Theories of Moral Development

The founder of psychoanalysis, Freud (1962), proposed the existence of a tension between the needs of society and the individual. According to Freud, moral development proceeds when the individual’s selfish desires are repressed and replaced by the values of important socializing agents in one’s life (for instance, one’s parents). A proponent of behaviorism, Skinner (1972) similarly focused on socialization as the primary force behind moral development. In contrast to Freud’s notion of a struggle between internal and external forces, Skinner focused on the power of external forces (reinforcement contingencies) to shape an individual’s development. While both Freud and Skinner focused on the external forces that bear on morality (parents in the case of Freud, and behavioral contingencies in the case of Skinner), Piaget (1965) focused on the individual’s construction, construal, and interpretation of morality from a social-cognitive and social-emotional perspective.

Kohlberg (1963) expanded upon Piagetian notions of moral development. While they both viewed moral development as a result of a deliberate attempt to increase the coordination and integration of one’s orientation to the world, Kohlberg provided a systematic 3-level, 6-stage sequence reflecting changes in moral judgment throughout the lifespan. Specifically, Kohlberg argued that development proceeds from a selfish desire to avoid punishment (personal), to a concern for group functioning (societal), to a concern for the consistent application of universal ethical principles (moral).

Turiel (1983) argued for a social domain approach to social cognition, delineating how individuals differentiate moral (fairness, equality, justice), societal (conventions, group functioning, traditions), and psychological (personal, individual prerogative) concepts from early in development throughout the lifespan. Over the past 40 years, research findings have supported this model, demonstrating how children, adolescents, and adults differentiate moral rules from conventional rules, identify the personal domain as a nonregulated domain, and evaluate multifaceted (or complex) situations that involve more than one domain.

For the past 20 years, researchers have expanded the field of moral development, applying moral judgment, reasoning, and emotion attribution to topics such as prejudice, aggression, theory of mind, emotions, empathy, peer relationships, and parent-child interactions.

Piaget's Theory of Moral Development

To understand adult morality, Piaget believed that it was necessary to study both how morality manifests in the child’s world as well as the factors that contribute to the emergence of central moral concepts such as welfare, justice, and rights. By interviewing children, Piaget (1965) found that young children were focused on authority mandates and that with age, children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality.

He developed two phases of moral development, one common among children and the other common among adults.

Heteronomous Phase

The first is the Heteronomous Phase. This phase, more common among children, is characterized by the idea that rules come from authority figures in one's life, such as parents, teachers, and God. It also involves the idea that rules are permanent no matter what. Thirdly, this phase of moral development includes the belief that "naughty" behavior must always be punished and that the punishment will be proportional. This absolutism in moral development is seen in children’s play from the age of 5, where they exhibit a blind belief in the rules and ideas of right and wrong passed to them by their elders.

Autonomous Phase

The second phase in Piaget's theory of moral development is referred to as the Autonomous Phase. This phase is more common after one has matured and is no longer a child. In this phase, people begin to view the intentions behind actions as more important than their consequences. For instance, if a person who is driving swerves in order to not hit a dog and then knocks over a road sign, adults are likely to be less angry at the person than if he or she had done it on purpose just for fun. Even though the outcome is the same, people are more forgiving because of the good intention of saving the dog. This phase also includes the idea that people have different morals and that morality is not necessarily universal. People in the Autonomous Phase also believe rules may be broken under certain circumstances. For instance, Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, which was against the law but something many people consider moral nonetheless. In this phase, people also stop believing in the idea of immanent justice.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) extended upon the foundation that Piaget built regarding moral and cognitive development. Kohlberg, like Piaget, was interested in moral reasoning. Moral reasoning does not necessarily equate to moral behavior. Holding a particular belief does not mean that our behavior will always be consistent with the belief. To develop this theory, Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas to people of all ages, and then he analyzed their answers to find evidence of their particular stage of moral development. After presenting people with this and various dilemmas, Kohlberg reviewed people’s responses and placed them in different stages of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, an individual progresses from the capacity for pre-conventional morality (before age 9) to the capacity for conventional morality (early adolescence), and toward attaining post-conventional morality (once formal operational thought is attained), which only a few fully achieve.

Moral Stages According to Kohlberg

Using a stage model similar to Piaget’s, Kohlberg proposed three levels, with six stages, of moral development. Individuals experience the stages universally and in sequence as they form beliefs about justice. He named the levels simply preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

Figure 9.2.1. Kohlberg identified three levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional: Each level is associated with increasingly complex stages of moral development.

Preconventional: Obedience and Mutual Advantage

The preconventional level of moral development coincides approximately with the preschool period of life and with Piaget’s preoperational period of thinking. At this age, the child is still relatively self-centered and insensitive to the moral effects of actions on others. The result is a somewhat short-sighted orientation to morality. Initially (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), the child adopts an ethics of obedience and punishment —a sort of “morality of keeping out of trouble.” The rightness and wrongness of actions are determined by whether actions are rewarded or punished by authorities, such as parents or teachers. If helping yourself to a cookie brings affectionate smiles from adults, then taking the cookie is considered morally “good.” If it brings scolding instead, then it is morally “bad.” The child does not think about why an action might be praised or scolded; in fact, says Kohlberg, he would be incapable, at Stage 1, of considering the reasons even if adults offered them.

Eventually, the child learns not only to respond to positive consequences but also learns how to produce them by exchanging favors with others. The new ability creates Stage 2, ethics of market exchange. At this stage, the morally “good” action is one that favors not only the child but another person directly involved. A “bad” action is one that lacks this reciprocity. If trading the sandwich from your lunch for the cookies in your friend’s lunch is mutually agreeable, then the trade is morally good; otherwise, it is not. This perspective introduces a type of fairness into the child’s thinking for the first time. However, it still ignores the larger context of actions—the effects on people not present or directly involved. In Stage 2, for example, it would also be considered morally “good” to pay a classmate to do another student’s homework—or even to avoid bullying—provided that both parties regard the arrangement as being fair.

Conventional: Conformity to Peers and Society

As children move into the school years, their lives expand to include a larger number and range of peers and (eventually) of the community as a whole. The change leads to conventional morality, which are beliefs based on what this larger array of people agree on—hence Kohlberg’s use of the term “conventional.” At first, in Stage 3, the child’s reference group are immediate peers, so Stage 3 is sometimes called the ethics of peer opinion. If peers believe, for example, that it is morally good to behave politely with as many people as possible, then the child is likely to agree with the group and to regard politeness as not merely an arbitrary social convention, but a moral “good.” This approach to moral belief is a bit more stable than the approach in Stage 2 because the child is taking into account the reactions not just of one other person, but of many. But it can still lead astray if the group settles on beliefs that adults consider morally wrong, like “Shoplifting for candy bars is fun and desirable.”

Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands, even more, he or she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends. He or she is, therefore, more likely to encounter disagreements about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order, in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what the majority of society believes. Now, an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from ethical mistakes. A community or society may agree, for example, that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect, or that a factory owner is entitled to dump wastewater into a commonly shared lake or river. To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these require further stages of moral development.

Postconventional: Social Contract and Universal Principles

As a person becomes able to think abstractly (or “formally,” in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from acceptance of what the community does believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed. The new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract. Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that respect the rights of the people affected. Consider, for example, the laws in some areas that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In what sense are the laws about this behavior ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? Were cyclists consulted, and did they give consent? Or how about doctors or the cyclists’ families? Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes should be. In focusing on the processes by which the law was created; however, individuals are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of the position they take about wearing helmets. In this sense, beliefs on both sides of a debate about an issue can sometimes be morally sound, even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it should help to avoid mindless conformity to conventional moral beliefs. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in the democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to the content of what gets decided. In principle (and occasionally in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, but would deciding this by due process make it ethical? The realization that ethical means can sometimes serve unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), but also other principles, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or the sacredness of the natural environment. At Stage 6, the universal principles will guide a person’s beliefs even if the principles mean occasionally disagreeing with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).



Video 9.2.1. Kohlberg's Six Stages of Moral Development explains the stages of moral reasoning and applies it to an example scenario.

Kohlberg and the Heinz Dilemma

The Heinz dilemma is a frequently used example to help us understand Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. How would you answer this dilemma? Kohlberg was not interested in whether you answer yes or no to the dilemma: Instead, he was interested in the reasoning behind your answer.

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1969, p. 379)

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison, which will mean he is a bad person. OR Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. OR Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad, and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. OR Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.
  • Stage five (social contract orientation): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine because others may need medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.


Think It Over

Consider your decision-making processes. What guides your decisions? Are you primarily concerned with your personal well-being? Do you make choices based on what other people will think about your decision? Or are you guided by other principles? To what extent is this approach guided by your culture?

Try It

https://assessments.lumenlearning.com/assessments/16604

https://assessments.lumenlearning.com/assessments/16616

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More