‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Some form of this basic moral teaching, the Golden Rule, is found in all major religions.

We even find this in philosophy. “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”
—Plato’s Socrates (Crito, 49c) (c. 469 BC–399 BCE)

But how do people develop a conscience? Do some people not have one or do they go against it? How can we teach and develop conscience in children and adults? How do we even know and agree on what is right?

Jung and Freud both referred to a collective unconscious which had no explanation in the immediate experience of individuals and is common to all people. Forms in the collective unconscious and our conscience are not individual but ‘collective,’ and each individual is contingent on other beings in society. Freud’s theory supported the idea that conscience is developed by the internalization of authority figures that develop a ‘super-ego’ which creates guilt and shame when an individual does not meet the ‘ego’s’ ideals of how to meet desires and needs appropriately. How this super-ego does develop or should develop is another question.

Lawrence Kohlberg laid out a theory of the stages of moral development which align with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. His six stages of development begin with the ‘pre-conventional’ stage in which children (or adults’) behavior is motivated by either seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. People can then progress to a level where they seek the approval or sanction of society in following laws and/or rules to the highest level where they are guided by concrete and abstract absolute universal principals apart from any society’s sanction.

One can infer from Kohlberg and Piaget’s theories that using behavioral techniques to teach children universal principles of right and wrong could be beneficial as they progress through the early stages of moral development into adulthood and maturity. When using applied behavioral analysis one must always remember that the actual relationship, a smile, approval, quality time, and love become the greatest reward even for children. Cookies and approval only go so far and soon individuals may move into a more mature understanding of morality and principles that are rewarding in and of themselves. This becomes an interesting conversation when discussing the collective unconscious also as a ‘higher power’ or God as the attachment and approval in relationship with a personal God or being becomes a reward and motivation also. Love can be a great motivation.

‘Always let your conscience be your guide.’

Rachel Hofer