40 Unit 9: Moral Development – Foundations Of Child And Adolescent Psychology

Moral Development

Morality is a system of beliefs about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity. Moral beliefs are related to, but not identical with, moral behavior: it is possible to know the right thing to do, but not actually do it. It is also not the same as knowledge of social conventions, which are arbitrary customs needed for the smooth operation of society. Social conventions may have a moral element, but they have a primarily practical purpose. Conventionally, for example, motor vehicles all keep to the same side of the street (to the right in the United States, to the left in Great Britain). The convention allows for smooth, accident-free flow of traffic. But following the convention also has a moral element, because an individual who chooses to drive on the wrong side of the street can cause injuries or even death. In this sense, choosing the wrong side of the street is wrong morally, though the choice is also unconventional. (85)

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

One of the best-known explanations of how morality of justice develops was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1991).

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

Moral Stages According to Kohlberg

Moral Stage Definition of What is “Good”
Preconventional Level
Stage 1: Obedience and punishment Action that is rewarded and not punished
Stage 2: Market exchange Action that is agreeable to the child and child’s partner
Conventional Level
Stage 3: Peer opinion Action that wins approval from friends or peers
Stage 4: Law and order Action that conforms to the community customs or laws
Postconventional Level
Stage 5: Social contract Action that follows socially accepted ways of making decisions
Stage 6: Universal principles Action that is consistent with self-chosen, general principles

Preconventional Justice: 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 is 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, an 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. But 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 Justice: 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 “Shop lifting 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 Justice: 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, theethics 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 consultationprocesses 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 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, for example, 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 disagreeing occasionally with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5). (85)

Kohlberg and the Heinz Dilemma

Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) wanted to find out how people decide what is right and what is wrong. In order to explore this area, he read a story containing a moral dilemma to boys of different age groups. In the story, a man, named Heinz, is trying to obtain an expensive drug that his wife needs in order to treat her cancer. The man has no money and no one will loan him the money he requires. He begs the pharmacist to reduce the price, but the pharmacist refuses. So, the man decides to break into the pharmacy to steal the drug. Then Kohlberg asked the children to decide whether the man was right or wrong in his choice. Kohlberg was not interested in whether they said the man was right or wrong, he was interested in finding out how they arrived at such a decision. He wanted to know what they thought made something right or wrong.

Preconventional Moral Development

The youngest subjects seemed to answer based on what would happen to the man as a result of the act. For example, they might say the man should not break into the pharmacy because the pharmacist might find him and beat him. Or they might say that the man should break in and steal the drug and his wife will give him a big kiss. Right or wrong, both decisions were based on what would physically happen to the man as a result of the act. This is a self-centered approach to moral decision-making. He called this most superficial understanding of right and wrong pre-conventional moral development.

Conventional Moral Development

Middle childhood boys seemed to base their answers on what other people would think of the man as a result of his act. For instance, they might say he should break into the store, and then everyone would think he was a good husband. Or, he shouldn’t because it is against the law. In either case, right and wrong is determined by what other people think. A good decision is one that gains the approval of others or one that complies with the law. This he called conventional moral development.

Postconventional Moral Development

Older children were the only ones to appreciate the fact that this story has different levels of right and wrong. Right and wrong are based on social contracts established for the good of everyone or on universal principles of right and wrong that transcend the self and social convention. For example, the man should break into the store because, even if it is against the law, the wife needs the drug and her life is more important than the consequences the man might face for breaking the law. Or, the man should not violate the principle of the right of property because this rule is essential for social order. In either case, the person’s judgment goes beyond what happens to the self. It is based on a concern for others; for society as a whole or for an ethical standard rather than a legal standard. This level is called post-conventional moral development because it goes beyond convention or what other people think to a higher, universal ethical principle of conduct that may or may not be reflected in the law. Notice that such thinking (the kind supreme justices do all day in deliberating whether a law is moral or ethical, etc.) requires being able to think abstractly. Often this is not accomplished until a person reaches adolescence or adulthood. (86)

Moral Development in the Family

In the formation of children’s morals no outside influence is greater than that of the family. Through punishment, reinforcement and both direct and indirect teaching, families instill morals in children, and help them to develop beliefs that reflect the values of their culture. Although families’ contributions to children’s moral development is broad, there are particular ways in which morals are most effectively conveyed and learned.


Families establish rules for right and wrong behavior, which are maintained through positive reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement is the reward for good behavior, and helps children learn that certain actions are encouraged above others. Punishment, by contrast, helps to deter children from engaging in bad behaviors, and from an early age helps children to understand that actions have consequences. This system additionally helps children to make decisions about how to act, as they begin to consider the outcomes of their own behavior.


The notion of what is fair is one of the central moral lessons that children learn in the family context. Families set boundaries on the distribution of resources, such as food and living spaces, and allow members different privileges based on age, gender and employment. The way in which a family determines what is fair affects children’s development of ideas about rights and entitlements, and also influences their notions of sharing, reciprocity and respect.

Personal Balance

Through understanding principles of fairness, justice and social responsibilities, children learn to find a balance between their own needs and wants and the interests of the greater social environment. By placing limits on their own individual desires, children benefit from a greater sense of love, security and shared identity. At the same time, this connectedness helps children to refine their own moral system by providing them with a reference for understanding right and wrong. (87)

Social Roles

In the family environment, children come to consider their actions not only in terms of justice, but also in terms of emotional needs. Children learn the value of social support from their families, and develop motivations based on kindness, generosity and empathy, rather than on only personal needs and desires. By learning to care for the interests and well-being of their family, children develop concern for society as a whole.

Character Development in Schools

Many educators have recognized the need for children to be guided in the development of ethics and morals, and a number of them have therefore developed practical programs that integrate ethical understanding, care, and action. As a group the programs are often called character education , though individual programs have a variety of specific names (for example, moral dilemma education, integrative ethical education, social competence education, and many more). Details of the programs vary, but they all combine a focus on ethical knowledge with attention to ethical feelings and actions (Elkind & Sweet, 2004; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Narvaez, 2010). Character education programs goes well beyond just teaching students to obey ethical rules, such as “Always tell the whole truth” or “Always do what the teacher tells you to do.” Such rules require very little thinking on the part of the student, and there are usually occasions in which a rule that is supposedly universal needs to be modified, “bent,” or even disobeyed. (For example, if telling the whole truth might hurt someone’s feelings, it might sometimes be more considerate—and thus more ethical—to soften the truth a bit, or even to say nothing at all.)

Instead, character education is about inviting students to think about the broad questions of his or her life, such as “What kind of person should I be?” or “How should I live my life?” Thoughtful answers to such broad questions help to answer a host of more specific questions that have ethical implications, such as “Should I listen to the teacher right now, even if she is a bit boring, or just tune out?” or “Should I offer to help my friend with the homework she is struggling with, or hold back so that learns to do it herself?” Most of the time, there is not enough time to reason about questions like these deliberately or consciously. Responses have to become intuitive, automatic, and embodied —meaning that they have to be based in fairly immediate emotional responses (Narvaez, 2009). The goal of character education is to develop students’ capacities to respond to daily ethical choices not only consciously and cognitively, but also intuitively and emotionally. To the extent that this goal is met, students can indeed live a good, ethically responsible life.

School-wide Programs of Character Education

In the most comprehensive approaches to character education, an entire school commits itself to developing students’ ethical character, despite the immense diversity among students (Minow, Schweder, & Markus, 2008). All members of the staff—not just teachers and administrators, but also custodians, and educational assistants—focus on developing positive relationships with students. The underlying theme that develops is one of cooperation and mutual care, not competition. Fairness, respect and honesty pervade class and school activities; discipline, for example, focuses on solving conflicts between students and between students and teachers, rather than on rewarding obedience or punishing wrong-doers. The approach requires significant reliance on democratic meetings and discussions, both in classrooms and wherever else groups work together in school.

Classroom Programs of Character Education

Even if a teacher is teaching character education simply within her own classroom, there are many strategies available. The goal in this case is to establish the classroom as a place where everyone feels included, and where everyone treats everyone else with civility and respect. Conflicts and disagreements may still occur, but in a caring community they can be resolved without undue anger or hostility. Here are a few ways to work toward this sort of classroom:

  • Use class meetings to decide on as many important matters as possible—such as the expected rules of behavior, important classroom activities, or ongoing disagreements.
  • Try arranging for students to collaborate on significant projects and tasks.
  • Arrange a “Buddies” program in which students of different grade levels work together on a significant task. Older students can sometimes assist younger students by reading to them, by listening to them read, or both. If an older student is having trouble with reading, a reading buddies program can sometimes be helpful to the older student.
  • Familiarize students with conflict resolution strategies, and practice using them when needed.
  • Many areas of curriculum lend themselves to discussions about ethical issues. Obvious examples are certain novels, short stories, and historical events. But ethical issues can be elsewhere, as well. Teaching nutrition, for example, can raise issues about the humane treatment of animals that will be slaughtered for food, and about the ethical acceptability of using large amount of grains to feed animals even though many people in the world do not have enough to eat.
  • Service learning projects can be very helpful in highlighting issues of social justice. Planning, working at and reflecting about a local soup kitchen, tutoring students from low-income families, performing simple repairs on homes in need: projects like these broaden knowledge of society and of the needs of its citizens. (85)


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