Where Are Concern, Empathy And Moral Thinking?

Moral Development:

"The process by which individuals internalize standards of right and wrong conduct." This is also known as ethics. Ethics involves having Integrity.

1. A woman adopts a 7 year old orphan from Russia but puts him on an airplane back to Moscow because of his emotional problems. She sends him unescorted and complains that the adoption agency failed to inform her about his problems.

2. A fifteen year old female Irish immigrant commits suicide after months of being bullied and threatened by male and female classmates in her new school.

It seems as though there is a lack of moral thinking in this anonymous world of our's today.

1. By now, most people are aware of the tragedy that occurred when a Tennessee woman adopted a 7 year old male child from Russia and then put him on an airplane back to Moscow claiming he is psychopathic and violent.

Adoption of an older child always brings with certain risks connected to the fact that these children have spent too many years in institutions. Attachment or bonding is critically important to the healthy growth and development of a child. Therefore, attachment can be a problem for those youngsters who were raised in foster care of adoptive institutions. The many other children in these institutions and the lack of staff interfere with the entire process of bonding. Renee Spitz did a now famous study of orphaned children in post World War II Europe. His results demonstrated the fact that many of these children were not able to thrive because of the absence of any parenting from birth and onward. Some literally stopped eating ans starved to death.

In this case, not only had this boy suffered terrible losses and rejection at the hands of his biological mother, a prostitute, but impersonal care in an institution for foster children and, finally, suffers an added rejection at the hands of an adoptive mother who makes it clear she does not want him. To repeat, this child is only 7 years old.

Whether people have children via natural childbirth or adoption, can anyone predict the nature,personality and temperament of the new member of the family? When problems arise, is it not the responsibility of parents to get medical and psychiatric help for their youngsters?

2. A young and attractive teenager moves from Ireland with her family and is faced with nothing but hostility and rejection of her classmates in her new school in a foreign land. Where was the compassion and understanding of both teachers and students in welcoming someone from a different culture?

Teachers claim they knew nothing about the bullying and the students, facing trial because they are accused of driving the young woman to suicide, claim that they are innocent. In other words, no one is guilty of at the very least, callous indifference in this tragedy? An American High School and its students are not supposed to welcome, embrace and help assimilate those who are different?

As a mental health worker what worries me is the fact that these and other stories reflect what appears to be a lack of concern about others. Recent research tells us that even the smallest babies have an inborn sense of altruism and that as early as two years old, they demonstrate a sense of caring about others. However, in these and other cases, something went wrong in the development of a higher moral conscience in people.

Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development that parallelled that of Piaget in terms of cognitive development. A brief explanation of Kohlberg can be found at:

He stated that the highest stage of moral thinking is Post Conventional because a person at this level makes decisions based on deeply held values rather than personal gain, avoidance of punishment or absently following the law or what others in the crowd are doing. There is great concern about the health, rights and well being of others as well as a deep consideration of the consequences for decisions.

According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process throughout life and people shift from one level of thinking to the next, depending on a given situation.

What are your views about cases like those discussed in this article? Are you an ethical thinker? Have we stopped encouraging the development of ethical ways of thinking?

Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


  • Unbekannt

    For me the feeling faculties of self (the heart, the soul, whichever name we might give to it) are very much involved, I need to get a sense of the emotions of other persons to relate. And in relating I gain understanding, and with understanding I can decide on a course of action that is more discerning then without understanding. It's my motivation for ethical action.

    But ethical action is not only opposing the law (just wanted to add that to the article quoted), it can very well be within the law yet not be driven by the wish to obey the law. And beyond that, if we understand that ethical action forces us to act against the law, we need to understand too, that this is a call to action to change the law. Ethics applied means also to understand that we are a social being and that we have a responsibility for that construct that is created by being a social being and that our input in that construct - the society - matters and is necessary.

  • Cathy

    A big part of the problem is that stories about good parents rarely make the news both those who have birth children and those with adopted children. I can tell you for a fact that most of those adopting children, including myself, rough it out. All those wonderful services that are supposed to be available aren't. Sure, in your big cities maybe and funding has been severely limited for services. Surely you read about Nebraska passing that sort of no questions asked deal where parents could just drop off children? They came even from out of state with children with issues that they could not handle, services have been cut. Ever read "Children Without a Conscious"? I have read it and I had no idea that a child could be that way. I have read a lot about the issue of bonding. Also, most children in the US waiting for adoption have mental illness in their backgrounds. I remember seeing the news coverage of the institutions in Romania - too many people falsely believe that "love" can cure all. "Love" cannot be one-sided and someone not capable of bonding is very wearing and can also be very dangerous in the home. For over 25 years, I have been reading everything, watching everything on adoption - magazines, books, etc. Think there is only a problem with kids from foreign nations? Older kids? Think again. I have observed nature vs. nurture, lived it, read about it and talked with others about it. "Love" does not cure all and excellent therapy, affordable therapy, is something most don't have available but you do have those lame people who would be too embarrassed to admit there was a problem. Concern, empathy and moral thinking? I will crank up my time machine and we'll cruise back a few decades. Also, in defense of the adopting parents, the medical information, especially those that relate to mental illness in the birth family, are usually held back along with any other information that might make the adopting family think twice - it is just a fact that they are in the business of placing children. It is in fact a very immoral world at this time and people don't take their responsiblities seriously and choosing to parent is a responsibility - it is a selfish world and selfish people should not have children. I would encourage anyone considering adopting a child to read "Children Without A Conscious" - you'll be glad you did.

  • Anonymous-1

    I am a mother of a 10 year. old son & a 5 year old daughter. I always tell them, esp. my son who is about to enter middle school, to always reach out to the new students, always be nice to everyone, & to be confident with yourself. I always remind them of "The Golden Rule", & both of my children have always shown a tremendous amount of compassion for other children and animals. My son does not have a friend whose parents I don't know and I consider all of them friends. The woman that sent the poor child back to Russia I hope will never be able to adopt another child and hopefully will never have one of her own. She is selfish and doesn't seem to have an ounce of compassion. Noone ever claimed that raising children was easy, and did she really think this poor child wouldn't have abandonment issues? She should be ashamed of herself, but that would require her to have feelings which she clearly does not!!!

  • Louise

    We don't know all the details about the case of the adoptive mother who sent her child back to Russia. Certainly her actions were inexcusable. But we need to think about the pressures and sense of helplessness that drove her to this point, as well as the inadequate support that parents in these circumstances have. Concern, empathy and moral thinking can be compromised when one is under tremendous stress.

  • Meg

    I wonder if these two incidences are not products of the increasing withdrawal from one another and increasing narcissism in our society. We place so much emphasis on material success and ambition that we often forget to teach empathy and compassion for one another. Could our increasing isolation from one another be contributing to the inability to place oneself in another's position? We may stay in contact but communication via text, facebook or twitter is simply not the same as actual conversation. How many of us choose to have important conversations by text message nowadays? How many young people do this? I just think that we've forgotten how to be social and these atrocities are products of that change.

  • Larry in L.A.

    The development and consistent manifestation of the urge to moral action is a stepwise process, as are develomental processes in general. Early in life one comes to realize at the primal level that one is a human, surrounded by other humans. One also realizes at this level that important humans in our life are helpful in need-satisfaction. In the course of development one identifies with others, is sensitive to the needs of others, and feels an inclination to help others in need.

    But there are opposing inclinations. One comes to classify others according to how much each "other" is part of one's own group, and priorities develop as to to whom one has greater responsibility than to others. Indeed, one learns that some "others" are part of a hostile group, and should be fought away rather than helped.

    Next, one comes to feel that if one helps others of one's own kind, eventually this helpfulness should be recognized and appreciated in order to be maintained. Failure to receive this recognition and appreciation leads to frustration, cynicism, and extinction of generous impulses.

    So there are steps in the process of a person becoming regarded as a morally responsible citizen: He has early experience in positive nurturance he comes to feel he is accepted by his own kind, and some are not his own kind priorities of whom to help are constructed in the inner world and validation of moral action is necessary to maintain good habits of moral action. When people appear to be deficient in moral responsibility, one can often locate just where in these processes there has been a deficit. In modern society, too often there is social validation of inclinations to selfishness, and extinction of inclinations to generosity.

    I hope this analysis may prove useful. It is a distillation of study and experience in the field of natural morality.