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Moral Sensitivity

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Moral sensitivity and its contributionto the resolution of socio-scienti®cissuesTroy D. Sadler*Indiana University, USAThis study explores models of how people perceive moral aspects of socio-scienti®c issues. Thirtycollege students participated in interviews during which they discussed their reactions to andresolutions of two genetic engineering issues. The interview data were analyzed qualitatively toproduce an emergent taxonomy of moral concerns recognized by the participant. The participantsexpressed sensitivity to moral aspects including concern and empathy for the well-being of others,an aversion to altering the natural order and slippery slope implications. In arriving at their ®nalresolutions, many participants integrated their moral concerns with non-moral factors. Thepatterns revealed suggest that moral and non-moral concerns act in concert as they in¯uence socio-scienti®c decision-making.IntroductionA growing consensus within the ®eld of science education suggests that real-worldissues with conceptual ties to science ought to become more central components ofscience curricula (Driver et al., 1996; Kolstù, 2001; Siebert & McIntosh, 2001;Zeidler, 2003). These issues, termed socio-scienti®c issues, are often controversial innature and can be considered from a variety of perspectives. Examples include genetherapy, stem cell research, environmental issues and cloning. It has been argued thatthe consideration of socio-scienti®c issues necessarily involves morality (Zeidler,2003). This paper explores the extent to which existing models of morality account forsocio-scienti®c decision-making. Moral construal (Saltzstein, 1994; Bersoff, 1999),which is consistent with the domain account of morality, and moral sensitivity, anaspect of Rest's (1986) four-component model, are described and evaluated asheuristic devices for exploring the moral aspects of socio-scienti®c decision-making.*School of Education, Indiana University, 201N Rose Avenue, 3002 Bloomington, IN 47405,USA. Email: [email protected] 0305±7240 print/ISSN 1465±3877 online/04/030339-20ã 2004 Journal of Moral Education LtdDOI: 10.1080/0305724042000733091Journal of Moral Education,Vol. 33, No. 3, September 2004Moral domains and construalDomain theorists (Turiel, 1983; Nucci, 2001) suggest that moral problems form aunique sub-set of social knowledge. This tradition isolates moral decision-makingfrom other forms of decision-making such as personal, which describes issues bestresolved by exercising individual preferences, or conventional, which encompassesissues subject to social norms. According to this model, moral issues inherently residewithin the moral domain. Moral decisions and behaviour result from individualdecision makers recognizing the intrinsic morality of particular issues and respondingaccordingly. This process of recognizing the morality of an issue has been termedconstrual (Saltzstein, 1994; Bersoff, 1999).Saltzstein (1994) presents a logical model of moral decision-making given theassumptions just presented. An individual interprets a situation and recognizes itsintrinsically moral implications. Moral construal heralds the need for an applicablemoral rule or principle that can help dictate an appropriate resolution. AlthoughSaltzstein does not explicitly include moral emotions in his description, the modelwould become more robust if emotions, which have been shown to in¯uence moraldecisions and behaviour in certain circumstances (Hoffman, 2000), were includedalong with rules and principles. The model is most conceptually clear when it ispresented in a linear fashion (i.e. issue confrontation ® moral construal ® applicationof moral rules, principles or emotions ® issue resolution), but it does not necessarilyrepresent a real-time decision process. The various steps may overlap and be mutuallydependent; for instance, the applicability of a moral rule, principle or emotion couldsignal moral construal.Many descriptive and empirical accounts of the moral domain and moral construalinvolve relatively straightforward moral transgressions, such as in¯icting physical orpsychological harm on others (Nucci, 2001) and petty thievery (Bersoff, 1999). Itseems reasonable to expect that the model just described could account for decision-making regarding these issues. However, when compared with real-world moralquandaries, such as the debates surrounding the death penalty, human geneticengineering, war and abortion, the model seems quite simplistic. Turiel (1983)suggests that as the complexity of an issue increases, the likelihood of multiple domainin¯uences also increases. Whereas a simple case of an unprovoked act of aggressionmight be informed only by the moral domain, decision-making regarding morecomplex issues may be subject to considerations from the moral, personal andconventional domains.Moral sensitivityRest's (1986) four-component model offers an alternative but complementaryaccount of the processes described in the domain construal model. Rest postulates theinteraction of four components which contribute to moral decisions and behaviour: (i)moral sensitivity (ii) moral judgement; (iii) moral motivation; (iv) moral character. Adetailed description of the complete model is beyond the scope of this paper, but340 T. D. Sadlerelaborations can be found elsewhere (Rest et al., 1999; Walker, 2002). Central to theresearch presented here is the status of moral sensitivity. Moral sensitivity describesthe tendency for an individual to recognize that some aspects of an issue possess moralimplications. According to the four-component model, a person must be sensitive tothe moral implications of a particular situation or issue in order for that person toengage in moral reasoning or moral behaviour. The architects and proponents of thismodel (Bebeau et al., 1999; Rest et al., 1999) suggest that moral sensitivity involvesinterpreting reactions and feelings of others, understanding cause±consequencechains of events and how these may affect involved parties, empathy and role takingskills in order to `become aware that a moral issue is involved in a situation' (Bebeau etal., 1999, p. 22). The theoretical framework supporting the current study assumesthat the recognition of moral principles, rules or guidelines also represent an aspect ofmoral sensitivity. If an individual interprets a situation in such a way that it violates arule that she/he holds as morally relevant, then she/he perceives a moral


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