Moral Development Research Paper Starter

Moral Development

(Research Starters)

This article summarizes theories of moral development - including those proposed by Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Neo-Kohlberg theorists - as well as the central tensions that exist in the field. Although Kohlberg is often credited with introducing the study of moral development to the field of psychology, he arguably introduced as many questions as he did answers. His focus on reason as the 'backbone' of moral development, his insistence that development proceeds through a series of fixed stages, and his preoccupation with justice to the exclusion of other 'types' of morality such as compassion and care, earned him a number of critics. His critics have subsequently either discredited his theory, or attempted to expand it. The summary also describes some of the personalities of the people involved in this field; Kohlberg and Gilligan have received as much attention for the supposed rivalry between the two of them as they have for the theories themselves. Because the field has been fueled by the nature of the people and relationships involved, their stories are worthy of mention.

Keywords Autonomous Morality; Care; Developmental Stages; Gilligan, Carol; Heteronomous Morality; Justice; Kohlberg, Lawrence; Moral Action; Moral Judgment; Moral Motivation; Moral Sensitivity; Piaget, Jean; Schemas


More than any other single individual, Lawrence Kohlberg is responsible for bringing the topic of moral development to the study of psychology. Carol Gilligan, a Harvard colleague of Kohlberg's remembers his "...courage, his determination to talk about moral values in psychology, his bravery in countering the claim that psychology was a value-neutral social science" (Walsh, 2000, p. 39). Although Kohlberg was one of the first, he was certainly not the last; his work has inspired a new generation of scholars who - either by disagreeing with the central tenets of Kohlberg's theory or by expanding upon his ideas - have introduced new models of moral development. What will become clear as we review the various models are the tensions that exist in the field - is morality a function of reason, emotion, or both? Can morality be defined solely in terms of justice, rights, and responsibility, or does it also include questions of compassion and care? Does morality encompass more than our interpersonal relationships, such as larger questions about how we ought to live?

Further Insights


Just as Kohlberg inspired a generation of scholars who followed in his footsteps, so too was Kohlberg inspired. Kohlberg had every intention of becoming a clinical psychologist, but after reading Jean Piaget's early work on moral development and religious experience, Kohlberg's career changed course (Walsh, 2000). Piaget is most well-known for his work on cognitive development, but he was interested in how people learn right from wrong as well; for Piaget, and for Kohlberg too, moral development was highly dependent on cognitive development. As an individual's cognitive structures changed over time, so too did that individual's ability to reason - about both intellectual and moral matters (Thomas, 1997).

Piaget studied moral development in children ranging in age from 6 through 12 by presenting them with moral dilemmas, as well as observing them at play. Based on their responses to the dilemmas and his observations, he concluded that children progress from heteronomous morality to autonomous morality; furthermore, they do so by advancing through three successive stages of reasoning (Thomas, 1997). Younger children operate according to rules prescribed by authority figures, such as teachers, parents, police, and/or other adults. At this stage, children adhere to rules universally, without considering the particulars of a situation. Eventually, moral judgment evolves, as older children begin to equate justice with equality and then with equity. In other words, as children age they define moral judgment as rule-following, treating everyone the same, and then treating people fairly based on the particulars of a situation.

Narvaez (2005) writes, "some believe Kohlberg was more Piagetian than Piaget." Indeed, Kohlberg does, in many cases, apply the tenets of the cognitive-structuralist paradigm to moral development more stringently than Piaget did himself. The differences become most apparent when comparing the primacy each gave the role of reason. For Piaget, the relationship between moral thought and action was not particularly troubling. Whereas many philosophers and psychologists hoped to understand why a person's behavior was often at odds with her understanding of what she ought to do - often dubbed the thought/action problem - Piaget was interested in the reverse (Bergman, 2002). He believed children's behavior and interactions with others sometimes led them to new moral understandings. By contrast, Kohlberg believed "a right action performed without reason is not a moral action at all" (Bergman, 2002, p. 108). Similarly, Ferrari and Okamoto (2003) argue that Piaget recognized the role of emotion in moral development; they conclude, in fact, that Piaget believed "moral identity is essentially affective, although structured and informed by reason" (p. 347). Again, for Kohlberg reason was the 'backbone' of morality, not merely a periphery player.


A product of the cultural milieu of the 1960s and 70s, Kohlberg was very much an activist. Toward the end of his career especially, he was as interested in the practical applications of his work as much as the development of theory, to the extent that his colleagues questioned whether his work in the schools compromised his research (Walsh, 2000). From the beginning, however, Kohlberg put his beliefs into action. As an engineer during WWII, he smuggled Jewish refugees to safety. In his article titled 'Beds for Bananas,' "Kohlberg recounted with glee that he and his shipmates had convinced various government inspectors that the South American freighter's makeshift passenger beds were, in fact, banana-storing containers" (Walsh, 2000, p. 37).

As steadfast as Kohlberg was in his own beliefs, he was known equally for his willingness to listen to other points of view. As one colleague remembers "The people that Larry brought in did not necessarily agree with him. He would bring in critics. You never felt an 'us/them' or 'either/or' approach with him" (Walsh, 2000, p. 38). Indeed, Kohlberg was challenged by people who resided very close to home; one of his biggest challengers - Carol Gilligan - was a Harvard colleague. But Kohlberg didn't allow others to do all the work; his willingness to listen to other points of view cultivated his revisionist tendencies. He revised his original theory many times over the years.

In the end, perhaps the evolution of the theory is its most defining characteristic - Kohlberg's work was ultimately unfinished. After more than fifteen years of intense pain and suffering - the result of a parasitic infection contracted in Belize, incurable by both Western and non-Western medical practices - Kohlberg committed suicide at age 59 by walking into the Atlantic Ocean on a January day in 1987. Those who worked with him closely described him as 'a model of graceful suffering' who never once complained about his pain (Walsh, 2000).

What kind of theory did this activist, teacher and student propose? What did Kohlberg want to contribute to the field, after returning from WWII, insistent that psychology not adopt a stance of moral relativism? (Walsh, 2000). Perhaps a logical starting point is a brief review of Kohlberg's methodology, for while his theory became a part of the vocabulary of every psychologist, the way in which he studied morality became equally well-known. Recall that Piaget studied moral development by observing children at play and by presenting them with brief anecdotes; because Kohlberg believed morality is synonymous with reason, he had no interest in how children might act. Instead, he wanted to investigate their thought processes, and thus presented a series of moral dilemmas and follow-up questions. In other words, he primarily talked to children, rather than observing them interact and play. Arguably the most well-known dilemma - the story of Heinz - is presented in its entirety below.

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 $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, 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, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife (Kohlberg, 1981).

The series of questions following the presentation of the dilemma are as critical as the story itself. Children are asked if Heinz should steal the drug, and if it's right or wrong for him to do so; they are also asked how Heinz should act if the sick person is a stranger, rather than his wife. After analyzing their responses to the ten follow-up questions, Kohlberg categorizes their moral development into one of six stages. Development through stages is one of the most defining characteristics of Kohlberg's theory; he believed the stages were invariant - all people pass through each of the successive stages, in the same order and without omission of any single stage, although the speed at which they progress might vary (Rich and DeVitis, 1985). Importantly, each stage represents an individual's thought structure, not specific content relevant to any particular moral or intellectual task; Kohlberg's moral development stages were closely tied to Piaget's cognitive development stages, such that an individual couldn't reach the highest stage of moral reasoning without also having reached the highest stage of cognitive development. Each of the six stages is described briefly below:...

(The entire section is 4546 words.)