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Developmental Psychology Practical

Moral Reasoning in Young Children


What is Moral development?

​ Morality is defined as a set of principles or ideals that help the individual to distinguish right
from wrong, to act on this distinction, and to feel pride in virtuous conduct and guilt (or other
unpleasant emotions) for conduct that violates one’s standards.(Shaffer and Kipp, 2010).
Morality is a concept with various structural connotations. It is multifaceted in that it has
emotional, cognitive and behavioural components. It is also a concept that can generate a lot of
debate as the question of what is moral itself is dynamic. Whether there is any behaviour that is
truly moral without any outside encouragement is part of whether morality is rooted in human
nature. The context of our socialization and environment can also influence our notion of what is
moral and forms a part of morality as an adoption of society
There are 3 main components of morality: Affective component, Behavioural component,
and the Cognitive component.
An ​affective, ​or emotional, component that consists of the feelings (guilt, concern for
others’ feelings, etc.) that surround right or wrong actions and that motivate moral thoughts and
A ​cognitive ​component that centers on the way we conceptualize right and wrong and
make decisions about how to behave.
A ​behavioral component ​that reflects how we actually behave when we experience the
temptation to lie, cheat, or violate other moral rules.

Traditionally, these 3 components of morality have been studied separately: biological

and psychoanalytic theories focus on emotions, cognitive and developmental theories focus on
moral thought, and social learning theory on moral behaviour. Research today, reveals that these
are interrelated on the basis of which morality can be conceptualized through 3 broad streams

Morality as rooted in human nature. ​The biological theories of human social behaviour
in the 1970’s revealed that many behaviours and emotions that are morally relevant have roots in
evolutionary history (Wilson, 2013). This indicated that morality had evolved within humans
themselves, in turn indicating that moral behaviour is rooted in human nature. Among primates,
chimpanzees (who are genetically closest to humans) conform to moral like rules, which group
members enforce in one another. They engage in sharing and comforting acts. Although a variety
of built in bases for morality have been posited, empathy or caring and self-sacrifice are of prime
importance. Humans also have an unmatched capacity to make sacrifices for nonrelatives by
investing time and effort. Theorists believe that the unique capacity to act pro socially towards
genetic strangers originated in hunting and gathering communities. To limit selfishness humans
developed informal systems of social exchange, acting benevolently towards others expecting
that they will do the same for them in the future. As toddlers reach two years of age, they start
showing empathetic concerns and experience self -conscious emotions which then leads to the
enhancement of their responsiveness to social expectation. There has been biological support for
this as well since researchers have identified areas in the prefrontal cortex that are important for
the emotional responsiveness to the suffering of others and one’s own needs. EEG and functional
MRI’s reveal that psychopaths who inflict harm to others without any trace of empathy or guilt,
showed reduced activities in these areas (Berk, 2013).

Morality as adoption of societal norms. ​The psychoanalytic theory and the social
learning theory both study morality as a matter of internalization (adopting societal standards for
right action as one’s own) and thus can be used to study morality as an adoption of societal
norms. Both theories look at how morality moves from society to individual- how children
acquire norms, or prescription of good conduct, held wildly by members of their own group.
Internal influences and the rearing environment together result in internalization. When this
process goes well, the external forces then foster the child’s positive inclinations and counteract
the child’s negative inclinations. Without an internalized concept of morality bred through a
warm parental environment, people would absolutely disregard each other’s rights when their
wishes are conflicting.
Freud in his theory put forth that morality emerges between ages 3 and 6 which is the
phallic stage. The resolution of the oedipal/electra complex leads to identification with the
same-sex parent, forming a superego. Many critics disagree with Freud’s idea of conscience
Social learning theorists believe that modeling is an important form of learning moral
behaviour through observing and imitating adults who demonstrate appropriate behavior.
(Bandura, 1977).

However, such theories have also been criticized as the prevailing ethical norms could be
at odds with various important ethical principles and humanitarian goals. According to the
cognitive developmental perspective, individuals tend to develop morally through construction
that is, actively attending to and inter-relating multiple perspectives on situations in which social
conflicts arise and thereby they attain new moral understandings.

Morality as social understanding. ​According to the cognitive developmental

perspective, cognitive maturity and social experience are two very important aspects of advances
in moral understanding, from a mere superficial orientation toward a more profound appreciation
of interpersonal relationships, social institutions and law making systems. Social cooperation
tends to expand children’s ideas about when the needs and desires of people conflict also change
towards increasingly just, fair and balanced solutions to different moral problems. The concept of
morality as a social understanding can be understood through the study of Piaget’s Theory of
Moral Development and Kohlberg’s further extension on Piaget’s theory (Berk, 2013).

Theories of moral development

Piaget’s Theory. ​He claimed that moral socialization does not solely begin with children
accepting the authority of adults, but also; children eventually engage in new forms of social
relationships that are reciprocal and equal, where relationships are balanced and in stable
equilibrium, and where rules take on new meaning. His work on children’s moral judgments
focused on two aspects of moral reasoning: respect for rules and conceptions of justice. Piaget
formulated a stage theory of moral development that includes a premoral period and two moral

The Premoral Period. ​According to Piaget, preschool children show little concern for or
awareness of rules. In a game of marbles, these premoral children do not play systematically with
the intent of winning. Instead, they seem to make up their own rules, and they think the point of
the game is to take turns and have fun.
Moral Judgment occurs in 2 stages; ​Moral Realism​ or ​Moral Heteronomy​ and ​Moral
Heteronomy. ​In this stage, the young child has unilateral respect for the power and
magnificence of adults and is thereby constrained. The inherent inequality of this relationship
requires children to subordinate their interests to the perspective of adults (syncretism), but this
results in a cluster of moral notions that reveal the tendency of young children to subordinate the
social interest to their own subjective point of view (juxtaposition). Children feel the constraint
of rules, without understanding them, but rules do not govern conduct. Rules are sacred and
unchanging, but play is idiosyncratic and variable, assimilated to individual schemes.
Autonomy. ​In contrast to heteronomy, the morality of cooperation emerges within a
context of peer solidarity among equals. Notions of equality and mutual respect drive it. In the
society of equals one must negotiate, settle conflicts, win over friends with reason, and otherwise
sort out the benefits and burdens of cooperation in ways that are judged fair and equitable (Rest,
By the 1960s, Piaget’s early theorizing and research had legitimized the study of
children’s thinking, and his early work linking moral development to cognitive development
contributed immensely to a growing area of developmental research—​social cognition. ​Theorists
such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Selman, however, argued that the same mind that
gradually constructs increasingly sophisticated understandings of the physical world also comes,
with age, to form more complex ideas about sex differences, moral values, emotions, the
meaning and obligations of friendship, and countless other aspects of social life.
Evaluation. ​Many of Piaget’s ideas have been challenged (Miller, 2002).
It now appears that Piaget regularly underestimated the intellectual capabilities of infants,
preschoolers, and grade-school children, all of whom show much greater problem-solving skills
when presented with simplified tasks that are more familiar and thereby allow them to display
their competencies (Bjorklund, 2005.)
Other investigators found that performance on Piagetian problems can be improved
dramatically through training programs, which challenges Piaget’s assumption that
individualized discovery learning is the best way to promote intellectual growth.
It has been found that children do not always reach the different stages at the age levels
he specified, and that their entry into some of the stages is more gradual than was first thought.
Piaget didn’t give any importance to social and cultural factors.
Today it is widely accepted that a child's intellectual ability is determined by a
combination of ​heredity​ and environment. Thus, although a child's genetic inheritance is
unchangeable, there are definite ways that parents can enhance their children's intellectual
development through environmental factors.

Kohlberg’s Theory. ​Kohlberg expanded Piaget’s two stages into six, organized into
three levels – each level consisting of two stages – as follows. Kohlberg demonstrated that people
progressed in their moral reasoning (i.e., in their bases for ethical behavior) through a series of
stages, through studies. He believed that there were six identifiable stages which could be more
generally classified into three levels.
Level I: Preconventionl Morality. ​The preconventional child thinks of morality in terms
of the consequences of disobedience to adult rules in order to avoid punishment.
​ his first stage has been called “punishment and obedience,” or “​might makes
Stage 1. T
right​.” Obey your parents, or these powerful authority figures will physically punish you. The
child’s understanding is that punishment must be avoided for her/his own comfort. The child is
still unable to view the world from the perspective of others
​ y stage 2 the child recognizes that there is mutual benefit in cooperation. This
Stage 2. B
stage has been called “​instrumentalism​” or “​look out for number one​” or “​what’s in​ ​it for me.​”
The child is a bit less egocentric at this stage, recognizing that if one is good to others then they
in terms will be good to you.
Level II: Conventional Morality. ​At this level the child begins to grasp social rules and
gains a more objective perspective on right and wrong.
​ tage 3 can be called “interpersonal relationships” or “​good girl/boy​.” The major
Stage 3. S
motivating factor in good behavior is social approval from those closest to the child.
​ aintaining social conventions or “​law and order​” are brief but apt descriptions
Stage 4. M
of the fourth stage. This sense of order becomes generalized beyond close others to society at
large. The concept of “doing one’s duty” is crucial here.
​ t this level the emphasis is no longer on
Level III: Postconventional Morality. A
conventional, societal standards of morality, but rather on personal or idealized principles.
Stage 5. ​This can be called the “​social contract​” stage. The understanding is that laws,
rules, and regulations are created for the mutual benefit of all citizens.
Stage 6. ​This is the stage of “​universal ethical principles.”​ Right and wrong are not
determined by rules and laws, but by individual reflection on what is proper behavior.

Evaluation. ​Carol Gilligan provided criticism for Kohlberg’s theory. She believed that
the theory was very male centric.
Kohlberg’s claim that observed development occurs in unified stages that are
hierarchically integrated and arise in invariant sequence is held as flawed today.
He believed that stage development and the morality it captures is "natural" or “universal”
in any cross-cultural sense. In this he did not give enough work to other cultures.
Kohlberg's strongest and most criticized philosophical claim--that justice and rights are
the central concepts of morality--is the most obviously dispensable. Kohlberg’s perennial stage
descriptions center on different moral concept or theme in every stage such as prudence,
benevolence, or advancing social welfare.
Kohlberg's even more fundamental claim that moral development can only be chartered
where morality is non-relative seems dispensable. Moral judgment can become relatively
Giligan’s Theory- Morality of Care. ​Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book ‘In a Different Voice’
challenged psychology for its narrow sexism in studying (in most cases) men, and then
generalizing their results to both genders. She claimed that, whereas boys’ and men’s are
concerned with a morality based on rules and abstract principles of justice, girls’ and women’s
are based on care and compassion. She contrasted her ​morality of care​ with Kohlberg’s ​morality
of justice a​ nd she criticized Kohlberg for stressing just one side of the equation, namely, the
Gilligan argued that males and females are often socialized differently, and females are
more apt than males to stress interpersonal relationships and take responsibility for the
well-being of others. Gilligan suggested this difference is due to the child's relationship with the
mother and that females are traditionally taught a moral perspective that focuses on community
and caring about personal relationships.

Stage Characteristics Example

Individual survival is Child insists on playing
Preconventionl the goal. games that he/she likes when
with a friend.

Conventional Self-sacrifice is goodness. Child believes that to be a

good friend, games that the
friend wants to play should
be chosen, even if he/she
hates those.

Postconventional Non-violence becomes Child realizes that he/she

important. should look for games that
are loved by both- the friend
and self.

Care-based morality is based on the following principles: Emphasizes interconnectedness

and universality. Acting justly means avoiding violence and helping those in need. Care-based
morality is thought to be more common in girls because of their connections to their mothers.
Because girls remain connected to their mothers, they are less inclined to worry about issues of

Justice-based morality is based on the following principles: Views the world as being
composed of autonomous individuals who interact with another. Acting justly means avoiding
inequality. Is thought to be more common in boys because of their need to differentiate between
themselves and their mothers. Because they are separated from their mothers, boys become more
concerned with the concept of inequality.


Support​. ​Eisenberg et al. (1987) found gender differences similar to Gilligan’s: girls
between the ages of 10 and 12 tended to give more caring empathetic responses than boys of the
same age. However, this may be because girls mature more quickly than boys, while boys catch
up later in adolescence. It may also be a result of demand characteristics within the research
(those features of an experiment which ‘invite’ particular behaviours from participants).

Limitations.​ ​Limited evidence of gender variations — In general, however, research has

found only small gender differences. In Walker’s (1984) Meta analysis of 108 studies, there were
only 8 clear indications of sex differences, but even in those cases, the effects were confounded
by other sociological and scoring factors and the differences themselves were very small — less
than half a stage.

Eisenberg’s Theory of Moral Understanding.​ ​Eisenberg concentrated on pro-social

moral reasoning: acting in a positive way when someone is in need. Eisenberg’s theory
concentrates on the emotional component of moral understanding. ​Eisenberg claimed that
cognitive development is too large a theme to be explained by a single theory or model.​ ​She sees
cognitive development comprising several elements apart from Kohlberg’s notions of justice and
fair play, including pro-social behaviour. We all help others at some cost to time and effort
occasionally. Some people seem willing to help out others don’t as often.​ ​Eisenberg argues that
the most important element for pro-social reasoning is turn taking and role taking.

Level Main orientation Description Age (approx.)

Level 1 Self-centred Concern only for oneself Up to 7 years

Level 2 Considers needs of others 7–11 years

Needs orientated but experiences little guilt
if no help is given

Level 3 Will only help others if 11–14 years

Approval orientated rewarded by praise and
Level 4 Has sympathy for the 12 years
Empathic person in need and feels
guilty if help is not given.

Level 5 Helping behaviour is based 16 years and

Internalised strongly on internalised over
beliefs and values

Evaluation. ​Primitive and Sympathetic distress:​ ​The prediction that pro-social behaviour
is motivated by ‘Sympathetic distress’ but not by the more primitive distress shown by younger
children is supported by research.​ ​Caplan and Hay (1989) found that children aged between 3 and
5 were often upset by another child’s distress, but rarely offered to help. Older children
realistically think that it doesn’t have to be an adult that helps.
Empathy and Altruism:​ ​Batson’s (1991) empathy-altruism hypothesis supports
Eisenberg’s view of pro-social behaviour, proposing that human altruism is motivated by
experiencing the distress of another. However, Cialdini et al. (1982) have opposed this view,
suggesting the negative state relief hypothesis, the view that we feel distressed when someone
else is distressed and act in order to relieve our own distress.

Assessment of moral reasoning

There are several indicators that have been identified in the literature to assess moral
behaviour and moral reasoning of a person. The most commonly used methods are Kolberg’s
moral judgment interview, moral judgment tests, and the defining issues test.
Moral Judgment Interview.​ In order to operationalize Kohlberg's theory, the Moral
Judgment Interview was developed. The initial procedure involved interviewing a subject after
being presented with a series of situations involving moral conflicts. After each dilemma is
presented, the subject is asked a series of open-ended, probe questions designed to elicit
information regarding the subject's moral reasoning in resolving the dilemma. Specifically, the
Moral Judgment Interview is designed to "elicit a subject's (1) own construction of moral
reasoning, (2) moral frame of reference or assumptions about right and wrong, and (3) the way
these beliefs and assumptions are used to make and justify moral decisions" (Colby and
Kohlberg, 1987:61).
Defining Issues Test.​ Based on his adaptation of Kohlberg's model, Rest (1979)
developed a non-interview measurement instrument called The Defining Issues Test (DIT) to
assess moral reasoning without relying on the verbal skills of the individual. This test contains
six hypothetical dilemmas, three of them Kohlbergian dilemmas that can be used to determine an
individual's moral reasoning skills. As noted, the dilemmas comprise a variety of social moral
issues, ranging from stealing a drug to saving a life to discontinuing a school newspaper for its
disturbing influence. Subjects respond to the dilemmas by rating and ranking the importance of a
series of statements prototypical of the different stages of moral reasoning. Requiring both the
rating and ranking tasks allows for a consistency check for individuals who might check at
random through the instrument. (Elm & Weber, 1994)
Moral Judgment Tests.​ The Moral Judgment Test (MJT) has been constructed to assess
subjects’ moral judgment competence as it has been defined by Lawrence Kohlberg as “the
capacity to make decisions and judgments which are moral (i.e., based on internal principles) and
to act in accordance with such judgments” (Kohlberg, 1964, p. 425). Essentially, the MJT
assesses moral judgment competence by recording how a subject deals with counter-arguments,
that is, with arguments that oppose his or her position on a difficult problem. The
counter-arguments arguments are the core feature of the MJT representing the moral task that the
subject has to cope with. More specifically, in the standard version of the MJT, the subject is
confronted with two moral dilemmas and with arguments pro and contra the subject‘s opinion on
solving each of them. (Lind, 1998)

Influences on moral reasoning

​Gender. ​Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s wrote a book called ‘In a Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Women’s Development’ in 1982 where she critiqued and extended
Kohlberg’s theory. In contrast to his stage theory, where the male view of individual rights and
rules was considered a higher stage of development and women’s view based on caring and its
effect on relationships was considered lower, Gilligan argued that women are not moral midgets.
She suggested that women and men differ in their conceptions of moral understanding.
She claimed that, whereas boys’ and men’s are concerned with a morality based on rules and
abstract principles of justice, girls’ and women’s are based on care and compassion. In an article
about ethics, moral development and gender, Branbeck, M. and Fry, Sara. (2016) summarise
empirical findings and find that hardly any difference in moral motivation or reasoning exists but
there is a difference in moral behavior. They concluded that gender bias accounted for this
difference rather than differential moral motivation. Some evidence shows that although the
morality of males and females taps both orientations, females do tend to stress care, or empathic
perspective taking, whereas males either stress justice or focus equally on justice and care (Jaffe
& Hyde, 2000; Nark & Krebs, 1996; Weisz & Black, 2002).
The difference in emphasis appears most often in real-life rather than hypothetical
dilemmas. Consequently, it may be largely a function of women's greater involvement in daily
activities involving care and concern for others.

Personality.​ ​A flexible, open-minded approach to new information and experiences has

been linked to gains in moral reasoning (Hart et al., 1998; Matsuba & Walker, 1998). Because
open-minded young people are more socially skilled, they have more opportunities for social
participation. In a study by Peter Mudrack on ‘Moral reasoning and personality traits’ in 2006, it
was found that there was a positive association between moral reasoning and Achievement via
Independence, Intellectual Efficiency, Tolerance, Responsibility, and Capacity for Status. Such
relationships make conceptual sense, shed light on the meaning and implications of moral

Child Rearing Practices.​ ​Child rearing practices associated with mature moral reasoning
combine warmth, exchange of ideas and appropriate demands for maturity. Parents who engage
in moral discussions, encourage prosocial behavior insist and are supportive and sensitive have
children with higher moral behavior. The psychoanalytic theory suggests that a warm and
supportive parental environment is a conducive atmosphere for the development of empathy and
an appropriate moral code. As explained above, techniques like induction and modeling play a
major role in encouraging moral behavior.
Schooling​. ​The major stages at which moral behavior evolves and develops occur during
childhood and adolescence when the person is in school. Apart from providing a peer group,
higher education introduces younger people to social issues that extend beyond personal
relationships to entire political and cultural groups. Various researchers (Comunian & Gielen,
2006; Mason and Gibbs, 1993), students who report more perspective-taking opportunities and
who are more aware of social diversity also report advanced moral reasoning.

Culture.​ ​The culture to which we belong and are exposed significantly impacts our personality and beha
extension our moral behavior.Individuals in industrialized nations move through Kohlberg’s stages more rapidl
individuals in village societies. This might be because in village societies, moral cooperation is based on direct
people and does not allow for the development of advanced moral understanding.
Cultural and cross-cultural psychology often makes the distinction between individualistic and
collectivistic cultures. Responses to moral dilemmas are suggested to be more other-directed than
in individualistic cultures like Western Europe and USA. For example, one New Guinea village
leader placed the blame for the Heinz dilemma on the entire community stating, "If I were the
judge, I would give him only light punishment because he asked everybody for help but nobody
helped him" (Tietjen & Walker, 1985, p. 990).
Similarly, members of Asian nations place more weight on obligations to others than do people
in Western societies. East Indians, for example, less often hold individuals accountable for moral
transgressions. In their view, the self and social surroundings are inseparable (Miller & Bersoff,

Moral reasoning of young children

​Moral reasoning begins to emerge and develop through interactions between the individual,
the environment and society from a very early age. Some of the earliest theories on moral
development of young children were the psychoanalytic and social learning theories.​ ​Both these
theories are based on the concept of internalization which is the adoption of societal standards for
right action as one’s own. Freud in his theory put forth that morality emerges between ages 3 and
6 which is the phallic stage. The resolution of the oedipal/electra complex leads to identification
with the same-sex parent, forming a superego. Many critics disagree with Freud’s idea of
conscience development.
Social learning theorists believe that modeling is an important form of learning moral
behaviour through observing and imitating adults who demonstrate appropriate behavior.
(Bandura, 1977). Parents must provide a good environment and expose the children to the moral
norms of the society. ​Young children also start to show empathy-based guilt when they break the
rules. In the cognitive development theory, moral development is reached through stages.
​According to Piaget,​ ​moral socialization does not solely begin with children accepting the
authority of adults, but also; children eventually engage in new forms of social relationships that
are reciprocal and equal, where relationships are balanced and in stable equilibrium, and where
rules take on new meaning. In the heteronomous stage, the young child (4-7) has unilateral
respect for the power and authority of adult and are thus constrained. In the autonomous stage
(10 years on), on the other hand, the cooperation to morality emerges from a solidarity with
peers. There is equality and mutual respect in this stage. Young children at the stage of
heteronomous stage in Piaget’s model lie at the level of preconventional morality according to
Kohlberg, who believes that the child thinks of morality in terms of the consequences of
disobedience to adult rules in order to avoid punishment. Similarly, Eisenberg believed that the
morality of young children below the age of seven is centred largely around the self.
Various studies have validates these findings, but new criticisms have also come of such classic
theories, for example, that they do not focus on socio cultural factors as much and look at moral
dynamics only within the dynamics of the individual. Parenting, peer interactions and the cultural
norms of society play a huge role in shaping moral behaviour as seen above in the influences on
moral reasoning.