Morality in Bullying: What is Right and What is Wrong?

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 26, 2010

Bullying behavior is an immoral action, because it is in contrast with children’s right of not being humiliated and oppressed. For this reason, an important area of research to understand and tackle this phenomenon deals with the relation between bullying and morality (1).

Morality can be conceived as the ability to decide on wrong and right issues within social relationships, and to behave accordingly, mostly with reference to the system of rules regulating the social interactions within communities. Along with morality, guilt also plays a major role in behavioral regulation (2). Individuals who are more prone to guilt are less aggressive and less likely to act out behaviors (3). In contrast, having lower feelings of guilt could ‘enable’ individuals to act aggressively. Thus, children who bully their peers might either have distortions in morality and perceive moral rules preserving from harming others as more breakable than their peers do, or be able to self-justify to avoid feelings of guilt.

Morality and Bullying

When looking at the structure of morality, the main ones refer to both of the following components:

  • how the child comprehend the moral norms and evaluate transgressive behavior as acceptable or not acceptable (2)
  • mechanisms of self-justification, namely moral disengagement, that allow the individual to act in an aggressive way without feeling guilty (4)

Comprehension of Moral Rules

With reference to comprehension of rules, researchers state the existence of different kinds of rules: (a) moral rules, aimed at preserving from deliberate harm (such as, bullying), and (b) social-conventional rules, aimed at preserving the social order. Unlike the social-conventional rules, moral rules are perceived even by children as having the following characteristics(2):

  • always valid
  • independent of authorities or context
  • non-changeable

As a consequence of these rule characteristics, young children perceive the transgression of social-conventional rules as more acceptable than the transgression of moral ones (5). 

In a study (6) of 129 children (7–10 years old) and 182 early adolescents (11–15 years old) were presented with some hypothetic situations in which explicit moral and social-conventional school-rules were broken by a child. An example of a moral rule is the school-rule forbidding to push and hit school-mates, while a social-conventional school-rule is the rule forbidding to call a teacher by first name. By asking the children to answer some questions on the acceptability of the hypothetic rule-transgressions, their perception of rules was evaluated. In this study, at a higher level than their peers did bullies considered the breaking of school-rules as possible when the following occurred:

  • It was allowed by the context-authorities such as teachers and head-teachers
  • It happened out of the school and out of the context in which the rule was explicitly stated.

Overall, in comparison to peers, bullying youth revealed a less-mature conception of the rules, also moral rules, as breakable under some conditions.

However, in this study adolescent bullies evaluated transgressions as more acceptable than their peers did only when the obligation was social-conventional. Therefore, this leads us to think that the following could be true:

  • Even if bullies have some difficulties in recognizing the intrinsic values of rules, they seem to understand that the transgression of moral rules is wrong.
  • A gap appears between bullies’ evaluation of non-acceptability of the moral transgressions, and their actual bullying behavior that breaks the moral rule forbidding to harm others.
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