While discussing psychological notions, moral values and judgments are avoided.

Nevertheless, the concept of morality is closely connected with many psychological, social, and cultural dimensions that shape a foundation for the definition. In this respect, social learning approaches consider morality an outcome of environmental patterns and forces forming the behavior of a person in a socially acceptable manner that, in turn, outlines norms of conduct (Knowles 49). There are many other frameworks that describe this process as a role taking, identification, or various types of operant conditioning. In this case, the concept of morality is linked to the empirical dimensions of conduct deriving from experience, but not from general principles. In particular, they explain the way moral virtues and skills are acquired, rather than revealing the essence of morality.

In addition, they tend to correspond to the so-called traditional approach to moral education. Judging from the above, the concept of moral development closely correlates with psychological theories as far as moral reasoning is concerned. The appearance of cognitive psychology has put a foundation for analyzing such aspects of personality development as motivation, creativity, logical thinking, and moral reasoning (Knowles 50). Psychology of moral reasoning, therefore, describes evaluative and justifying dimensions with a specific reference to socially acceptable and right actions.

It also involves the cognitive process by means of which an individual expresses opinions and makes decisions concerning the right and the wrong (Knowles 52). Because moral judgments are affected both by cognitive processes and socially accepted norms, much emphasis should be placed on the concept of social psychology as well. While understanding the concept of moral development from a psychodynamic perspective, less empirical and molecular frameworks are engaged. These theories perceive morality as the concept deriving from both environmental and individual forces and expectations. Moreover, they present implicit virtues in relation to what is constructive and adaptive to behavior. Hence, individuals have much more space for making choices and deciding what is good or bad.

At the same time, a psychodynamic approach does not presuppose a priori decision on the part of individuals because of the social and environmental influence (Knowles 52). Consequently, definitions of moral choice seek to illuminate motivational challenges connected to moral conduct rather than to distinguish between the good and the bad. While connecting social and individual influence on moral development, specific pro-social behaviors are revealed shaping psychological and dynamic perspectives of moral conduct. In other words, cognitive and structural formation of individual perception is largely premised on the socially accepted norms of moral behavior imposed by different environmental forces and societal expectations.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg is among the pioneers in presenting cognitive theories of moral development. The theories advances Piaget’s theory and introduces six stages of moral reasoning where each one responds to moral dilemmas more adequately than the preceding one. Kohlberg was interested in the way individuals justify their moral actions when being placed in similar moral situations. In addition, the concept of moral development is largely concerned with justice and value judgments made by individuals.

According to Kohlberg’s moral stags, each person starts with a pre-moral level focused on the external consequences of the specific actins, proceeding with a conventional level based on group rules, and ending with a principled moral level revealing person’s independent moral reasoning. These stages reveal the individual’s moral orientation expanding his/her experiences and perceptions of the world with regard to the cognitive development of a person admitting this expansion (Hoffman 129). Age characteristics do not matter when the stages are analyzed because usually, the pre-moral stage can be revealed among both children and adults. The above-presented levels of development are split into six stages through which individuals progress while developing their moral responses to ethical dilemmas. At the first stage – preconventional or premoral – presents people judging with action upon the direct consequences, which is usually confined to punishment (Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman 266).

Moral decisions are based on externally accepted standards whereas ethical behavior is identified by a reward and punishment scheme. Therefore, the essence of the first stage is focused on avoiding punishment, which is applicable mostly to children. The second stage is concerned more with rewarding rather with punishment (Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman 266). Within this framework, children tend to make morally right decisions so as to receive a reward. In some situation, the actions are aimed at exchanging favors. The conventional level is the next step of moral development based on encountering traditional roles accepted in society. During this stage, individuals strive to please other individuals in order to receive social approval.

Despite the process of internalization of social standards, behavioral and moral codes of conduct are premised on what other, more influential individuals dictate to do, rather than on individual opinion (Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman 267). Within the conventional model, the third stage emphasizes the importance of gaining approval and recognition from others. Establishing good relations creates a major condition for being accepted as a social individual. The fourth stage focused on the need to follow the legal regulation and adhere to the standards dictated by authorities. At this point, higher authorities in society, such as the one controlling law and order should be respected for a person’s actions to be morally justified and socially accepted. The final postconventional level is connected to progressing a moral conscience that is presented beyond the socially accepted standards. In this respect, people adhere to existing norms and regulations because of the inner feeling of necessity to distinguish between the good and the evil (Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman 267).

Individuals decide on their own which action is morally justified and which one should be withdrawn. Achievement of true morality is the priority for individuals reaching this level. Within the postconventional framework, the fifth stage includes adherence to socially accepted principles and laws, which are subject to change and individual interpretation. The final stage enables an individual to become free of socialized opinions and his/her decisions are premised on personal conscience.

This stage of postconventional level is considered the most complicated and controversial from conceptual and empirical perspectives. At a conceptual level, Kohlberg was challenged by distinguishing the fifth and the sixth stages. In empirical terms, the theories had difficulty in identifying the subjects justifying the final stage because it cannot be identified with personal moral development (Sonnert and Commons n. p.). Rather, the stage should be perceived as a discourse, an outcome of social construction.

Therefore, the theorist looks at this stage through the prism of consequences rather through prism of social development.

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Within a theoretical frameworks proposed by Piaget, there are three stages of moral development. They include premoral level, the moral realism level and the moral relativism level. During the first stage, a child under the age of 5 ignores conceptual rules (Shaffer 347). In addition, the theorist found that “in natural setting the younger children more consistently acted on the basis of the consequences of their own others actions and disregarded the intention behind these actions” (Marjorie 263). In other words, children do not take different rules and principles seriously, but assign those rules with their own importance and functions. For instance, they can ignore the rules of the game; instead, they strive to gain fun or other outcomes of the game. The second stage – moral realism – introduces the signs of rule adherence.

At this stage, children blindly follow the established rules and, therefore, their behavior is often characterized as egocentric (Marjorie et al. 262). Egocentric children are guided by their personal consequences, but not on the external norms dictated by society. In other words, children do not distinguish between right and wrong actions, but also think over an action as the one bringing either good or bad personal consequences (Shaffer 349). The true moral incentive is punishment at this stage. A young child believes that the rules should be obeyed because they come from parents as authoritative figures and, therefore, they cannot be changed.

Adolescents and adults evaluate a moral act by both actor’s intentions and the consequences of the performed act. Hence, in case the act was accidental, the act cannot be judged as immoral whereas the intention of carrying out the wrong action should be punished. In the course of psychological and moral development, children become less egocentric and are more empathic. Children over 8-10 years old are able to imagine how a person feels and, which denotes children’s behavior can be controlled by the outcomes their behavior and acts have on their personal development, but also the effects these actions have on the surrounding people (Marjorie 263). The final stage or moral relativism indicates shifts in children’s behavior that are revealed through greater flexibility while making decisions and assessing their actions (Marjorie et al.

264). This means, that children can make personal conclusions about the morale of a particular actions and critical judge their personal deeds. Overall, the final stage of moral development indicates an individual autonomy from the socially accepted norms of moral conduct and behavior. According to Piaget’s theory, the early stages of children’s moral development are highly associated with the consequences, rather than intentions, for a particular action. A belief in immanent justice enables children to act in accordance with their personal judgment. Despite this, there are many controversies which should be discussed with regard to age determination, clear distinction between stages, sequences of stages and many other factors shaping Piaget’s theoretical framework. In addition, because the theory touches upon social dimensions influencing moral development, it should also involve a social learning perspective. At this point as deep evaluation and comparison for Piaget’s theory and Kohlberg’s addition to it should be introduced.

Contrast and Compare of Kohlberg’s Theory and Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Outlining the Similarities in the Identified Theories

Because Piaget’s theory became the basis for Kohlberg’s theoretical framework, the presence of similar concepts is evident. The direct dependency between the theories lies in a structural representation of acquiring skills for making moral choices represented through clear stage distinctions. Both theorist apply to three stages of development which provides a transition from personal awareness of personal actions to socially-imposed incentives for following the accepted patterns of ethical behavior. At this point, both Piaget and Kohlberg refer to preliminary stage of realizing the values and essences of individuals’ actions from their own perspectives. In addition, both theorists are congruent with the idea of direct consequences being the major force driving children’s actions.

The final stages of the cognitive development theories also coincide in terms of incentives and social expectation triggering actions of individuals. At this point, people are fully aware whether the action is morally right or wrong. What is more important is that individuals are capable of distinguishing which actions should be performed to reach the desirable outcomes. Both actions are also evaluated from the perspectives of socially accepted standards of ethical behavior. In addition to the above structural similarities, both theories represent a cognitive prism of analyzing moral development among children. At this point, Piaget and Kohlberg analyze moral development a consistent and sequential series of stages where one surpasses another by sophisticating the individuals’ responses to moral dilemmas.

Therefore, there is no a rigid confrontation between the views represented by both scholars because the morality development is seen as stage progress. Finally, both theories can be applicable in the sphere of moral education and professional realization. They also provide a solid theoretical basis for philosophical foundation of defining the concept of morality.


Despite structural and cognitive similarities existing between the theories, the differences still prevail. In particular, significant emphasis should be placed on the analysis of theoretical perspectives, action and problem identification, and moral education. Under theoretical umbrella, Kohlberg presents moral developments as a set of six consistent stages where the development is perceived as gradual progress from universal moral principles regulating moral actions and thinking of individuals to more concrete embodiment and realization of moral choices. In this respect, Kohlberg’s theory is strictly structured and unfolds elements related to each other in a hierarchical way. The basic principle of the theory is based on Plato’s philosophy viewing justice as the premise of moral thinking.

While comparing this theory to Piaget frameworks, a constructivist stress is highlighted. It means that each person’s moral structured are presented with regard to socially accepted standards. Therefore, the process is unlikely to lead to universal concept because of the variety of social relations and circumstances.

Piaget’s universality does not discover specific moral principle or content. Rather, it is constructed through scientific and logical processes hat are necessary to fit the nature of an individual. Kohlberg believes that moral development unfolds through a sequence of moral principles leading to discovery of universal morality. Therefore, it cannot be congruent with the concept of constructivism. Unlike Piaget, Kohlberg supports the concept of ethical realism that does not depend on cultural peculiarities because of the principle of universality. Social values, therefore, are represented as ethically situations for an individual to make moral decisions. In contrast, Piaget is more consistent in these terms because the framework can be applicable both realists and relativist environment. Hence, the theorist takes into account social environment and individual outlook on different moral and ethical situations.

While considering the prism of though-action problem, Kohlberg theories provides ambiguous distinction between moral though and moral action. At the same time, the theorist provides an extensive overview of moral reasoning and its relation to moral action. In addition, the frameworks ignores the concept of though formation as a result of moral action. Piaget’s theory is more consistent because provides a more detailed evaluation of the thinking process and the way it is reflected in moral actions. The views of Piaget and Kohlberg differ in terms of moral education.

In this respect, Kohlberg offers a much deeper analysis of moral actions highlighting sub-stages of moral development and explains those as a sequences of moral reasoning. Though the scholar bases his views on Piaget, the differences are still seen in the way he explore the impact of moral atmosphere on shaping and adhering to new rules. Hence, Kohlberg’s tendency is based on the concepts of moral atmosphere, role taking, equality and cooperation. In this respect, Piaget represents disequilibrium for forming new rules for cooperating individuals and understanding how moral development depends on social environment. However, Piaget’s school of though does not reject Kohlberg’s framework because they are very similar in terms of the subject of analysis. The point is that Kohlberg is more interested in characterizing the community whereas Piaget is more concerned with thought formation by giving social medium secondary importance. In conclusion, Piaget’s view on moral development provided a foundation for adopting Kohlberg’s ideas and representing the concept of moral reasoning within the social and psychological perspectives.

Despite the differences in their view on the moral principles, both theories represent sequential stages of moral development.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Martin, L. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Knowles, Richard T. Psychological Foundations of Moral Education and Character Development: An Integrated Theory of Moral Development. US: CRVP, 1992. Print. Marjorie Nathanson, et al. “Social Learning And Piaget’s Cognitive Theory Of Moral Development.” Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology 11.3 (1969): 261-274.

Shaffer, David R. Social and Personality Development. US: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print. Sonnert, Gerhard, and Michael L. Commons. Society and the Highest Stages of Moral Development. 1992.

Zastrow, Charles and Karen Kay Kirst-Ashman. Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Environment. US: Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.


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