Stages of Moral Development

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

Moral Development

According to the American Psychological Association (APA, n.d.a), morality is “a system of beliefs or set of values relating to right conduct, against which behavior is judged to be acceptable or unacceptable.” Moral development begins in the mid to later part of a child’s maturity and includes an understanding of oneself and others (Santrock, 2016). Theorists believe that parents, religion, cultures, adults in authority, and interactions with peers shape a child’s moral development. Morality develops over a lifetime with personal experiences (Films Media Group, 2002a). 

In the beginning stages of moral development, children typically hold morals that protect the welfare of those in their immediate surroundings (relatives, friends, and teachers). As children grow into adolescents, the moral focus turns toward justice and fairness. Young adults continue to develop further morally but expand into societal consideration to include the vast array of people they interact with that have different moral upbringings related to culture and religion (Films Media Group, 2002a).

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Piaget’s Heteronomous Morality and Autonomous Morality

Piaget was a Swiss psychologist that researched child development. The doctor focused heavily on investigating a child’s moral reasoning (Carpendale, 2009; Editors of The Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020). Piaget’s research, found that children aged 6 to 10 have a heteronomous type of morality, also known as moral realism, based on obeying an authoritative figure such as a parent, teacher, or God. According to Piaget, a children’s complete morality is based on following rules to avoid punishment with a heavy focus on right and wrong behavior (APA, n.d.b). A typical example of heteronomous morality is seen in a kindergarten setting when children tell a teacher about a fellow peer breaking a rule. Concrete thinking is prevalent in this stage of moral development. As children mature, they move to a more flexible view of morality.

Children 10 and older begin to develop autonomous morality, also known as moral relativism (APA, n.d.c). In this stage, moral development shifts from a concrete, extrinsic control (authoritative figure) to a malleable, intrinsic control (personal). Rules are seen as less permanent because children start to be able to understand the perspective of others. In school, children stand for the pledge of allegiance each morning, some of the children in the class live in families with religious beliefs, not allowing them to stand. A child in the autonomous morality stage would be able to consider the other child’s choice to not stand for the pledge of allegiance due to religious beliefs. In this autonomous stage, a child considers the consequence and the intentions and is less likely to judge a non-standing child as wrong. This ability to take perspective will carry children into adulthood.

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Kohlberg’s Conventional Reasoning and Post-Conventional Reasoning

            Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, sought to support and expand on Piaget’s moral development theory (Doorey, 2020). Kohlberg studied young boy children’s moral development by presenting them with a moral dilemma of a poverty-stricken man stealing medicine for his dying wife, asking the boys if the crime was morally justified (Kohlberg, 1958). In his study, he discovered conventional reasoning.

            Kohlberg’s conventional reasoning stage 3 consists of stringent adherence to the rules of right and wrong. Children in this stage want the approval of others and strongly avoid the disapproval of others. They want to be considered kind, fair, and a good boy or girl. At this stage, a child would view the man stealing the medicine for his dying wife as something wrong because it breaks the law and that would disappoint authority figures. In stage 4 of conventional reasoning, children also believe in right and wrong behavior but expand this to society. Children in this stage believe all individuals should follow the law and be punished if rules are not followed, otherwise society would fall apart due to lawlessness (Garrigan et al., 2018). Moral reasoning comes from an outside source, and they consider themselves a good person if they obey this authority. At this stage, a child would view the man stealing the medicine for his dying wife as something wrong because it breaks the law and if one person got away with this than everyone would steal medicine. As the mind of a child begins to mature, the post-conventional stage of reasoning occurs.

            The post-conventional stages 5 and 6 of reasoning move towards a more abstract view of morality (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). In stage 5, also known as the Social Contract Orientation, laws are malleable and for the purpose for making one’s life better. Laws are subject to change if it causes harm to an individual. In this stage of moral development, the adolescent would view the man stealing the medicine for his dying wife as moral because the wife’s life is more important than the law. In stage 6, also known as Universal Ethics, moral guidelines are unique to the individual. It is the belief that each person is raised with different values and rules according to varying cultures and upbringing. In this stage, each person has individual values and beliefs that involve human rights, justice, and equality and base moral judgments case by case (Besirevic & Turiel, 2020). Kohlberg believed this stage was rare, and most individuals only make it to the conventional stage of moral development. He also theorized that women favor different stages of moral reasoning.     

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Kohlberg’s Justice Perspective and Gilligan’s Care Perspective in Moral Development

            Both Kohlberg and Gilligan theorized that women and men view moral reasoning in different ways. Kohlberg’s studies were predominately focused on men, and Gilligan’s studies were focused on women. Both theories contain development stages, but offer a different way of viewing them.

Kohlberg found that men, more than women, tended to favor the justice stage of moral development with the ability to take into account universal laws and abstract views of morality. Kohlberg’s moral reasoning stages included pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality (Films Media Group, 2009b). He theorized that women remained in the pre-conventional stage of morality because their moral reasoning’s main focus resided on justice that related to others and avoiding harm. Men reached the post-conventional stage of morality because their moral reasoning’s main focus resided in a universal, abstract morality taking into account all people. Gilligan postulated that women were indeed different than men, but not necessarily less developed.

Dr. Gilligan’s theory contained both a care-based morality and a justice-based morality.

Gilligan found that women, more than men, tended to favor a care-based morality, taking into account humans’ interconnectedness and avoiding harm to others. According to Gilligan, women are focused on good relationships with others and make moral choices that benefit the other over the self. Theorizing that girls’ care-based morality was established in connectedness to the same-sex parent (mother). Gilligan postulated that men tended to favor justice-based morality, which focuses on equality, individual perspective, and universal laws. In comparison with girls’, boys’ justice-based morality was based on their disconnect from the opposite sex parent (mother) and feeling separate from her (Films Media Group, 2002c).

            By viewing the stages of moral reasoning and development in both Kohlberg’s and Gilligan’s theories, it is clear that men and women both view the world from different lenses. It is essential that moral reasoning in men and women is not compared as more or less mature but different. Gilligan’s care-based morality consists of 3 stages: preconventional which focuses on caring for the self, conventional, which focuses on caring for others, and post-conventional, which focuses on caring for self and others. These stages are different yet, similar to Kohlberg’s theory in the way that it shows levels of maturity in reasoning that develops in time. The goal should be to grow the characteristics of empathy, justice, understanding, and interconnectedness to live in a more peaceful and inclusive world (Tellings & van Haaften, 2001). As one moves away from scrutinizing theories by pointing out the differences, a naturally interconnected rise.

            According to each theorist moral development goes through many stages. As the brain begins to change so does ones view of the world around them. It is my hope that the world continues to grow morally and ethically so that society as a whole can move toward each theorist highest stage of moral development. Only then can we live in a world where every single person is fairly treated with understanding, justice and respect.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Autonomous Stage. In APA dictionary of psychology.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Heteronomous Stage. In APA dictionary of psychology.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Morality. In APA dictionary of psychology.

Besirevic, Z., & Turiel, E. (2020). Young people’s judgments about respecting and violating human rights. Cognitive Development, 54.

Carpendale, J. I. M. (2009). Piaget’s theory of moral development. In U. Müller, J. I. M. Carpendale, & L. Smith (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Piaget (p. 270–286). Cambridge University Press.

Doorey, M. (2020). Lawrence kohlberg | American psychologist.

Editors of The Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020). Jean piaget.

Films Media Group. (2002). Morality: Judgments and actionFilms on demand.

Films Media Group. (2002). Morality: Judgments and actionFilms on Demand.

Films Media Group. (2009). Child development theorists: Freud to erikson to spock . . . and beyondFilms on demand.

Garrigan, B., Adlam, A. L.R., & Langdon, P. E. (2018). Moral decision-making and moral development: Toward an integrative framework. Developmental Review, 49, 80–100.

Kohlberg, L. (1958). The development of modes of thinking and choices in years 10 to 16 (Doctoral Dissertation).

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into Practice, 16(2), 53-59.

Santrock, J. W. (2016). Essentials of life-span development.

Tellings, A., & van Haaften, W. (2001). Kohlberg and Freud: A reconstruction of emergent moralities. Theory & Psychology, 11(4), 548-568.

By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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