Moral Development

Moral Development Definition

Moral development refers to age-related changes in the thoughts and emotions that guide individuals’ ideas of right and wrong and how they and others should act. in addressing this broad concept, theorists and researchers have focused on the moral cognitions, feelings, and behaviors that tend to evolve from early childhood to adulthood.

Moral Cognitions Development

Moral DevelopmentSome researchers have emphasized the cognitive component of morality by studying the development of moral reasoning. Based on his observations of and interviews with 4- to 12-year-old children, Jean Piaget proposed a two-stage model of moral development. in the first stage, young children view rules as rigid, unchangeable, and handed down by authorities. By the second stage, older children have become aware that rules and laws are established and maintained through mutual consent, and as a result, they view rules and laws as flexible and changeable rather than as absolute.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

Lawrence Kohlberg revised and extended Piaget’s model after extensively interviewing people of different ages about various moral dilemmas (for example, whether a man should steal from a pharmacist an extremely expensive drug that may save his wife’s life). The model that Kohlberg proposed describes individuals’ moral reasoning as progressing through an age-related sequence of three levels, each composed of two distinct stages. in general, Kohlberg’s model describes the basis of individuals’ moral judgments as evolving from externally imposed rules and laws to internally determined standards and principles.

There have been numerous criticisms of Kohlberg’s conclusions concerning the development of moral judgment. For example, carol Gilligan argued that Kohlberg’s view of moral reasoning emphasizes issues of justice, law, and autonomy, which are associated with a traditionally male perspective of morality, and ignores issues such as a concern for the welfare of others and the preservation of interpersonal relationships, which are associated with a traditionally female perspective of morality. Other critics of Kohlberg’s theory and research on moral judgment caution that how a person thinks about morally relevant situations may provide little insight into how that person will act in such situations.

Moral Feelings Development

Some individuals interested in moral development have focused on various emotions (such as guilt, shame, empathy, and sympathy) that are associated with the enactment of morally acceptable behaviors and the avoidance of morally unacceptable behaviors. For example, Sigmund Freud proposed that, through the process of identifying with the same-sex parent, children take on their parent’s moral standards and experience feelings of guilt when engaging in (or anticipate engaging in) behaviors that violate those standards.

A more positive emotion than guilt that has been found to be very important in moral development is empathy. Empathy is said to occur when a person responds to another’s feeling, such as sadness, with a similar emotion. changes in the experience of empathy from infancy onward are believed to be associated with age-related changes in the individual’s ability to take others’ perspectives, both cognitively and emotionally. individuals who empathize with the feelings of others have been found to be more likely to engage in positive interpersonal behaviors, and less likely to engage in negative interpersonal behaviors, than are individuals who do not empathize with the feelings of others.

Moral Behaviors Development

The range of behaviors that have been considered in studies of moral development is extremely broad. Whereas some researchers have focused on the individual’s ability and willingness to engage in various prosocial behaviors (such as helping, sharing, and comforting), others have focused on the individual’s ability and willingness to resist engaging in various antisocial behaviors (such as aggressing, cheating, and lying). In addition to examining the role of moral cognitions and emotions in moral behaviors, psychologists have devoted considerable attention to identifying the early socialization experiences that promote the expression of prosocial behaviors and the avoidance of antisocial behaviors.

An extensive body of research has demonstrated that moral development is encouraged when parents love and support their children, provide opportunities for their children to learn about other people’s views and feelings, model moral thinking and behavior themselves, and provide opportunities for moral thinking and behavior to be expressed and reinforced in their children.

The discipline technique that has been found to be most effective in encouraging moral development is called induction. A parent who uses induction explains to the child why his or her behavior is wrong and should be changed by emphasizing the impact of that misbehavior on others. Children whose parents use induction as their primary approach to discipline have been found to display higher levels of empathy and prosocial behaviors, and lower levels of antisocial behaviors, than do children whose parents rely on physical punishment or the withdrawal of love and attention as their primary approach to discipline.

Moral Education

Various educational programs have been designed to enhance the moral development of children and adolescents. As an extension of Kohlberg’s view, some schools have set up cognitive moral education programs that encourage groups of adolescents to discuss a broad range of issues in the hope of promoting more advanced moral reasoning. The character education approach tends to be more direct, encouraging students to learn and follow a specific moral code to guide their behaviors in and out of school. Schools with service learning programs attempt to promote social responsibility by encouraging (or, in some cases, requiring) their students to assist needy individuals within their community. Although evidence indicates that providing service to others is beneficial to the young helper as well as to the recipient of the help, the role of service learning and other school-based programs in moral development remains controversial.


  1. Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of moral development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.