Ethical Development

What do we mean by ethics and acting ethically? Basically, ethics are how we decide whether something that we do, or someone else does, is right or wrong. The most basic element of ethics is empathy, which is the ability to imagine and understand how other people are feeling. We usually begin to learn empathy as toddlers, but whether we continue to learn it – and practice it – depends largely on what we’re taught.

As we grow, we pass through distinct stages of moral development in which our ethical thinking is based on different principles. The second stage in learning ethics is becoming aware of rules that either punish or reward us for doing something: younger children are most motivated by a fear of being punished for bad behaviour, but become more concerned with the rewards of good behaviour as they get older.

By the time youth enter the “tween” and teen years, punishment and reward are less important than a general sense of social norms – a desire to fit in and to be liked. We can see this most obviously in things like a teen’s taste in clothes or music, but it has a tremendous influence on how they behave as well.

Finally, towards the end of adolescence many people develop a personal morality that is independent from the laws and values of their society: they may share many ideas about what’s right and wrong with others, but they may also believe – and act – based on principles that they consider to be right even if society believes they are wrong. An example of this would be people such as the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s who committed acts which were both illegal and considered morally wrong by their society in order to bring about social change.

It’s important to note that the later stages don’t replace the earlier ones; they add another way of thinking about right and wrong, but even as adults we will often act out of a desire to abide by social norms, to get a reward or to avoid punishment. Still, when we’re talking to young people it’s important to take their stage of moral development into account: young children will respond best to well-communicated penalties or a clear explanation of relevant laws or rules, while tweens and teens are more likely to be swayed by their sense of the social norms and values of a community (such as their school or family) or by appeals to a general moral principle. This is why, while it’s important at all ages to set clear rules and procedures, among older youth we need to pay more attention to the implicit messages we may be sending about cultural values or morality.

How do we make ethical decisions? Research has found that when we do something for ethical reasons we follow a four-step process. Each of these steps is basically an opportunity to “take the easy way out.” For example, the first step is simply identifying the situation as a moral issue: if we see something as an ethical question, we’re more likely to think carefully about it before taking action. The second step is to understand the issue emotionally by applying empathy to the situation. The third step is being willing to set aside personal motivation in order to make a moral decision that may not be in our best interest. Finally, to make a moral decision we may need to be able to act against public opposition if our personal morals conflict with social codes or attitudes [1].


[1] J.R. Rest. Moral Development. 1986. 

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

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