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 morality of constraint, 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 of immanent justice, that “naughty” behavior must always be immediately 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, subjective judgments. 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 3.13.1. 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 3.13.1. 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?

Kohlberg continued to explore his theory after he published his research. He postulated that there could be other stages and that there could be transitions into each stage. One thing that Kohlberg never fully addressed was his use of nearly all-male samples. Men and women tend to have very different styles of moral decision making; men tend to be very justice-oriented, while women tend to be more compassion oriented. In terms of Kohlberg’s stages, women tend to be in lower stages than men because of their compassion orientation.

Carol Gilligan was one of Kohlberg’s research assistants. She believed that Kohlberg’s theory was inherently biased against women. Gilligan suggests that the biggest reason that there is a gender bias in Kohlberg’s theory is that males tend to focus on logic and rules. In contrast, women focus on caring for others and relationships. She suggests, then, that in order to truly measure women’s moral development, it was necessary to create a measure specifically for women. Gilligan was clear that she did not believe neither male nor female moral development was better, but rather that they were equally important.

Gilligan’s Morality of Care

As logical as they sound, Kohlberg’s stages of moral justice are not sufficient for understanding the development of moral beliefs. To see why, suppose that you have a student who asks for an extension of the deadline for an assignment. The justice orientation of Kohlberg’s theory would prompt you to consider issues of whether granting the request is fair. Would the late student be able to put more effort into the assignment than other students? Would the extension place a difficult demand on you, since you would have less time to mark the assignments? These are important considerations related to the rights of the students and the teacher. In addition to these, however, are considerations having to do with the responsibilities that you and the requesting student have for each other and others. Does the student have a valid personal reason (illness, death in the family, etc.) for the assignment being late? Will the assignment lose its educational value if the student has to turn it in prematurely? These latter questions have less to do with fairness and rights and more to do with taking care of and responsibility for students. They require a framework different from Kohlberg’s to be understood fully.

One such framework has been developed by Carol Gilligan, whose ideas center on a morality of care, or system of beliefs about human responsibilities, care, and consideration for others. Gilligan proposed three moral positions that represent different extents or breadth of ethical care. Unlike Kohlberg or Piaget, she does not claim that the positions form a strictly developmental sequence, but only that they can be ranked hierarchically according to their depth or subtlety. In this respect, her theory is “semi-developmental” in a way similar to Maslow’s theory of motivation (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995). Table 9.1 summarizes the three moral positions from Gilligan’s theory.

Table 3.13.1. Positions of moral development according to Gilligan

Moral position Definition of what is morally good
Position 1: Survival orientation Action that considers one’s personal needs only
Position 2: Conventional care Action that considers others’ needs or preferences, but not one’s own
Position 3: Integrated care Action that attempts to coordinate one’s own personal needs with those of others

Position 1: Caring as Survival

The most basic kind of caring is a survival orientation, in which a person is concerned primarily with his or her welfare. If a teenage girl with this ethical position is wondering whether to get an abortion, for example, she will be concerned entirely with the effects of the abortion on herself. The morally good choice will be whatever creates the least stress for herself, and that disrupts her own life the least. Responsibilities to others (the baby, the father, or her family) play little or no part in her thinking.

As a moral position, a survival orientation is obviously not satisfactory for classrooms on a widespread scale. If every student only looked out for himself or herself, classroom life might become rather unpleasant! Nonetheless, there are situations in which focusing primarily on yourself is both a sign of good mental health and relevant to teachers. For a child who has been bullied at school or sexually abused at home, for example, it is both healthy and morally desirable to speak out about how bullying or abuse has affected the victim. Doing so means essentially looking out for the victim’s own needs at the expense of others’ needs, including the bully’s or abuser’s. Speaking out, in this case, requires a survival orientation and is healthy because the child is taking care of herself.

Position 2: Conventional Caring

A more subtle moral position is caring for others, in which a person is concerned about others’ happiness and welfare, and about reconciling or integrating others’ needs where they conflict with each other. In considering an abortion, for example, the teenager at this position would think primarily about what other people prefer. Do the father, her parents, and/or her doctor want her to keep the child? The morally good choice becomes whatever will please others the best. This position is more demanding than Position 1, ethically, and intellectually, because it requires coordinating several persons’ needs and values. Nevertheless, it is often morally insufficient because it ignores one crucial person: the self.

In classrooms, students who operate from Position 2 can be very desirable in some ways; they can be eager to please, considerate, and good at fitting in and at working cooperatively with others. Because these qualities are usually welcome in a busy classroom, teachers can be tempted to reward students for developing and using them. The problem with rewarding Position 2 ethics, however, is that doing so neglects the student’s development—his or her own academic and personal goals or values. Sooner or later, personal goals, values, and identity need attention and care, and educators have a responsibility for assisting students in discovering and clarifying them.

Position 3: Integrated Caring

The most developed form of moral caring in Gilligan’s model is integrated caring, the coordination of personal needs and values with those of others. Now the morally good choice takes account of everyone, including yourself, not everyone except yourself. In considering an abortion, a woman at Position 3 would think not only about the consequences for the father, the unborn child, and her family but also about the consequences for herself. How would bearing a child affect her own needs, values, and plans? This perspective leads to moral beliefs that are more comprehensive but ironically are also more prone to dilemmas because the widest possible range of individuals is being considered.

In classrooms, integrated caring is most likely to surface whenever teachers give students wide, sustained freedom to make choices. If students have little flexibility in their actions, there is little room for considering anyone’s needs or values, whether their own or others’. If the teacher says simply: “Do the homework on page 50 and turn it in tomorrow morning,” then the main issue becomes compliance, not a moral choice. Suppose instead that she says something like this: “Over the next two months, figure out an inquiry project about the use of water resources in our town. Organize it any way you want—talk to people, read widely about it, and share it with the class in a way that all of us, including yourself, will find meaningful.” An assignment like this poses moral challenges that are not only educational but also moral since it requires students to make value judgments. Why? For one thing, students must decide what aspect of the topic matters to them. Such a decision is partly a matter of personal values. For another thing, students have to consider how to make the topic meaningful or important to others in the class. Third, because the timeline for completion is relatively far in the future, students may have to weigh personal priorities (like spending time with friends or family) against educational priorities (working on the assignment a bit more on the weekend). As you might suspect, some students might have trouble making good choices when given this sort of freedom—and their teachers might, therefore, be cautious about giving such an assignment. Nevertheless, the difficulties in making choices are part of Gilligan’s point: integrated caring is indeed more demanding than the caring based only on survival or on consideration of others. Not all students may be ready for it.

Video 3.13.2. Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development explains the difference in moral development from the care perspective that females often take in society.

Forming a Sense of Rights and Responsibilities

When it comes to schooling and teaching, moral choices are not restricted to occasional dramatic incidents but are woven into almost every aspect of classroom life. Imagine this simple example. Suppose that you are teaching, reading to a small group of second-graders, and the students are taking turns reading a story out loud. Should you give every student the same amount of time to read, even though some might benefit from having additional time? Or should you give more time to the students who need extra help, even if doing so bores classmates and deprives others of equal shares of “floor time”? Which option is fairer, and which is more considerate? Simple dilemmas like this happen every day at all grade levels simply because students are diverse, and because class time and a teacher’s energy are finite.

Embedded in this rather ordinary example are moral themes about fairness or justice, on the one hand, and about consideration or care on the other. It is important to keep both themes in mind when thinking about how students develop beliefs about right or wrong. A morality of justice is about human rights—or, more specifically, about respect for fairness, impartiality, equality, and individuals’ independence. A morality of care, on the other hand, is about human responsibilities—more specifically, about caring for others, showing consideration for individuals’ needs, and interdependence among individuals. Students and teachers need both forms of morality. In the next sections, therefore, we explain a major example of each type of developmental theory, beginning with the morality of justice.

Character Development: Integrating Ethical Understanding, Care, and Action

The theories described so far all offer frameworks for understanding how children grow into youth and adults. Those by Maslow, Kohlberg, and Gilligan are more specific than the one by Erikson in that they focus on the development of understanding about ethics. From a teacher’s point of view, though, the theories are all limited in two ways. One problem is that they focus primarily on cognition—on what children think about ethical issues—more than on emotions and actions. The other is that they say little about how to encourage ethical development. Encouragement is part of teachers’ jobs, and doing it well requires understanding not only what students know about ethics, but also how they feel about it and what ethical actions they are prepared to take.

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. However, 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 go 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. For example, “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.

Schoolwide Programs of Character Education

In the most comprehensive approaches to character education, an entire school commits itself to develop 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.

Building a Culture of Kindness

Video 3.13.3. Building a Culture of Kindness with a Day of Services discusses ways that schools are building character education into their programs and the impact it is having on students.

Classroom Programs of Character Education

Even if a teacher is teaching character education simply within her 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 himself or herself, furthermore, a reading buddies program can sometimes also 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. However, ethical issues lurk 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 a large number 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 the needs of its citizens.