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Piaget and Kohlberg Views on Moral Development

Moral development is the development of an understanding of right and wrong in children in order to later apply this knowledge in situations with moral choices. It also covers the development of a strong and independent character, which, when faced with such a situation, will make the right moral choices, even in the face of the discomfort of opposition. Moral development has always played an essential role in the society, and has been a studied topic throughout human history, first by pedagogues and philosophers, and nowadays by sociologists and psychologists. However, it did not become the focus of scientific study until the late 1950s.

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From the mid-twentieth century onwards the subject of moral development, particularly in children, has been scrutinized by numerous researchers, the key advances in the subject can be attributed to Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, both of whom were involved in the study of human moral development (Slavin, 2014).

While Kohlberg based his theories on those of Piaget, by expanding and modifying them to fit his perspectives, both of their views have enough differences between them and applicability to be still relevant in psychology and highly regarded by modern researchers. It is important to understand them both on their own, as well as their similarities to evaluate them and their implications.

In his studies of how children developed their morals, Jean Piaget rejected the prevailing idea that they absorb those rules, morals, and ideals imposed upon them by their parents and teachers. Instead, he concluded that early in development rules provided by authority figures are accepted as absolute laws, but are not internalized by the child. He called this the morality of constraint or heteronomy.

The actual moral development occurs as the child grows older and begins forming the basis of their morality and concepts such as justice, fairness, and respect through interaction with their peers. These discoveries formed the basis of his idea of stages in the development of distributive justice in children. The first one is until 7-8 years when children defer to adult authority on the issue; the second is from 8 to 11 years,

While Piaget is widely known for the idea of stages in development that he introduced, he did not, in actuality, elaborate on them very much, and his insight is somewhat limited, as he conceded, and instead focused on the transition from one type of morality to the second one. However, these ideas were developed and expanded further by Kohlberg, creating his landmark theory of stages of children’s moral development.

He saw this is a slow, gradual process, and divided it into three levels and six stages, which an individual went through one at a time. The first level is the pre-conventional level, which consists of the Punishment-Obedience stage, where the children are at their most basic and obey rules provided by authority figures out of fear of punishment; and the Individual, Instrumentation, and Exchange stage, where child follows the rules if it sees profit in doing so.

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The Conventional level is where the child realizes a need to be accepted and appreciated first in their social group (Interpersonal Conformity stage) and then in the society (The Law and Order stage). Post-conventional level, and its stages Social Contract and Individual Rights, and Principled Conscience mark the move from conventional morality towards the conscious morality based on reason. This is not a common level of moral development, as not many adults reach it (Moral development, n.d.).

Both theories have had a significant impact on the development of child psychology, but Kohlberg’s is more refined and developed and is more applicable in education. His stages explain the tools a pedagogue or a psychologist has at their disposal for directing the moral development of a child in kindergarten, school, and later in life. While Kohlberg’s stages mirror the Piaget’s two morality types, Kohlberg extrapolates upon the changes in the child’s perceptions of right and wrong, and what is influencing them.


Moral development. (n.d.). Web.

Slavin, R. E. (2014). Educational Psychology: Theory and practice (11th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.

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