Theories of Moral Development

Jen L’Insalata

Morality is often defined as an individual’s ability to judge and understand what is right and wrong and then to act in accordance to what they judge to be right. An individual’s moral and belief system influence their behaviors. Behaviors aligned with personal beliefs and morals help to build self-concept and self-esteem (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

A child’s early sense of morals are influenced by a system of rewards and punishment established by the caregiver. Young children will act in accordance of with the egocentric self to meet the standards of their primary caregiver and avoid punishment. Perspective-taking improves and parental established morals give way to a conscience that intertwines emotions, cognition, and behavior (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

Despite cultural and religious influences on morality, there are several universal component that establish good morals. Generally speaking, morality take into account the concern for others, a sense of justice and fairness, honesty and trustworthiness, and self-control (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). Feelings of morality and actions are often at a conflict and moral conduct appears to be determined more by situational assessment then by moral reasoning (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

Several theories surrounding moral development exist. Freud discussed in his Psychoanalytic Theory that infants and young children are driven by the impulses of the self-serving id. The superego emerges and establishes a source of morals around preschool age (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). Freud believed these morals stemmed from an internalized system of rewards and punishments driven by parental conflict. Around the age of three, vague sexual desires toward the parent of the opposite sex and leads to an internal conflict and competition with the parent of the same sex. The solution to this conflict is to identify with the dominant same sex parent in order to be like them and satisfy this sexual longing (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). Morals are established by imitating the same sex parent’s actions.

Later research has failed to support Freud’s Psychoanalytic predictions. Finding show that children as young as eighteen to twenty-four months are capable of understanding empathy. This is inconsistent with Freud’s timeline for the emergence of the id ego and superego (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). Toddlers do however preform pro-social actions as a willingness to comply with the authority of their parents. The Psychoanalytic Theory associates this compliance with a fear of the same sex parental conflict. This concept contradicts research establishing that secure attachment and warm affectionate parental styles forester pro-social behavior and moral development (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

Cognitive Theories of moral development center on the works of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Gilligan and emphasize changes in logical thinking at the core of moral development. Piaget theorized that there are three stages to moral development, premoral, heteronomous, and autonomous (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). In studies, Piaget presented children with moral dilemmas and asked them to assess the behavior of the protagonist or the rules of a game. During the premoral stage, infants have no concern for rules and often make up their own rules to serve an egocentric purpose. Around age five, children enter the heteronomous stage and view morals and rules through a realist perspective. They view rules at concrete and never to be broken. Violation of rules requires immediate justice and punishment. During middle childhood socialization and perspective-taking abilities become more refined. The child transitions into the autonomous stage and views morals as a social agreement to promote fairness. Rules can be modified and amended to serve a higher social purpose (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

Kohlberg expanded on Piaget’s theory and assessed moral development beyond childhood into adulthood. Kohlberg based much of his work off philosophical concepts of morality referenced in Plato’s The Republic (Jorgensen, 2006) which morality is centered on justice. Utilizing unconventional philosophical scenarios, Kohlberg established three levels of moral reasoning each broken into stages. The preconventional level corresponds with Piaget’s heteronomous stage and established that children follow rules to avoid punishment and judgment from a superior authority during stage one. During stage two, children follow rules to serve their own interest, however may include the interests of others (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).  The conventional level is reached during adolescence and young adulthood. In stage three, social relationships become moral motivators and shared interests trump personal interest. Stage four focuses on social and societal order. Morals and behaviors at this stage are motivated by contributions to society, responsibility, and laws (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).  The postconvetional levels focus on universal standards of justice, democratic principles, and individual rights. Stage five establishes a moral social contract and is reached around adulthood. Stage six takes a more theoretical approach and addresses abstract concepts of social justice (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).

Research supports both Piaget and Kohlberg and shows that children indeed pay attention to the consequences and punishments surrounding moral violations and older children pay more attention to the intent of the protagonist to establish moral basis (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).  However finding show that children have a greater capacity for focusing on intentions and moral reasoning then given credit in the theories of Piaget and Kohlberg. Studies also show that preschoolers are able to differentiate between an intentional lie and a mistake and judge the liar more harshly (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).  Piaget believed that children believed all rules to be handed down from a superior authority. Children do however show a philosophical understanding of the difference between moral rules, conventional rules, and cultural rules. Children have the capacity to view cultural rules as arbitrary, but adhere more strictly to personal self-governed rules (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010). Thus demonstrating that children have the understanding moral context.

Gilligan often criticized Kohlberg stating that his description of moral reasoning focused primarily on cerebral components of justice, ignoring the care and concern involved in moral reasoning (Jorgensen, 2006). Gilligan argued that morals developed on different trajectories for males and female. Women are more inclined to introduce sympathy, empathy and compassion into moral reasoning, whereas males utilize justice as an emphasis for moral reasoning (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).  This feminine viewpoint has earned Gilligan criticism question her bias in her approach to moral reasoning (Jorgensen, 2006).



Jorgensen, G. (2006). Kohlberg and Gilligan: duet or duel?. Journal Of Moral Education, 35(2), 179-196. doi:10.1080/03057240600681710

Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2010). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN: 9780137152476