The interest in the relationship between morality and behaviour is often determined by the interest in antisocial behaviour, particularly in the prevention of that behaviour or the decrease in the prevalence or seriousness of it. Antisocial behaviour is observable behaviour that directly or indirectly harms others by the transgression of important social or moral norms and includes aggressive and delinquent behaviour (Barriga, Gibbs, Potter & Liau, 2001). The prevention and reduction of antisocial behaviour is an important societal task and morality can be viewed as one of the many possible contributing factors.
This perspective is shared by my many colleagues at our department. They are interested in the dynamic and static factors, individual and environmental factors related to antisocial behaviour or, more specifically, that causally contribute to its prevalence. Individual’s morality and moral reasoning in particular, is considered to be one of the many individual dynamic criminogenic factors underlying antisocial behaviour and, in general, seems to be considered as relatively unimportant. Seldom morality is explicitly operationalized as one of the variables in their research on antisocial behaviour. Depending on the individual quality, morality can be viewed as a protective or risk factor: mature moral reasoning is conceived as a protective factor, while immature moral reasoning is conceived as a risk factor. This view implies an instrumental perspective on morality. Stimulating moral reasoning development towards maturity can be made part of the toolbox of educators to prevent or reduce antisocial behaviour.
One can also be interested in the relationship between morality and behaviour because one has an interest in the meaning of morality for human functioning. To question the relationship between morality and behaviour springs from an interest in the consequences of morality for behaviour. This perspective is characterized by an awareness of the tension between what a person thinks s/he should do and why and what s/he actually does. In many cases there is a gap between moral reasoning and behaviour. Because of this gap, some people have drawn the conclusion that the morals people put verbally forward are superfluous or merely some sort of rationalization. Others have tried to fill the gap, to understand the processes, competencies, skills and circumstances that affect the relationship between moral reasoning to behaviour.
This latter perspective is my scientific background for studying the relationship between morality and antisocial behaviour. Our goal is an empirically established theory on the development of moral functioning, including disfunctioning. Characteristics, skills, competencies or processes that are of importance for understanding the relationship between moral reasoning and (antisocial) behaviour are included.
With my colleagues and students I have been working on two research questions:
(1) What moral processes, competencies and skills are related to antisocial behaviour in children and adolescents? What is the nature of the relationship? What factors do affect this relationship? Technically speaking: what are the mediating and moderating factors?
(2) Is it possible by using educational programs to improve these moral processes, competencies or skills to such a degree that antisocial behaviour in children is prevented or reduced? Moderators can also be found when one tries to improve certain processes, skills or competencies.
To answer these questions we have carried out cross-sectional and longitudinal survey and intervention research using standardized measures in children and adolescents, in clinical as well as non-clinical groups.