Moral Reasoning and Empathic Orientation in Adolescents

Nancy Eisenberg’s model of moral development is based on the assertion that most children’s and adolescents’ moral dilemmas involve a choice between serving one’s own interests and those of others. She divides moral reasoning into four stages: hedonistic orientation (concern with one’s own pleasure), needs-oriented orientation (concern with others’ need for help), stereotyped approval-focused orientation (concern with one’s appearance as a “good person”) and empathic orientation (concern with others’ feelings and the impact of one’s actions upon those feelings.)

We see evidence of all these kinds of reasoning in our students. I am repeatedly struck, however, by the lack of empathic orientation, not only among our students but also in the world at large. (I am plagued by one of Albert Ellis’ irrational beliefs – that people should behave with kindness and consideration at all times, and are “damnable villains” if they don’t. This is not to say that I myself live up to this standard.)

I find myself more and more irritated, as I get older, by students walking into me in the halls, letting doors slam in my face, wandering in late to class, talking when I’m trying to lecture, shouting in the hallway outside my classroom or office door, and otherwise being inconsiderate. I also find myself surprised when students do show empathy – the young man who, every class during group work, abandons his friends without being asked in order to work with the blind student who needs extra assistance; the student who apologizes for interrupting my lunch and offers to come back later; the student who writes (after the grades have been submitted!) to thank me for all the extra time I spent with him and tell me that he really enjoyed the course.

Just as adolescents tend to prioritize different things than adults do (see the post “adolescent and adult decision-making processes”), adolescents also, often, tend to have a different view of their responsibilities to others, and a different (often lesser) ability to associate others’ feelings with their own.

By continuing to feel outraged when students don’t show empathy – when they talk when I am talking, cheat on their essays and then waste my time trying to insist that they didn’t, do not consider my convenience when it comes to keeping appointments or showing up late to class, or disrupt classroom time without any thought for the students around them who want to do their work – I’m doing nothing to help them and am making myself crazy. There are all sorts of reasons that people (including me) may not yet have reached a level of empathic understanding that I expect from them.

It seems more sensible to take a deep breath, to show appreciation for those who are considerate, and to let practical consequences speak for themselves for those who aren’t (“No, I can’t see you right now; our appointment was for yesterday”) or, in some cases, to express my annoyance calmly (“Of course I’ll help you, but the truth is, considering your behavior in class yesterday, I’m not feeling very enthused – maybe we could talk about that first.”)

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)


7 thoughts on “Moral Reasoning and Empathic Orientation in Adolescents

  1. Does Eisenberg leave no room for another stage in moral reasoning (belief that an action is right and pleasing to a higher authority or power)? Quite a few of my students come from homes where religion plays an important role (whether Hindu, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, etc… ). I see some of these kids making moral choices based on their religious beliefs. I may not always agree their decision is the best one they might have made (though often I do), but I certainly see the motivation and it does not always appear to be driven by a need to appear good or to benefit the self or to help others. For some, that moral standard helps them become more aware of the needs of others because they are taught principles that emphasize that others matter, that the self is not to be served above others, that there is Good and Bad and their choices make a difference in the world and in their own spiritual development.

    As to how to deal with the teenager’s blindness to the needs of others or to the rules of consideration, I agree that allowing them to see the consequences of their behaviour is very important. I sometimes think that the worst offenders are those who never did see such consequences at home or in elementary and high school. Cegep can sometimes provide that rude awakening they so badly need. It is, for instance, finally possible to fail a course and have to repeat it.


  2. Your question is a very interesting one, Maia, and it does seem to point to an insufficiency in Eisenberg’s theory. (I think it has other insufficiencies as well…) I suppose it is possible to incorporate “obedience/deference to a higher power” into E’s stages – one might believe that following a religious moral code will earn one a reward in heaven, for example (Stage One) or one might have an intuitive understanding that these moral codes are for the good of ourselves and everyone around us (“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” plants the seed for empathic orientation.) I agree that it seems more complicated than that, but Eisenberg might argue that one’s MOTIVATION for adhering to religious morality can be classified into one or the other of her stages.

    This has got me thinking, though – thanks for pointing it out!


  3. Oh, and one other thing, Maia – I absolutely concur that the students who have experienced little in the way of clear consequences for their actions are the ones who end up being the biggest problems. I plan to post on this later on, to the tune of “the kind of student that makes me want to quit my job.”


  4. It seems to me like you’re confusing empathy and consideration. Slamming doors, and interrupting when spoken to, or deciding that one has better things to do with one’s time than help a disabled person (when there’s disability mentors in most universities who’s job it is to help those kind of people) is not a lack of empathy, it’s lack of consideration, or mere impoliteness.

    I highly doubt that anybody beyond the age of maybe 15 would be genuinely ignorant of the consequences of their actions… do you really believe that? Don’t you think it’s more likely that they simply do not care about the way they may seem, or the negative consequences their actions may have? But again, not caring about the way one may seem has little / next-to-nothing to do with empathy, it’s more along the lines of inconsideration.

    I would define empathy as the emotional and or “intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another”. (, which is similar, but significantly different anyway, in the sense that I can have no emotional response or feeling towards a certain issue (take child pornography, that’s one that gets empathy boiling in most), yet still be a pleasent, polite, helpful individual.

    I say this because I am a person who has 0 (and I mean 0) emotional response to anything. I don’t care about the holocaust, I can watch live footage of them slaughtering thousands and then go for a drink with my friends afterwards, and tell a few jokes. I feel like nodding off when others have tears in their eyes after watching something. I generally don’t care if or if not people out there are raping kids and taping it. I don’t care emotionally, and while my intellect is aware of how and why these things may be gruesome, I still remain emotionally and intellectually untouched: I simply do not respond to it in any fashion.

    This; the lack of emotional and intellectual response is lack of empathy on my part, downright.

    However, I’m polite, I don’t slam doors or interrupt others when they’re speaking. I help people if I notice they need some help, I’m very considerate, just and like to think I’ve never willingly wronged anybody in my entire life. Lack of empathy and personal response does NOT equate to unwillingness to help or not being aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Christ already.

    It offends me how people have skewed or wrong perceptions of empathy and think that just because somebody might not genuinely care about something, they will act accordingly or inconsiderately… it’s just not true. Lack of empathy also in no way implies a lack of insight. (I’ve often been described as a very insightful person).

    But nevermind, easier to think in a box, and to go along with general perceptions, innit.


  5. Dear Watching:

    Thanks for this. It’s true that, as Kohlberg would explain, behavior and motivation are two entirely different things: one can ascribe a motivation to a particular behavior but one can be totally wrong. Assuming that a teenager, for example, behaves considerately because of empathy is a leap.

    However, while your assertion that one can be considerate without being empathic seems entirely reasonable, it doesn’t disprove some other, related, hypotheses – that an empathic person is more likely to be considerate than not, that a person who is entirely inconsiderate is probably not empathic (although not necessarily), etc.

    I think it’s probably true that a person who lets a door slam in your face is behaving, in that moment, with neither consideration nor empathy. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this person wouldn’t behave or feel differently in another situation, on another day. Any psychological model, I think, is trying to analyze tendencies, and we are all capricious creatures.

    Thanks again for your insights.


  6. Hello again

    It was never in my intention to disprove that there is a correlation between empathy and behaviour, and it is definitely a reasonable conclusion that people who behave inconsiderately would lack in empathy too, what I was trying to point out is that there was no mention of the fact that in (more than just some) cases this is not true, had this been mentioned the post would have sounded more balanced.

    It sounded to me as if you were equating empathy with impoliteness, self-serving and rude behaviour, and while it is totally legitimate to point out that non-empathic people are at a heightened “risk” for these kinds of anti-social behaviour, it still should not be equated with it, because it is not the same thing, merely a likely pre-requisite to possible negative behaviours that follow.

    That’s all I was trying to point out, no more and no less.

    Have a good day.


  7. Sorry; when I said “It sounded to me as if you were equating empathy with impoliteness…” I meant “It sounded to me as if you were equating lack of empathy with impoliteness…”

    sorry; should have proof-read it.


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