Adolescent Psychological Development, Part II: Moral Development

Near the end of the second section of Adolescent Psychological Development, entitled “Moral Development,” Moshman lays out the metatheory (essentially a paradigm or research program) of “pluralist rational constructivism” as a way of understanding moral development. It is hard to argue with this However, the metatheory as laid out is different than the metatheory as analyzed. While later in this essay I will defend the concept of “pluralist rational constructivism,” as Moshman uses the term he means “pluralistic contructvism by rational agents.”

Starting on page 71 and continuing for two pages, Moshman gives five “metatheoretical assumptions” for pluralist rational cosntructivism. They are that “rationality is fundamentally a matter of metacognition rather than a matter of logic,” that the existence “moral universals” is independent of the truth of the metatheory, that “research on moral development should seek evidence for both diversity and universality,” that a distinction of “symmetric from asymmetric social interactions” is useful for distinguishing “between the properties inherent to social interchange and those specific to a particular culture,” and lastly that “reflection on rules generates principles that explain and justify those rules and that may lead to the reconstruction of such rules.” The first two of these are easy to agree with: that rationality is essentially metacognition was acknowledged in my previous paper, and that empirical truths do not rely on normative truths is a truism in science. The third assumption, likewise, is acceptable. While social science is often view as the explanation of variance by means of correlation and regression, the study of human universals is also permitted when humanity itself is viewed as part of a larger population of primates, mammals, animals, or even objects. The last two assumptions, the symmetric-asymmetric distinction and the reconstruction of rules from introspection, and more problematic. Each are discussed below.


As the term is used by Moshman, pluralist rational constructivism relies on symmetric social interaction. Summarizing Habermas (1990), the author views asymmetric social interaction as “privileging the moral perspectives of some individuals over others” (70) and later suggests that it is these non-symmetric interactions that “may be a source of moral diversity” (72). Moshman certainly has intellectual support for his claims, as other researchers (Schwartz, 1995; von Glaserfield, 1995) hold much the same. Clearly, power differentials in bargaining games (of which social interaction is a sort) matter, and the greater the power differential the more it may be expected to matter, so that the outcome will depend more on social context and less on critical belief formation. Note what is happening here, however: the importance of peer interaction is supported in the context of rational agency, but not in the context of rationality (metacognition). Indeed, some of the greatest thinking on metacognition (Coram, 2004) and best applications of it (Fadok, Boyd, & Warden, 1995) occur in the lethally asymmetric environment of war. Considering how asymmetric environments tend to be crises where metacognition is most useful, it is even arguable that rationality is best developed in asymmetric relationships. The broad conclusion is clear: symmetric social interactions may be necessary for the development of rational agency, but they are not needed in the context of rationality.

The last assumption is problematic as well. Introspection is simply an activity that people are not good at (Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000; Wolford, Miller, & Gazzaniga, 2000). The finding of Camerer, Loewenstein, & Prelec (2005, 37) that the “fact that people lack introspective access to the sources of their own judgments and behavior, and tend to overattribute both to controlled processes has many important implications for economics” should be extended to moral development, as well. If “game-theoretic equilibrium resulted from learning, imitation, or evolution, rather than simple introspection” (50), then why cannot the same be said of morally rational equilibrium as well? If introspection is so weak, then why is relying on it rational?

I propose an alternative formulation of pluralist rational constructivism, one that abandons the uncertain ground of rationality agency for the solid land of rationaltiy. This formulation has three metatheoretical assumptions: pluralism, rationality, and constructivism. Pluralism is the idea that no universal moral development should be expected, because of variation within and between human groups. Rationality, the focus on metacognition, holds that morality is not just a blind execution of affects but requires mental control. Constructivism is the belief that “people play an active role in their own development” (Moshman, xix) and amounts to saying that, at the present time, it is useful to use the self as an independent variable.

Support pluralist rational constructivism. Support pluralism. Support rationality. Support constructivism. Oppose the chimera of rational agency.


Adolescent Psychological Development, a tdaxp series
1. Cognitive Development
2. Moral Development
3. Identity Formation
4. Advanced Psychological Development
5. Bibliography

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