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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Moral development in psychopathic, delinquent, and normal youths : an examination of moral reasoning in hypothetical and real-life dilemmas Trevethan, Shelley D.


This thesis examined differences in reasoning concerning hypothetical versus real-life moral situations in order to better understand the moral development of delinquents in general, and psychopaths in particular. Participants ranged in age from 15 to 18 years and were divided into three subgroups: 14 psychopaths, 15 delinquents, and 15 normal youths (total N = 44). All subjects were individually interviewed and assessed on (a) Hare's (1985) psychopathy checklist, (b) two of Kohlberg's hypothetical moral dilemmas, and (c) a subject-generated real-life moral dilemma. Reasoning regarding these dilemmas was scored for both moral stage and moral orientation. It was found that the normal youths attained a higher level of moral reasoning than both the delinquents and psychopaths. Secondly, it was found that all groups scored lower on the real-life than the hypothetical dilemmas, indicating that hypothetical dilemmas may elicit a person's best level of reasoning, whereas real-life dilemmas may entail factors which lower the level of moral reasoning used in an actual situation of moral conflict. Third, non-incarcerated subjects were found to use more of the perfectionism and fairness orientations (Subtype B) than did the incarcerated. It was also found that psychopaths used more of the egoistic utilitarianism orientation than did non-psychopaths when discussing real-life dilemmas. That is, they focused more on issues related to themselves than did either the delinquents or the normals. Thus, this study reveals a pattern of deficiencies in the moral reasoning development of psychopaths and delinquents when compared to their normal counterparts. As well, hypothetical and real-life dilemmas were found to differ in the level of moral reasoning that they elicited.

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