Moral Development

Moral development refers to the age-related developmental  processes  that  individuals  undergo  as they  become  more  knowledgeable,  consistent, and responsive in their ethical functioning. Moral development  includes  cognitive,  affective,  volitional, and behavioral elements, and developmental lags in any of these areas can result in ethical violations.  For  example,  an  athlete  who  exhibits sophisticated thinking about ethical issues yet has poor emotional control may still impulsively cheat when  there  is  little  chance  of  detection.  The  following sections introduce major theories of moral development and how they have been used in sport psychology (SP) research.

Jean Piaget’s Approach to Moral Development

The famed Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was the first to conduct a careful examination of developmental trends in children’s thinking about moral issues. Piaget’s classic book, The Moral Judgment of the Child,  published in 1932, begins with nuanced descriptions of children playing marbles  in  the  street.  Piaget  interviewed  the  children about  the  rules,  their  source,  and  their  openness to revision. Drawing from his extensive interviews and observations, Piaget went on to describe children’s thoughts not only about game rules but also about stealing and lying, harm, and justice.

Piaget identified two broad stages in children’s moral  development.  Initially,  children  embrace a  heteronomous  approach  to  morality.  At  this stage,  morality  is  viewed  as  an  external  set  of requirements  handed  down  by  authority  figures, like  parents.  Rules  are  unchangeable.  Eventually, as children gain experience in collaborative activity  with  peers,  heteronomous  morality  gives  way to  autonomous  morality.  Children  come  to  see moral regulation as something that is socially constructed and open to revision.

When considering Piaget’s contribution to moral development research, it is helpful to keep in mind his broader contribution to psychology. Piaget was the  most  influential  architect  of  an  approach  to psychology  known  as  constructivism.  In  contrast to behaviorists, who argue that the child is simply the product of environmental determinants, Piaget argued that the child is an active agent. According to Piaget, the mind doesn’t simply passively receive information;  it  actively  seeks  to  interpret  experience.  Metaphorically,  every  child  is  a  budding philosopher who tries to make sense of the world and  construct  meaning  through  interactions  with physical and social reality.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Development

moral-development-psychology-of-sportWith  Piaget  having  pioneered  the  scientific  study of moral development, it was Lawrence Kohlberg who brought it into the mainstream of psychology. Kohlberg began his work in the late 1950s, and his theory and research dominated the field for nearly a half century.

Kohlberg began with an initial sample of 50 males, ages 10 to 28, whom he interviewed every 3 years for 18 years. Kohlberg claimed that each of his subjects went through the same sequence of changes in the structure of their moral thinking. Based on his interviews, Kohlberg proposed a six-stage model of moral development.  Over  the  years,  the  precise  descriptions of the stages evolved, and Kohlberg eventually dropped Stage 6. Before his death in 1987, Kohlberg and his colleagues had interviewed thousands of subjects from a diverse range of cultures and found general support for the universality and invariant order of his stage sequence. The next sections describe his theoretical  orientation,  his  methodology,  and  the stage sequence that he proposed.

Kohlberg’s Theoretical Orientation

Kohlberg’s  theory  synthesized  philosophical and  psychological  commitments.  He  was  heavily influenced by Kantian philosophers, such as John Rawls,  who  argue  that  there  are  universal  principles of morality that can be discovered through reason.  But  reason  doesn’t  come  fully  formed  in the  young  child,  and  Kohlberg  found  inspiration in Piaget’s studies of the development of children’s cognitive reasoning.

Kohlberg   offered   a   cognitive   developmental  theory  of  moral  development.  According  to Kohlberg,  cognition  is  key  to  morality.  A  moral act  is  one  motivated  by  commitment  to  moral principles. People may not always act consistently with  their  best  thinking,  but  sophisticated  moral thinking is a necessary, if insufficient, precondition for  acting  morally.  The  defining  characteristic  of mature  moral  reasoning,  according  to  Kohlberg, is  an  ability  to  weigh  everyone’s  claims  in  a  fair, unbiased, impartial manner. Stated differently, the core of morality is the principle of justice.

Kohlberg’s Methodology

To  investigate  moral  thinking,  Kohlberg  distinguished between the form and the content of moral thought. The content of moral thinking refers to the specific thoughts that a person has about a moral situation—the  specific  beliefs  that  they  hold.  The form  or  structure  of  moral  reasoning  refers  to  a deeper pattern to the way people think. Consider, for example, an athlete who argues that a baseball pitcher  should  hurl  a  fastball  close  to  a  batter’s head in retaliation for the opposing pitcher hitting a teammate with a pitch the previous inning. The athlete’s specific belief about what the pitcher should do is part of the content of their moral reasoning. Underlying that belief is a patterned way of thinking about issues of rights, responsibilities, fairness, and human welfare. That pattern of reasoning is the structural level of moral thinking and development.

Kohlberg  presented  his  research  subjects  with brief hypothetical dilemmas and asked them what the protagonist should do. For example, in his most famous story, people are told about “Heinz,” who must choose whether or not to steal a drug to save his dying wife. Whether the person says that Heinz should steal the drug or not is irrelevant to scoring their  stage  of  development.  That  decision  reflects the  content  of  their  moral  judgment.  Kohlberg was interested in the pattern of reasoning that the person  used  to  reach  their  conclusion.  By  asking why  a  person  thinks  the  way  they  do  and  probing their responses, Kohlberg sought to isolate the “moral grammar” beneath their judgments. Thus, stages are defined in terms of the structure of moral thinking.

Kohlberg’s  research  methodology  is  time-consuming  and  expensive.  An  alternative  approach, based  on  a  similar  developmental  model,  was developed by James Rest. His Defining Issues Test (DIT) was developed to provide a paper-and-pencil alternative  to  Kohlberg’s  interview  method.  The DIT  presents  some  of  the  same  moral  dilemmas as  Kohlberg  uses  but  then  provides  a  set  of  possible responses to the dilemmas. Respondents rate the adequacy of the responses and then select the responses that most appeal to them. Rest’s assessment methodology has been used in a number of sport investigations. In addition, his later elaboration of moral functioning processes, which extend beyond  developmental  issues,  has  laid  the  foundation for significant sport research (see the entry Moral Judgment, this encyclopedia).

Kohlberg’s Moral Levels

According to Kohlberg, children move through a  regular,  age-related  sequence  of  stages.  While the stages of development are universal, children’s progress  through  the  stages  can  occur  at  varying rates,  and  many  people  plateau  in  their  development without reaching the highest stages. Growth from one stage to the next is facilitated by experiences that lead them to question the adequacy of their existing stage of reasoning.

Each  stage  in  Kohlberg’s  model  is  said  to  be better than the previous stage. By better, Kohlberg meant  that  each  stage  is  an  advance  both  philosophically and psychologically. From a philosophical  standpoint,  each  stage  improves  upon  earlier stages  because  it  is  more  comprehensive  in  the kinds  of  moral  issues  that  it  considers  and  more internally  coherent  in  the  way  that  it  address them.  Psychologically,  each  stage  is  said  to  be better  because  it  is  more  stable,  comprehensive, and  coherent  than  the  previous  stage  (for  a  brief description  of  the  stages,  see  the  entry  Moral Reasoning).

Post-Kohlbergian Perspectives

Though Kohlberg’s theory has been the most influential, there have been many critics and alternative proposals.  Carol  Gilligan,  noting  that  his  original  sample  was  all  male,  thought  that  Kohlberg neglected women’s voices. If he had listened equally to women, she argued, he would have realized that his  focus  on  justice  needed  to  be  complemented by  an  equal  concern  for  care  and  interpersonal responsiveness.

Others have critiqued Kohlberg’s philosophical commitments and how they shaped various aspects of  his  theory.  For  example,  Norma  Haan  developed  an  alternative  moral  development  model based less on Kantian-style reasoning and more on how people create informal norms of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships. Through Haan did not hold to all of Kohlberg’s strong claims about stage development, she did present a five-level developmental  sequence  that  characterizes  increasingly adequate forms of moral thinking.

A  number  of  theorists  have  also  focused  on “prosocial  behavior,”  which  is  behavior  intended to  benefit  others  (regardless  of  motive),  rejecting Kohlberg’s more stringent requirement that moral action arise from moral reasoning. The behavioral focus  also  characterizes  those  who  divide  moral action  into  antisocial  and  prosocial  behaviors, both of which are defined independent of underlying reasons or motives.

Since  Kohlberg’s  pioneering  work,  the  field  of moral development research has evolved to focus on a number of other major dimensions of morality  in  addition  to  cognition.  Augusto  Blasi,  for example,  has  written  extensively  on  the  concept of moral identity, which refers to both how salient moral concerns are to one’s sense of self and what specific  dimensions  of  morality  one  elevates  to highest  concern  and  how  moral  identity  serves as  a  bridge  between  moral  thought  and  action. Jonathan  Haidt,  among  others,  has  highlighted the development and role of unconscious processes in  moral  functioning.  Some  researchers  have  also sought to elucidate the biological and evolutionary underpinning  of  moral  development,  though  this line  of  investigation  has  not  yet  had  much  of  an impact on sport morality research.

Moral Development in Sport Research

In   the   1980s,   Brenda   Bredemeier   and   David Shields pioneered a line of sport morality research drawing  from  both  Kohlberg’s  and  Haan’s  theoretical paradigms. They found that the maturity of an athlete’s moral reasoning has important correlates. Research, for example, suggests that college basketball players with lower stage moral reasoning  are  more  likely  to  be  rated  by  their  coaches as  more  aggressive;  they  are  also  more  likely  to accept potentially injurious behavior as legitimate. Similarly,  children  who  are  less  mature  in  their moral reasoning are more likely to use aggressive tactics than assertive or submissive ones.

Some  researchers  have  sought  to  determine whether  participation  in  sports  has  an  impact  on moral stage growth. To date, research on this question  has  been  cross-sectional,  so  no  cause–effect conclusions can be reached. Moreover, the existent research is inconclusive. A few studies have found that  participation  in  some  sports,  particularly  at higher  levels,  is  associated  with  lower  moral  reasoning maturity, but these findings have not been robust.  It  is  unlikely  that  any  conclusions  about “sports” in general will hold up since sport experiences are so varied. Other influences, such as education  and  diverse  role-taking  opportunities,  are likely more influential.

There have been a small number of intervention studies that have sought to increase moral reasoning  maturity  through  physical  education  (PE)  or sport programs. The primary intervention strategy is  to  provide  participants  with  structured  opportunities for role-taking, dialogue, and negotiation  about moral issues. The results of these pilot investigations have demonstrated that leaders, equipped with training, can promote moral development.

Recent  trends  in  SP  have  been  away  from  an explicit  focus  on  moral  development  in  favor  of other  dimensions  of  moral  functioning,  such  as moral reasoning and behavior and how these are influenced by other variables of interest. One reason for this trend may be the difficulty of assessing moral development; existent measures, such as the interview methods of Kohlberg and Haan, require considerable  time  to  learn,  administer,  and  score. Even  the  paper-and-pencil  DIT  is  lengthy.  Still, moral  development  has  been  documented  to  be an  important  influence  on  moral  action  in  sport, and future researchers are likely to shed additional light  on  this  important  dimension  of  the  sport experience.


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  4. Proios, M., Doganis, G., & Athanailidis, I. (2004). Moral development and form of participation, type of sport, and sport experience. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 99, 633–642.
  5. Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  6. Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (2007). Advances in sport morality research. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 662–684). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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