the last IQ test: Cynthia St Charles   Cognition and Development


Home AS A2 Links
Introduction to Piaget
Piaget's Stages
Piaget: General Evaluation
Applying Piaget to Education
Vygotsky's Theory
Evaluation of Vygotsky
Applying Vygotsky to Education
Bruner's Theory
Applying Bruner to Education
Moral Development
Kohlberg's Theory of Morality
Eisenberg and Gilligan
Theory of Mind
Perspective Taking
Mirror Neuron System






Moral development

Examination advice:  Development of moral thinking is becoming a one-horse town from academic year 2011-12.

At present AQA specify Kohlberg's  and Eisenberg's theories.  As of 2011-12 this has been reduced to Kohlberg alone. 

Below you will find a brief account of Freud's theory, useful in as much as it provides a good account of the Oedipus Complex.  I have also included Piaget's theory of moral development as background to Kohlberg's.  Both theories, like Kohlberg's are also androcentric, assuming boys to be more moral than girls. 


Moral development is the way in which children learn the difference between right and wrong.  It may appear incongruous in a topic on 'cognitive development', but as we shall see the main theorists, most notably Lawrence kohlberg and Jean Piaget, assume morality to arise, Phoenix-like, from cognitive development.  For each of them, the highest levels of moral reasoning can only be achieved when the appropriate highest levels of cognitive development have been reached.

As with most concepts in Psychology there is some disagreement about what morality is but a perusal through any text will give you definitions a plenty.  There is no need to get bogged down with this since hopefully you all have some concept of morality (!) and you wonít be asked to define it in an examination.

Haste et al (1998) suggested there were four questions to ask about moral development.   These are outlined below with the theory that seeks to answer that particular aspect of morality:




1. How does conscience and our feelings of guilt develop

Freudís psychoanalytical theory through the process of Oedipus/Elektra

2.  How do we develop our knowledge of rules and moral principles?

The Cognitive developmental theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, that see cognitive development as a precursor to moral development, explain this one.

3.  How do we learn behaviours appropriate to the laws of the land and specific to our own culture?

No prizes for guessing this is the realm of the behaviourists, particularly the neo-behaviourist approach of Bandura and SLT.

4.  How do we develop our concern for others?

Eisenbergís theory of pro-social reasoning.


Piaget, Kohlberg and Eisenberg are specified in the specification, but only as examples.  Questions therefore cannot ask you specifically about Piaget, Kohlberg or Eisenberg, but could ask you for a theory of moral understanding (e.g. Piaget or Kohlberg) in which case you can choose.  If you chose Kohlberg (the sensible option) then you could use Piaget for the purposes of evaluation and comparison.

If the question asked you for a theory of pro-social reasoning youíre stuck with Eisenberg!

Similarly Gilligan is also mentioned in relation to gender and moral development and would be the theory of choice and good to compare to Kohlberg.

Freudís theory is interesting (as always) but is not mentioned in the specification.  However, since we have eluded to it on a number of occasions during the course Iíve thrown it in for good measure.  It could be useful for the purposes of evaluation and comparison, particularly since it assumes, like Kohlberg and Piaget, that boys are more moral than girlsÖeven though it reaches this conclusion by a very different route!


Sigmund Freud

Freud is at his best here!   The child is born with an id (instinctive and selfish) and develops an ego during the anal stage to deal with the conflicts arising during potty training.  The superego is the final component to develop (during the phallic stage) and this is clearly the part that is going to be relevant to morality since the superego is our conscience, that part that is forever worrying about what others will think.   So how does the superego come into existence?


Oedipus Complex and Elektra Conflict

During the phallic stage boys become obsessed by their willy (Ďwiddlerí in Little Hans speak) and girls by their wee equivalent the clitoris!  As a result they develop an unconscious desire for their opposite sex parent; so famously little boys fall for their mums and less famously little girls fall for their dads (but, and you must emphasise this, according to Freud this is an unconscious desire!).

Both sexes are worried that the same sex parent will discover their desires and suffer anxiety as a result.  Crucially, since boys gave more to lose (their much prized Widdler), they suffer greater anxiety!  Eventually both sexes come to accept that their quest is futile and come to the inevitable conclusion that the only way theyíll ever obtain their object of desire is to be like their same sex parent!  That is the boy realises that the only way he get a woman like his mum is to grow up and be like his dad. 

In this way the child identifies with the same sex parent and adopts their morals!  Girls replace their love of daddy and their penis envy with a desire to have babies of their own!

But, and it is a big butt (sorry but); because boys have more to lose they suffer greater levels of anxiety so develop a stronger superego and as a result reach higher levels of moral thinking!  

I am not asking you to accept this, however it does make for easy evaluation marks, since you can compare this conclusion to Piaget and Kohlberg and contrast it with Gilligan.


Research evidence

Freud used his own research, for example the case of Little Hans to support his idea of an Oedipus complex.  However, this is subjective in the extreme and each psychoanalysis carried out is very open to subjective interpretation


Freudís theory would seem to suggest that the more anxiety (due to punishment) that a child suffers the stronger will be its superego and consequently the greater will be its sense of morality.  However, research evidence suggests the opposite.  Hoffman (1988) found that children that are spanked the most tend to be the most badly behaved, although there does seem to be an issue of cause and effect here!  Hoffman also rejected Freudís idea that boys have a stronger superego than girls.  Snarey (1985) found little evidence to support this view when studying morals in a variety of cultures around the world. 

Other issues

Freud appears to have over-emphasised the role of the same sex parent

Freud did not consider the cognitive factors involved in moral development.  (Compare this to Piaget and Kohlberg who consider these factors to the exclusion of all others).

Children seem to consider their moral development after the age of 7!

Clipart: Boy and girl playing with marbles








Jean Piaget

Cognitive theories (Piaget and Kohlberg) assume that cognitive development underpins moral development.  A child can only develop its moral thinking as its ability to think improves and develops.

In his book 'The Moral Judgement of the Child' (1932), Piaget states that 'all morality consists in a system of rules.'  Piaget, therefore considers morality to be akin to justice and fair play.  This is similar to Kohlbergís outlook but seems to be missing out on other possible types of morality as discussed later in Gilligan! 


Piaget used two methods of investigation:

  1. Games of marbles

Piaget would watch children between the ages of 3 and 12 playing marbles, and get them to explain the rules, and the reasons for the rules, to him

Piaget believed that rules were the key to moral understanding and marbles was ideal since children played the game without adult interference.

2. Moral stories (compare to Kohlberg's moral dilemmas)

       Typically this would involve pairs of stories being read to the child, followed by questions. 

A little boy who is called John is in his room. He is called to dinner. He goes into the dining room. But behind the door was a chair, and on the chair there was a tray with 15 cups on it. John couldnít have known that there was all this behind the door. He goes in, the door knocks against the tray, bang go the fifteen cups, and they all get broken!

One day a little boy called Henry tried to get some jam out of the cupboard when his mother was out.  He climbed onto a chair and stretched out his arm.  The jam was too high up and he couldnít reach it.  But while he was trying to get it he knocked over a cup.  The cup fell down and broke.

A little girl called Marie wanted to give her mum a nice surprise and so she cut out a piece of sewing for her.  But she didnít know how to use the scissors properly and she cut a big hole in her dress.

A little girl called Margaret went and took her motherís scissors one day when her mother was out.  She played with them for a bit and then, as she didnít know how to use them properly, she made a hole in her dress.


Piagetís three stages of moral development

Pre-moral* (0 to 3 years)

The child has little concept of morality or rules.   Compare to Freudsí oral stage.

Heteronomous morality* or moral realism (4 to 10 years)

The childís moral reasoning is governed by external rules laid down by others.  See table below for more detail.  Basically they believe in expiatory punishment, i.e. the naughtier the behaviour the greater the punishment should be and in immanent justice, the idea that if a child is naughty they will suffer for it somehow.  An example; if a child steals sweets on Monday, then falls and breaks their leg on Tuesday, then this would be justice.

Autonomous morality* or moral relativism (10 years onwards)

The child now has a more flexible view of rules and morality.  Crucial differences include the idea that the punishment should be tailored to fit the crime and the ideas that it is intentions rather than consequences that determine the severity of the crime.

            *Note the ages here do vary from text to text!

Heteronomous morality

Autonomous morality

Rules are fixed and cannot be changed or broken.

Rules are more flexible and can change so long as everyone agrees to the change.   Child recognises that at times it is necessary to tell fibs as this may prevent greater upset etc.

Rules are created by older children, adults or even by God.

Rules are in fact created by people just like themselves.

Outcomes are seen as being more important than intentions.  For example John is seen as naughtier because he breaks more cups

Intentions are now considered more than outcomes.  Older children see Henry as being naughtier because he was misbehaving.

Consequences determine the severity of the crime, e.g. John is naughtier than Henry because he broke more cups.

Intentions determine the severity of the crime, e.g. Henry is naughtier than John because he was misbehaving at the time.

Expiatory punishment: no attempt to fit the punishment to the crime

Reciprocal punishment: attempts to fit the punishment to the crime, e.g. buying new dress for sister if boy has torn it at a bad taste party!

Why children progress from heteronomous to autonomous

1. As I said at the outset, Piaget believed that moral development occurs on the back of cognitive development.   One result of this is the move away from egocentric thought.  At about the age of seven years the child begins to learn that other people see the World differently to themselves.  This allows a greater appreciation of other points of view

2. As children get older they listen to the views expressed by others and begin to realise that their own opinions can be questioned.  At an earlier age children mostly accept the views of their parents as fact.  This is one reason why racist and homophobic opinions persist for so long in a changing society.

Research evidence in support of Piaget

As already mentioned much of the research was carried out by Piaget himself. 

  • Constanzo (1973) used moral stories simialr to those of piaget with an emphasis on intentions and consequences.  Similar results were found, including simialr age ranges.
  • Shaffer (1993) again found that all children appear to go through the same fixed stages.
  • Kruger (1992), Freddy to his friends, found that girls paired with people their own age showed more sophisticated moral reasoning than those paired with an adult.


Unlike with his theory of cognitive development, there was no revision or update of Piagetís views on moral development.  Piaget, was very much a pioneer in the area.  He was the first to suggest links between morality and cognitive development and others have built on this, so yet again we have a Piagetian theory taht can be described as influential! Piagetís methods, such as stories, have also been  used by later researchers such as Kohlberg.


Many researchers disagree with the Ďages and stagesí aspect of the theory. 

     Colby et al (1983) disagree that the childís moral reasoning does not mature after the age of 10.

     Weston & Turiel (1980) found that children as young as 3 are prepared to alter the rules of a geme, providing that others agree.

As we all know, and as Weston & Turiel point out, children of any age do not always obey rules without question, as Piaget suggests!

Nelson (1980) points out that in Piagetís stories the emphasis is placed on the consequences and not the intentions.  It seems that young children assume that negative outcomes must be caused by negative intentions.  However, when intentions are made clear, even to children as young as three, they are able to separate this from outcomes.  Piaget underestimated the ability of his children because he didnít place as much emphasis on intentions as he did on outcomes.

Armsby (1971) found that many children as young as six are able to judge intention as crucial in naughty behaviour.  60% judged a child who deliberately broke a cup as being just as more naughty than a child who accidently breaks a TV.

Irwin & Moore (1971) believe that children in the heteronomous stage have a better understanding of punishment than Piaget believed.  Children as young as three can distinguish between deserved and undeserved punishment.

Perhaps most importantly, and this criticism can be made of Kohlberg too, Piaget assumed that a childís behaviour would match their beliefs.  By simply asking their views Piaget did not see how they behaved in practice.  Again as we all know, what we say and what we actually do in practice can be very different!

Next page