Moral Development 
By Theresa M. Martin

Posted October 16, 1997, Updated August 1, 2014.

What is Moral Development?

Morality comes from the Latin word, 'moralis', which means, customs, manners, or patterns of behavior that conform to the standards of the group; (Hurlock, 1973).  At every age, the individual is judged by how closely he conforms to the groups; standards, and he is labeled moral or immoral, accordingly (Hurlock, 1973).  What the social group expects is defined in its rules and laws; both are based on the groups prevailing customs Langford, Peter E. (1995) .   Moral development involves the formation of a system of values on which to base decisions concerning “right” and “wrong”, or “good” and “bad” Langford, Peter E. (1995) .

How Does Morality Develop?

While there are many theories concerning moral development, this paper will focus on the cognitive development approach. This approach views the child as taking an active part in his or her own moral development, rather than being a passive recipient of external influences and teachings (Kurtines). It suggests that young people formulate moral ideas from organized patterns of thought (Kurtines3). These patterns do not come directly from the culture, and they go through a series of qualitative transformations or stages as the child develops (Kurtines 3).

What is a Stage?

The concept of stages implies the following characteristics:  (Langford)

  • The stages are organized systems of thought, and people are consistent in their level of moral judgment.
  • The stages form an unchanging sequence.  A person always moves forward, and while one can never skip stages, one may fixate at one stage level. 
  • A particular stage is seen as being integrated into the next stage, and finally replaced by it. 

Who Says So?

One of the first psychologists whose work remains directly relevant to contemporary theories of moral development is Jean Piaget (Nucci).  “According to Piaget, all development emerges from action; that is to say, individuals construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of interactions with the environment” (Nucci, p. 1).  Piaget’s work was modified and elaborated by Lawrence Kohlberg, who laid the groundwork for the current debate within psychology on moral development (Nucci5).

Stages of Moral Development by Lawrence Kohlberg

I. Pre-conventional Level
At this level, the child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but he interprets the labels in terms of either the physical or hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels. The level is divided into the following three stages:
Stage 0: Egocentric judgment. The child makes judgments of good on the basis of what he likes and wants or what helps him. 
Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. Right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of others.

II. Conventional Level
At this level, the individual perceives the maintenance of the expectations of his family, group, or nation as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order and identifying with the persons or group involved in it. The level consists of the following two stages:
Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or "good boy-nice girl" orientation. Good behavior is what pleases or helps others and is approved by them. 
Stage 4: The "law and order" orientation. Right behavior consists in doing one's duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

III. Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level.

The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual's own identification with the group. The level has the two following stages:
Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. 
Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency.

Can Morality be taught??

Kohlberg believes that in order to teach morality you must encourage the individual to develop to the next stage of moral reasoning Nucci, Larry 1997 .   In order to do this he developed a program called the Just Community Kohlberg 1981 .  It utilizes stage-appropriate discussions of moral dilemmas, democratic role making, and the creation of a community context where students and teachers can act on their moral decisions  Kohlberg 1981.  The theory is that exposure to moral questions and the opportunity to practice moral behavior in a supportive community will foster deeper moral reasoning and more constructive behavior Kohlberg, 1981.


1.   Kohlberg, Lawrence, Stages of Moral Development, 1971. (October 18, 2001).   

2.   Kohlberg, Lawrence.  (1981).  The meaning and measurement of moral development.  Massachusetts: Clark University Press.

3.   Kurtines, William M.  (1991).  Handbook of moral behavior and development (vol 3).  New Jersey:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

4.   Langford, Peter E. (1995).  Approaches to the development of moral reasoning. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

5.   Nucci, Larry, "An overview of moral development and education.  Moral development and education home page. October 16, 1997.   MoralEd/overview

6.  The Domain Based Moral Education Lab at the Graduate School of Education, 4609 Tolman Hall #1670, University of California, Berkeley. ​ Content assembled and maintained by Larry Nucci, Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago, Copyright © 1995-2014 Larry Nucci Last modified June 8, 2014. Domain Based Moral Education, UC Berkeley