Moral Development During School Years - Theories by Piaget and Kohlberg

Examine Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development during school years.

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Moral development refers to the changes in the ability to reason about what is right and what is wrong in a given situation (e.g., Carlo et al., 1996; Carpendale & Krebs, 1995). Lawrence Kohlberg was a developmental psychologist who, influenced by Piaget and others, outlined a theory of the development of moral thinking through looking at how people of various ages responded to stories about people caught up in moral dilemmas. Kohlberg and Piaget’s theories are discussed below:

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Interest in how children think about moral issues was stimulated by Piaget (1932), who extensively observed and interviewed children from the ages of 4 through 12. Piaget watched children play marbles to learn how they used and thought about the game’s rules. He also asked children about ethical issues—theft, lies, punishment, and justice, for example. Piaget concluded that children go through two distinct stages, separated by a transition period, in how they think about morality.

  1. Heteronomous morality: From 4 to 7 years of age, children display heteronomous morality, the first stage of moral development in Piaget’s theory. Children think of justice and rules as unchangeable properties of the world, removed from the control of people.
  2. Transition period: From 7 to 10 years of age, children are in a transition showing some features of the first stage of moral reasoning and some stages of the second stage, autonomous morality.
  3. Autonomous morality: From about 10 years of age and older, children show autonomous morality, Piaget’s second stage of moral development. They become aware that rules and laws are created by people, and in judging an action, they consider the actor’s intentions as well as the consequences.

Because young children are heteronomous moralists, they judge the rightness or goodness of behavior by considering its consequences, not the intentions of the actor. For example, to the heteronomous moralist, breaking twelve cups accidentally is worse than breaking one cup intentionally. As children develop into moral autonomists, intentions assume paramount importance.

The heteronomous thinker also believes that rules are unchangeable and are handed down by all-powerful authorities. When Piaget suggested to young children that they use new rules in a game of marbles, they resisted. By contrast, older children—moral autonomists—accept change and recognize that rules are merely convenient conventions, subject to change.

The heteronomous thinker also believes in immanent justice, the concept that if a rule is broken, punishment will be meted out immediately. The young child believes that a violation is connected automatically to its punishment. Thus, young children often look around worriedly after doing something wrong, expecting inevitable punishment. Immanent justice also implies that if something unfortunate happens to someone, the person must have transgressed earlier. Older children, who are moral autonomists, recognize that punishment occurs only if someone witnesses the wrongdoing and that, even then, punishment is not inevitable. They also realize that bad things can happen to innocent people.

Piaget argued that, as children develop, they become more sophisticated in thinking about social matters, especially about the possibilities and conditions of cooperation. Piaget reasoned that this social understanding comes about through the mutual give-and-take of peer relations. In the peer group, where others have power and status similar to the child’s, plans are negotiated and coordinated, and disagreements are reasoned about and eventually settled. Parent-child relations, in which parents have the power and children do not, are less likely to advance moral reasoning, because rules are often handed down in an authoritarian way.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg (1973) proposed three levels of moral development, or the knowledge of right and wrong behavior. Although these stages are associated with certain age-groups, adolescents and adults can be found at all three levels. For example, a juvenile delinquent tends to be pre-conventional in moral thinking.

Kohlberg’s Three Levels of Morality are:

1. The Pre-conventional Level: At the first level of moral development, the pre-conventional level, children judge morality largely in terms of consequences: Actions that lead to rewards are perceived as good or acceptable; ones that lead to punishments are seen as bad or unacceptable. For example, a child at this level might say, “The man should not steal the drug, because if he does, he’ll be punished.” It involves two stages:
a. Punishment and obedience orientation: Morality judged in terms of consequences
b. Naive Hedonistic Orientation: Morality judged in terms of what satisfies own needs or those of others.
2. The Conventional Level: As cognitive abilities increase, Kohlberg suggests, children enter a second level of moral development, the conventional level. Now they are aware of some of the complexities of the social order and judge morality in terms of what supports and preserves the laws and rules of their society. Thus, a child at this stage might reason: “It’s OK to steal the drug, because no one will think you are bad if you do. If you don’t, and let your wife die, you’ll never be able to look anyone in the eye again.” It involves
two stages:
a. Good boy- good girl orientation: Morality judged in terms of adherence to social rules or norms with respect to personal acquaintances.
b. Social order-maintaining orientation: Morality judged in terms of social rules of laws applied universally, not just to acquaintances.
3. The Post-conventional Level: Finally, in adolescence or early adulthood many—though by no means all—individuals enter a third level known as the post-conventional level, or principled level. Persons who attain this stage often believe that certain obligations and values transcend the rules or laws of society. The principles such individuals follow are abstract and ethical, not concrete like the Ten Commandments, and are based on inner conscience rather than on external sources of authority. It involves two stages:
a. Legalistic orientation: Morality judged in terms of human rights, which may transcend laws.
b. Universal ethical principle orientation: Morality judged in terms of self-chosen ethical principles.

* * *

To summarize, Piaget and Kohlberg proposed theories in the area of moral development - changes in the ability to reason about what is right and what is wrong in a given situation. Piaget concluded that children go through two distinct stages – heteronomous morality and autonomous morality - separated by a transition period, in how they think about morality.

Kohlberg proposed three levels of moral development – the pre-conventional level, the conventional level and the post-conventional level – each having two sub-stages. These theories form the basis of our understanding of moral development in children.

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