It is often claimed that the world in which we live is full of cruelty, ruthlessness and violence. Media reports on violence among students often paint a bleak picture of teachers and the school environment struggling to cope with manifestations of aggression among young people. It was such a news story, which reported on an incident in a school in Poland recently, which prompted me to examine and reflect on this topic. In the incident, two girls beat their schoolmate in front of other students outside the school building – interestingly, none of the students watching intervened, most observers cheered on the aggressive girls, whilst the rest filmed the violence on their phones. I deliberately use italics here to emphasise the point that acts of violent aggression, contrary to accepted views, are not solely restricted to the male domain. Nevertheless, the issue of aggression, from a gender perspective at least, is not the subject under discussion here.

Something I have discovered, through working at the Jubilee Centre, is that wilful aggression and lack of a moral compass can be associated with each other. Therefore, a question arises as to whether the girl’s behaviour in the media report can be traced to the absence of internalised moral norms that trigger aggression against another human being.

Aggression is in direct opposition to values such as building interpersonal relationships or respecting the natural right of everyone to self-determination. Interestingly, in recent years more attention has been devoted to examining the relationship between moral thinking and aggressive affirmation, raising the question of whether a link exists between a tendency towards aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development.

Today, there are many theories that attempt to explain aggressive behaviour. These can be reduced to three main theoretical assumptions:

  • The theory of instinct, which presents aggression as an innate behaviour, determined by the biological need to unleash aggressive energy.
  • The frustration-aggression theory, which maintains that all aggression is the result of frustration, and that all frustration is prone to aggression.
  • The social learning theory, which states that aggression is the result of learning through instrumental conditioning and modelling.

The social learning theory is very interesting. An important factor in the development of aggression  may be the amount of violence that children and young people are exposed to on television, which acts as a model of behaviour. Unfortunately, even in many cartoons aimed at young children, there is already more aggression than love, and the constant exposure of the child to acts of beating and killing, which are presented on television, may lead to an indifference towards human suffering and to moral distortion.

Moreover, in the case of aggressive young people, the problem may also lie within the family environment. For example, in one case, where parents were asked by the media as to why their child behaved in a particular way, they responded by giving them the ‘middle finger’. Such conduct is demonstrative of some parents’ attitude and lack of concern towards their child’s aggressive behaviour.

Returning again to the interesting relationship between morality and aggressive behaviour, it’s particularly noteworthy to mention those theories explaining aggression as a result of specific characteristics in the processing of social information – which is related to the development of moral thinking. It is believed that experiencing unfriendly relationships in the social and family environment during childhood may lead to the development of a perception of the world as hostile and threatening to the individual (Krahe, 2005), which, in turn, can lead to aggressive behaviour.  As Emma Palmer (2003) points out, moral reasoning can be one of the elements in which to understand aggressive behaviours, and a lack of moral understanding would surely contribute to a dam of ubiquitous aggression among the adolescent.

Reverting to  the previously-posed question about whether a lack of internalised moral norms may allow for aggression against another person, there is certainly evidence to support the claim that a link exists between the tendency for aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development. However, we do need to be cautious here; as Stanislaw Wojtowicz emphasises, ‘It is not always easy to distinguish situations in which morality makes us not choose aggression from the situations when we refrain from using it for economic reasons’.

Therefore, the world in which we live creates the need to provide moral backbone to young people through both formal and informal teaching. In other words, for educators to demonstrate and explain, through proper instruction and example, what is right and what is wrong. This does not mean that they must be experts on moral development, but through their well-methodically chosen methods of conduct, the student should be able to develop the ability to exercise certain attitudes and moral values. Moreover, the teacher should be competent in this vision of building and articulating an ethos in a school where confidence, respect and empathy are the key prerequisites for stimulating moral development. Moral development, in this perspective, constitutes the basic building block of human development, which is capable of counteracting wilful aggression. Moreover, in the Jubilee Centre we work on the Aristotelian assumption that the ideal moral development has to do with the cultivation of a virtuous character.

Krahe (2005)

Plamer (2003)

Marcin Gierczyk is a Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues