Moral development

Moral Development 2222
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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 parenting.

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.

Piaget's theory of moral reasoning

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.

Kohlberg's theory of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, extended Piaget's work in cognitive reasoning into adolescence 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.

PRECONVENTIONAL LEVEL 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 they fear 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 drives.

CONVENTIONAL LEVEL 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 family , 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.

POST-CONVENTIONAL LEVEL 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 greatest number.

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.

Carol Gilligan and the morality of care

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 cultures.

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.

Other theories

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. Cognitive development 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, and suicide 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 discipline 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 constructive behavior.

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:

  • weakness of will (the person is overwhelmed by desire)
  • weakness of conscience (guilt feelings are not strong enough to overcome temptation)
  • limited/flexible morality (some latitude allowed in moral behavior while still maintaining a "moral" identity)

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), while stealing 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.

Common problems

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 stage.

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 saints.

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.

Parental concerns

When to call the doctor

Every child misbehaves and will sometimes act selfishly and hurtfully. It is when these acts increase, impulses cannot be controlled, or authority defiance becomes troublesome, that parents may need to seek professional help. Lack of impulse control and authority defiance can be symptoms of medical conditions and psychological disorders. Self-centered behavior, coupled with lack of acceptance of wrongdoing that continues into older childhood and adolescence, may be a problem that requires family or individual counseling.

Risky behaviors such as speeding, drinking, smoking , doing drugs, or engaging in sexual behavior may be related to peer pressure and wanting to conform to the group or may be a way to defy authority. These behaviors, though deemed morally wrong by most societies, may also be symptoms of deeper psychological troubles.

Of extreme concern is the rare child who acts with no remorse, and appears to have to conscience. This is usually signaled by early violent outbursts, destructive behavior, or by acts of cruelty to pets or other children. After each incident, the child has a flat affect (no emotion) or fails to admit that there was anything wrong with the his or her actions. These children need intervention immediately. Behaviors such as these may be indicators of sociopathic disorders.


Altruistic —Thinking of others.

Anthropomorphic —Taking on human characteristics or looking like humans.

Cognition —The act or process of knowing or perceiving.

Flat affect —Showing no emotion.

Moral choice —Deciding whether to act in the morally right way.

Moral judgment —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 (800) 666-7270.

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.

Janie Franz Dianne K. Daeg de Mott

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