Moral development is the process throught which children develop proper
attitudes and behaviors toward other people in society, based on social
and cultural norms, rules, and laws.
Moral development is a concern for every parent. Teaching a child to
distinguish right from wrong and to behave accordingly is a goal of
Moral development is a complex issue that—since the beginning of
human civilization—has been a topic of discussion among some of the
world's most distinguished psychologists, theologians, and culture
theorists. It was not studied scientifically until the late 1950s.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, explored how children developed moral
reasoning. He rejected the idea that children learn and internalize the
rules and morals of
society by being given the rules and forced to adhere to them. Through
his research on how children formed their judgments about moral behavior,
he recognized that children learn morality best by having to deal with
others in groups. He reasoned that there was a process by which children
conform to society's norms of what is right and wrong, and that the
process was active rather than passive.
Piaget found two main differences in how children thought about moral
behavior. Very young children's thinking is based on how actions
affected them or what the results of an action were. For example, young
children will say that when trying to reach a forbidden cookie jar,
breaking 10 cups is worse than breaking one. They also recognize the
sanctity of rules. For example, they understand that they cannot make up
new rules to a game; they have to play by what the rule book says or what
is commonly known to be the rules. Piaget called this "moral
realism with objective responsibility." It explains why young
children are concerned with outcomes rather than intentions.
Older children look at motives behind actions rather than consequences of
actions. They are also able to examine rules, determining whether they are
fair or not, and apply these rules and their modifications to situations
requiring negotiation, assuring that everyone affected by the rules is
treated fairly. Piaget felt that the best moral learning came from these
cooperative decision-making and problem-solving events. He also believed
that children developed moral reasoning quickly and at an early age.
Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, extended Piaget's work
in cognitive reasoning into
and adulthood. He felt that moral development was a slow process and
evolved over time. Still, his six stages of moral development, drafted in
1958, mirrors Piaget's early model. Kohlberg believed that
individuals made progress by mastering each stage, one at a time. A person
could not skip stages. He also felt that the only way to encourage growth
through these stages was by discussion of moral dilemmas and by
participation in consensus democracy within small groups. Consensus
democracy was rule by agreement of the group, not majority rule. This
would stimulate and broaden the thinking of children and adults, allowing
them to progress from one stage to another.
The child at the first and most basic level, the preconventional level,
is concerned with avoiding punishment and getting needs met. This level
has two stages and applies to children up to 10 years of age.
Stage one is the Punishment-Obedience stage. Children obey rules because
they are told to do so by an authority figure (parent or teacher), and
punishment if they do not follow rules. Children at this stage are not
able to see someone else's side.
Stage two is the Individual, Instrumentation, and Exchange stage. Here,
the behavior is governed by moral reciprocity. The child will follow rules
if there is a known benefit to him or her. Children at this stage also
mete out justice in an eye-for-an-eye manner or according to Golden Rule
logic. In other words, if one child hits another, the injured child will
hit back. This is considered equitable justice. Children in this stage are
very concerned with what is fair.
Children will also make deals with each other and even adults. They will
agree to behave in a certain way for a payoff. "I'll do
this, if you will do that." Sometimes, the payoff is in the
knowledge that behaving correctly is in the child's own best
interest. They receive approval from authority figures or admiration from
peers, avoid blame, or behave in accordance with their concept of self.
They are just beginning to understand that others have their own needs and
This level broadens the scope of human wants and needs. Children in this
level are concerned about being accepted by others and living up to their
expectations. This stage begins around age 10 but lasts well into
adulthood, and is the stage most adults remain at throughout their lives.
Stage three, Interpersonal Conformity, is often called the "good
boy/good girl" stage. Here, children do the right thing because it
is good for the
, peer group, team, school, or church. They understand the concepts of
trust, loyalty, and gratitude. They abide by the Golden Rule as it applies
to people around them every day. Morality is acting in accordance to what
the social group says is right and moral.
Stage four is the Law and Order, or Social System and Conscience stage.
Children and adults at this stage abide by the rules of the society in
which they live. These laws and rules become the backbone for all right
and wrong actions. Children and adults feel compelled to do their duty and
show respect for authority. This is still moral behavior based on
authority, but reflects a shift from the social group to society at large.
Some teenagers and adults move beyond conventional morality and enter
morality based on reason, examining the relative values and opinions of
the groups with which they interact. Few adults reach this stage.
Correct behavior is governed by the sixth stage, the Social Contract and
Individual Rights stage. Individuals in this stage understand that codes
of conduct are relative to their social group. This varies from culture to
culture and subgroup to subgroup. With that in mind, the individual enters
into a contract with fellow human beings to treat them fairly and kindly
and to respect authority when it is equally moral and deserved. They also
agree to obey laws and social rules of conduct that promote respect for
individuals and value the few universal moral values that they recognize.
Moral behavior and moral decisions are based on the greatest good for the
Stage six is the Principled Conscience or the Universal/Ethical Principles
stage. Here, individuals examine the validity of society's laws and
govern themselves by what they consider to be universal moral principles,
usually involving equal rights and respect. They obey laws and social
rules that fall in line with these universal principles, but not others
they deem as aberrant. Adults here are motivated by individual conscience
that transcends cultural, religious, or social convention rules. Kohlberg
recognized this last stage but found so few people who lived by this
concept of moral behavior that he could not study it in detail.
Kohlberg's and Piaget's theories have come under fire.
Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, for example, have been
criticized for elevating Western, urban, intellectual (upper class)
understandings of morality, while discrediting rural, tribal, working
class, or Eastern moral understandings. Feminists have pointed out
potential sexist elements in moral development theories devised by male
researchers using male subjects only (such as Kohlberg's early
work). Because women's experiences in the world differ from
men's in every culture, it would stand to reason that
women's moral development might differ from men's, perhaps
in significant ways.
Carol Gilligan deemed Kohlberg's research biased because he only
used male subjects to reach his findings. Because of this, his model is
based on a concept of morality based on equity and justice, which places
most men in stage five or six. Gilligan found that women, who value social
interaction more than men, base their moral decisions on a culture of
caring for other human beings. This would place them at stage three,
making women appear to be inferior morally to men. Men determine
immorality based on treating others unfairly, and women base it on turning
away someone in need.
Gilligan's work, however, doesn't solve the gender question,
because newer research has found that both males and females often base
their moral judgments and behaviors on both justice and care.
Nevertheless, the morality of care theory opened up explorations of moral
reasoning in many groups and cultures.
Urie Bronfenbrenner studied children and schools in different cultures
since many ethnic, religious, and social groups often have their own rules
for moral behavior. His research found five moral orientations, regardless
of culture, social group, or developmental stage. Movement from the first
stage to any of the others was dependent on participation in the family
and other social institutions within each culture. Movement to the last
stage involved exposure to a different moral system that might be in
conflict with one's own. This moral pluralism forces individuals to
examine their own moral reasoning and beliefs. This often occurs when
people work in other countries or cultures and come face to face with
different sets of moral conventions.
Bronfenbrenner also noted that individuals could slide back into a
previous moral orientation when they experienced the breakdown of their
familiar social order as in war, regime changes, genocide, famine, or
large scale natural disasters that destroy social infrastructures. People
narrow their attention to their own pressing needs and ignore the welfare
of the larger society.
Self-oriented morality coincided with Kohlberg's pre-conventional
morality. Behavior is based on self-interest and motivated by who can help
children get what they want or who is hindering that process. This stage
was found in all children and some adults in all cultures.
Authority-oriented morality again is similar to Kohlberg's Law and
Order stage. This applies not only to parents' rules but to
teachers, religious leaders, and government officials. This moral
orientation was culturally defined. It was very evident in Middle Eastern
cultures where religious authority is the law.
Peer-authority morality is moral conformity based on the conventions and
rules of a social group. This is evident among teenagers in Western
cultures and even among some adults.
Collective-oriented morality is an extension of the peer-authority stage.
Here a larger group's rule supercedes individual rights and
interests. Duty is the law. This moral orientation was found in Asian
Objectively-oriented morality is akin to Kohlberg's universal
principles stage. Here, however, these rules
transcend individual moral perspectives and become entities in
themselves. Like Kohlberg's last stage, this moral orientation was
found in relatively few people in any culture.
There are several other approaches to the study of moral development,
which are categorized in a variety of ways. Briefly, the social learning
theory approach claims that humans develop morality by learning the rules
of acceptable behavior from their external environment, an essentially
behaviorist approach. Psychoanalytic theory proposes instead that morality
develops through humans' conflict between their instinctual drives
and the demands of society.
theories view morality as an outgrowth of cognition, or reasoning,
whereas personality theories are holistic in their approach, taking into
account all the factors that contribute to human development.
The differences between these approaches rest on two questions: How moral
are infants at birth? and How is moral maturity defined? The contrasting
philosophies at the heart of the answers to these questions determine the
essential perspective of each moral development theory. Those who believe
infants are born with no moral sense tend toward social learning or
behaviorist theories, because all morality must therefore be learned from
the external environment. Others who believe humans are innately
aggressive and completely self-oriented are more likely to accept
psychoanalytic theories where morality is the learned management of
socially destructive internal drives. Those who believe it is the
reasoning abilities that separate humans from the rest of creation will
find cognitive development theories the most attractive. And those who
view humans as holistic beings born with a full range of potentialities
will most likely be drawn to personality theories.
What constitutes mature morality is a subject of great controversy. Each
society develops its own set of norms and standards for acceptable
behavior, leading many to say that morality is entirely culturally
conditioned. There is debate over whether or not this means that there are
no universal truths, and no cross-cultural standards for human behavior.
This debate fuels the critiques of many moral development theories.
Definitions of what is or is not moral are in a state of upheaval within
individual societies. Controversies rage over the morality of warfare
(especially nuclear), ecological conservation, genetic research and
manipulation, alternative fertility and childbearing methods, abortion,
sexuality, pornography, drug use, euthanasia, racism, sexism, and human
rights issues, among others. Determining the limits of moral behavior
becomes increasingly difficult as human capabilities, choices, and
responsibilities proliferate with advances in technology and scientific
knowledge. For example, prenatal testing techniques that determine birth
defects in the womb force parents to make new moral choices about whether
to give birth to a child.
The rise in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, teen parenthood,
in Western society has also caused a rise in concern over morality and
moral development. Parents and teachers want to know how to raise moral
children, and they turn to moral development theorists to find answers.
Freudian personality theories became more widely known to the Western
public in the 1960s and were understood to imply that repression of a
child's natural drives would lead to neuroses. Many parents and
teachers were therefore afraid to
their children, and permissiveness became the rule. Cognitive development
theories did little to change things, as they focus on reasoning and
disregard behavior. Behaviorist theories, with their complete denial of
free will in moral decision-making, are unattractive to many and require
precise, dedicated, behavior modification techniques.
Schools are returning to character education programs, popular in the
1920s and 1930s, where certain virtues such as honesty, fairness, and
loyalty, are taught to students along with the regular academic subjects.
Unfortunately, there is little or no agreement as to which virtues are
important and what exactly each virtue entails.
Another approach to moral education that became popular in the 1960s and
1970s is known as values clarification or values modification. The purpose
of these programs is to guide students to establish or discern their own
system of values on which to base their moral decisions. Students are also
taught that others may have different values systems, and that they must
be tolerant of those differences. The advantages of this approach are that
it promotes self-investigation and awareness and the development of
internal moral motivations, which are more reliable than external
motivations, and prevents fanaticism, authoritarianism, and moral
coercion. The disadvantage is that it encourages moral relativism, the
belief that "anything goes." Values clarification is
generally seen as a valuable component of moral education, but incomplete
on its own.
Lawrence Kohlberg devised a moral education program in the 1960s based on
his cognitive development theory. Called the Just Community program, it
utilizes age-appropriate or stage-appropriate discussions of moral
dilemmas, democratic consensus rule-making, and
the creation of a community context where students and teachers could act
on their moral decisions. Just Community programs have been established in
schools, prisons, and other institutions with a fair amount of success.
Exposure to moral questions and the opportunity to practice moral behavior
in a supportive community appear to foster deeper moral reasoning and more
Overall, democratic family and school systems are much more likely to
promote the development of internal self-controls and moral growth than
are authoritarian or permissive systems. Permissive systems fail to
instill any controls, while authoritarian systems instill only fear of
punishment, which is not an effective deterrent unless there is a real
chance of being caught or punishment becomes a reward because it brings
attention to the offender. True moral behavior involves a number of
internal processes that are best developed through warm, caring parenting
with clear and consistent expectations, emphasis on the reinforcement of
positive behaviors rather than the punishment of negative ones, modeling
of moral behavior by adults, and creation of opportunities for the child
to practice moral reasoning and actions.
According to personal (social) goal theory, moral behavior is motivated by
the desire to satisfy a variety of personal and social goals, some of
which are self-oriented (selfish), and some of which are other-oriented
(altruistic). The four major internal motivations for moral behavior as
presented by personal (social) goal theorists are: 1) empathy; 2) the
belief that people are valuable in and of themselves and therefore should
be helped; 3) the desire to fulfill moral rules; and 4) self-interest.
In social domain theory, moral reasoning is said to develop within
particular social domains: 1) moral (e.g., welfare, justice, rights); 2)
social-conventional (social rules for the orderly function of society);
and 3) personal (pure self-interest, exempt from social or moral rules).
Most people have more than one moral voice and shift among them depending
on the situation. In one context, a person may respond out of empathy and
place care for an individual over concern for social rules. In a different
context, that same person might instead insist on following social rules
for the good of society, even though someone may suffer because of it.
People also show a lack of consistent morality by sometimes choosing to
act in a way that they know is not moral, while continuing to consider
themselves moral people. This discrepancy between moral judgment
(perceiving an act as morally right or wrong) and moral choice (deciding
whether to act in the morally right way) can be explained in a number of
ways, any one of which may be true in a given situation:
The Moral Balance model proposes that most humans operate out of a limited
or flexible morality. Rather than expecting moral perfection from
ourselves or others, people set certain limits beyond which they cannot
go. Within those limits, however, there is some flexibility in moral
decision-making. Actions such as taking coins left in the change-box of a
public telephone may be deemed acceptable (though not perfectly moral),
money from an open, unattended cash register is not. Many factors are
involved in the determination of moral acceptability from situation to
situation, and the limits on moral behavior are often slippery. If given
proper encouragement and the opportunity to practice a coherent inner
sense of morality, however, most people will develop a balanced morality
to guide their day-to-day interactions with their world.
Religious development often goes hand in hand with moral development.
Children's concepts of divinity, right and wrong, and who is
ultimately responsible for the world's woes are shaped by the
family and by the religious social group to which each child belongs.
Their concepts also mirror cognitive and moral developmental stages.
In general, in the earliest stage (up to age two years), the child knows
that religious objects and books are to be respected. The concept of a
divine being is vague, but the child enjoys the regularity of the
religious rituals such as prayer.
In the next stage (from two to 10 years), children begin to orient
religion concepts to themselves as in the catechism litany, "Who
made you? God made me." The concept of a divine being is usually
described in anthropomorphic ways for children around six years old. In
other words, children perceive God to look like a human being only bigger
or living in the sky. At this stage, God is physically powerful and often
is portrayed as a superhero. God may also be the wish-granter and can fix
anything. Children embrace religious holidays and rituals during this
In the Intermediate Stage during pre-adolescence, children are considered
to be in the pre-religious stage. The anthropomorphized divinity is
pictured as being very old and wise. God is also thought of as doing
supernatural things: having a halo, floating over the world, or performing
miracles. Children in this stage understand the panoply of religious or
divine beings within the religious belief system. For example, Christian
children will distinguish between God and Jesus and the disciples or
The last stage in adolescence focuses on personalizing religious rituals
and drawing closer to a divine being. Teenagers begin to think of God in
abstract terms and look at the mystical side of the religious experience.
They may also rebel against organized religion as they begin to question
the world and the rules around them.
Some adults who are considered highly religious consider God to be an
anthropomorphized divine being or may reject the supernatural or mystical
religious experience. This does not mean that these adults have somehow
been arrested in their religious development. This just means that the
variation among these stages is great and is determined by the particular
religious community in which the individual is involved.
—Thinking of others.
—Taking on human characteristics or looking like humans.
—The act or process of knowing or perceiving.
—Showing no emotion.
—Deciding whether to act in the morally right way.
—Perceiving an act as morally right or wrong.
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Association for Moral Education
Dr. James M. Dubois Center for Health Care Ethics. Saint Louis
University, Salus Center 3545 Lafayette Ave. St. Louis, MO 63104.
Developmental Studies Center
2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305 Oakland, CA 94606-5300. (510) 533-0213 or
Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.
Boston University School of Education. 605 Commonwealth Ave., Room 356
Boston, MA 02215. (617) 353-3262. Fax: (617) 353-3924.
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR).
23 Garden St. Cambridge, MA 02138. (800) 370-2515.
The Heartwood Institute.
425 N. Craig St., Suite 302 Pittsburgh, PA 15213. (800) 432-7810.