What is Moral Reasoning?


All parents want the security of knowing that as they send their teens out into the world, they will make good decisions. Parents want to trust that as their youth faces daily choices, they will remember their upbringing and demonstrate a basic understanding of right and wrong. Families work hard to instill a sense of morality in their children as they grow…but how do you teach “morality”? And do those lessons change along with social and cultural trends?

These are questions Camino a Casa Clinical Supervisor/Lead Clinician Alex Baker, Psy.D. sought to answer with his dissertation, “Micromorality Development in College Students: The Impact of Subjective Socioeconomic Status, Parenting Style, and Religion.” Baker continued to explore these concepts during his postdoctoral fellowship at Casa Pacifica and developed The Everyday Moral Reasoning curriculum that is now used in both the Camino a Casa and Casa Pacifica programs. We sat down with Baker to get an idea of what the moral reasoning group has to offer youth and why he thinks it is so important.

What is the Moral Reasoning Group?

The Everyday Moral Reasoning curriculum was initially developed to help youth discuss and effectively respond to challenging topics that might otherwise remain unacknowledged throughout intensive mental health treatment modalities. The group incorporates elements of other evidence-based skills group, including ART (Aggression Replacement Therapy) and DBT (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy). The curriculum is divided into 5 sections, including: Thinking Errors, Values Identification, Utilitarianism, Privilege/Discrimination, and Prosocial Behaviors. As issues of diversity and social justice became politicized, these issues became increasingly taboo for many adolescents to explore, despite the pervasive ways they impacted youth development. The group focus evolved to increase recognition of social-justice issues, as well as practice effective interventions through experiential exercises and brainstorming responses to moral dilemmas youth routinely face as it relates to issues of privilege, power differentials, microaggressions, and discriminatory behaviors.

How was the group started?

I researched alternative groups currently in use, wrote the curriculum, and piloted the group during my internship year. Throughout the year, I conducted research to examine the effectiveness, as well as relevant patterns between self-report pre- and post-test data. The group was modified and adapted to fit within a 10-group cycle, based around typical RTC treatment durations for many youth in Camino a Casa’s RTC program.

Why was the group started?

My dissertation focused on identifying everyday moral decision-making for young adults. I continued this work with moral development throughout my doctoral internship. My postdoctoral fellowship worked towards expanding the group to working with other programs, including the Nonpublic School, STRTP, as well as PHP and IOP groups in Camino a Casa. The curriculum explores thinking biases, collaborative decision-making, diversity, privilege, discrimination, and prosocial behaviors that help youth to recognize and develop their own values in order to stay in “Wise Mind” more often. This helps youth to make difficult decisions on real-life dilemmas based on thoughtful responsiveness, rather than emotional reactivity. The Moral Reasoning curriculum was primarily developed for Camino a Casa RTC youth ages 13-17. While some youth ages 9-12 have participated in the past, it has often been challenging for them to recognize and benefit from exploring more complex and abstract concepts, including issues of sexism, substance use, and morally ambiguous social dilemmas.

What does a normal session/group look like?

Moral Reasoning groups begin with a review of prior group content, as well as an experiential ice breaker activity. This might include small group activities to develop a hypothetical charity, a utopia society, or solution for a dilemma involving peers. Groups then transition into identifying ways that the weekly topic is related to their lives, through use of recent video clips, vignettes, and group discussions. Individuals are encouraged to identify personal values and potential thinking errors that contribute towards making decisions to various moral dilemmas they face (i.e. family conflict, high-risk teen behaviors, coming out to family, etc.). Finally, group members work towards developing strategies for weighing pro’s and con’s for morally ambiguous situations while increasing perspective-taking and validation for others that do not agree with them.

How has the group impacted the youth?

Overall, youth have been highly motivated and engaged in the moral reasoning group. Through eliciting feedback opportunities, they have noted that the group feels interesting, relevant, and allows for validation on topics that don’t neatly fit into any other component of their treatment, especially with topics of social justice and experienced discrimination. The moral reasoning group has helped them to feel prepared to address unexpected life challenges, becoming more responsive rather than reactive to social crises

“I like morality group because it gives us a chance to explore our own beliefs and the beliefs of my peers with prompts that are relevant.” – 17-year-old female

What do you want people to know about the group?

My goal for the moral reasoning group has been to wipe the dust off many out dated assumptions, invigorating the topic into relevant everyday examples ranging from illegally streaming videos to responding a friend’s hurtful Tiktok video. Adolescents are quickly developing and often have elaborately developed beliefs and ethical compasses, although they likely keep these between friends to avoid anticipated invalidation and condemnation from adults in their lives. By empowering youth to engage in these critical thinking skills in relevant contexts, they can continue to develop their identities and tools needed to manage the dynamic and changing world in which we live today.


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