, J., Mullen, E., & Murnighan, J. K. (2011, May). Striving for the Moral Self: The Effects of Recalling Past Moral Actions on Future Moral Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(5), 701 – 713. doi:10.1177/0146167211400208

Martorell, G., Papalia, D. E., & Feldman, R. D. (2014). A Child’s World: Infancy through Adolescence (13th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill Education.


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