Moral Reasoning In Psychology Research Paper

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The term morality has been used in different ways, and its explanation is subject to a great deal of debate. One controversy pertains to whether morality varies by culture. The position of cultural relativism is that the moral standards of one culture do not apply to other cultures. Various explanations have been provided as to how individuals acquire the morality of their culture, including ones that emphasize the learning of a set of values or the incorporation of cohesive systems of moral thought. An alternative perspective, with roots in philosophy (e.g., Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls) is that morality involves reasoning about right and wrong with regard to social relationships, legal systems, and societies. In psychology, much research has focused on the development of moral reasoning. Morality is defined as entailing understandings of welfare (avoiding harm and promoting good), justice (in the distribution of goods, and equal worth of persons), and rights (group and individual).

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1. Social Interactions And Moral Judgments

Two developmental psychologists have had a deep and lasting influence on thinking about moral development. One is Jean Piaget, who is regarded as the foremost contributor to developmental psychology more generally. Piaget’s (1932) research on children’s moral judgments was conducted in the late 1920s when sociologically oriented views of morality were predominant in the social sciences. As an example, the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1961) had proposed that morality constitutes a shared respect for the rules and values of society, and that children must be educated to form a strong emotional attachment to the group and to respect its rules and authority. Piaget, by contrast, examined the ways children construct ideas about rules, authority, fairness, and equalities. The influence of Piaget’s theory of moral development on psychology was limited until the early 1960s. Up to that point, greater attention was given to psychoanalytic and behavioristic theories, each of which explained moral development as the incorporation of society’s standards. The research of Lawrence Kohl-berg (1969) served to refocus attention on moral reasoning.

1.1 Two Moralities And Two Types Of Social Interactions

Piaget examined the organization of children’s thinking and how they interpret events. In his work on moral development he observed children’s use of rules in playing games, sharing (distributive justice), punishment (retributive justice), and intentions or consequences in assessing responsibility for transgressions. He proposed a sequence of two broad levels of children’s moral judgments connected to two ways they relate to others. In the first, children (approximately 4–7 years) are heteronomous in their moral thinking and have unilateral respect for adults in authority. Heteronomy is characterized by absolutistic judgments, whereby social rules are regarded as fixed and requiring strict adherence. As an example, young children reify game rules, judging that they cannot be altered even if all the participants were to agree to the changes. They also believe that adults’ commands must be followed to the letter. Children also judge actions by their material consequences rather than by the actor’s intentions.

In part, heteronomous thinking is due to inherent relationships of inequality. Young children attend mainly to the greater power and status of adults— which imbues adults with moral authority. In later childhood there is a shift in moral thinking that occurs with increasing interactions with peers, which provide children with more opportunities to experience mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation. As a consequence children shift from heteronomy to autonomy, defined as involving participation in the elaboration of norms (as opposed to receiving them ready-made). Through the reciprocity in relationships of equality children construct understandings of justice, mutual respect, and rules alterable by agreement to serve aims of cooperation.

1.2 Stages In The Development Of Moral Judgments

In extensions of Piaget’s research, further emphasis was placed on the need to ground social and behavioral research on definitions of the realm. In the dominant approaches of the time, considerations of the psychological means by which children acquire morality were addressed without formulations of the substantive elements of morality. Kohlberg (1969), especially, was instrumental in combining psychological with philosophical analyses (relying to a fair extent on neo-Kantian philosophers such as Rawls 1971). One reason for stressing inclusion of philosophical formulations was that Kohlberg proposed that children think systematically about moral matters. He coined the phrase ‘the child as a moral philosopher’ to convey the idea that they form organized ways of thinking about concepts of justice, rights, and welfare.

In Kohlberg’s research children were presented with hypothetical stories that depicted conflicts around issues of life, physical well-being, trust, law, authority, and retribution. (A well-known story depicts the conflict of a man who must decide whether to steal an otherwise unavailable drug to save his wife’s life.) Kohlberg formulated a sequence of stages and levels that portrayed children’s moral judgments somewhat differently from Piaget’s characterizations. In particular, it appeared that young children do not reify rules nor possess an unyielding respect for authority (according to Kohlberg, Piaget had misinterpreted a moral orientation to power and sanctions as reification). Rather, in the first two stages (labeled a ‘preconventional’ level) moral value is confused with material value, sanctions, power, and attaining people’s needs and desires. In early adolescence there is a shift to thinking about morality primarily in terms of social expectations and maintaining the social order by upholding laws and authority (the ‘conventional’ level). After attaining understandings of morality as rooted in rules or laws and the need to maintain the social order there emerges a way of thinking that includes applying moral judgments to society and its practices, rules, and authority. At the most advanced level (the ‘postconventional’), which does not develop at least until late adolescence, concepts of justice, fair treatment, rights, and respect for persons are differentiated from the existing social order. At the most advanced level individuals make moral judgments about society’s system of laws and norms.

2. Distinguishing Morality From Other Domains Of Social Judgment

During the latter part of the twentieth century a great deal of research was influenced by Piaget and Kohlberg. However, the patterns of developmental changes they described have been questioned. In particular, research indicates that young children’s moral judgments are neither heteronomous nor based on a confusion of moral value with material value or sanctions. One line of research demonstrates that young children have positive orientations to matters like helping and sharing. Another line of research shows that young children develop understandings of welfare and fairness distinct from understandings of other social domains (Turiel 1998). Using research methods that do not pose complex conflicts between moral and social considerations (as was the case in Kohlberg’s methods), it was demonstrated that children do not treat all rules as fixed, do not solely have unilateral respect for authority, and do not judge by sanctions.

Children’s moral ideas stem from interactions with children and adults that involve observing and experiencing harmful consequences, inequalities, or violations of freedoms. These moral judgments differ from another set of judgments about social uniformities that can be termed ‘conventions.’ Conventions are socially expected behaviors that coordinate interactions within social systems. Such uniformities in behavior gain their force from being customary and allow for greater efficiency in that people know what to expect of each other. Conventions, such as those pertaining to modes of greeting, forms of address, or dress codes, are judged by children to be alterable by consensus, contingent on common use, rules, or authority expectations, and relative to social contexts. Thus, children judge violations of conventions to be wrong only insofar as there is a governing rule or if it is dictated by an authority (e.g., a conventional rule in a school can be changed by the principal). Similarly, conventions are not generalized across contexts in that it is judged that other cultures can legitimately have a different set of customary behaviors.

In contrast with judgments about conventions, children do not judge moral issues (such as hitting or stealing) by the existence of uniformities, agreements, rules, or common practices. For instance, rules pertaining to moral issues are judged not to be legitimately alterable by general agreement or dependent on what authorities dictate, or relative to the social and cultural context. Maintaining the welfare and rights of persons, as well as promoting fairness in social interactions and cultural practices, guide evaluations of actions, rules, authorities, and the organization of social systems.

Morality is a fundamental domain of social reasoning. Children’s judgments within the moral domain, which begin to emerge at a fairly young age, do not entail reification of rules or confusion with other social domains. Changes in moral reasoning occur with age. Young children’s moral reasoning is focused primarily on welfare—preventing harm and promoting welfare. Older children and adolescents develop increased understandings of justice and reciprocity among persons, which they coordinate with concepts of welfare.

3. Social Hierarchy And Social Justice

The social decisions people make are not always directly in accord with their moral judgments. Moral judgments are applied in concrete situations, in the context of societal arrangements, taking other considerations into account. Another domain (in addition to morality and convention) contributing to social decision-making is the personal sphere (Nucci 1996). Individuals form judgments about personal activities considered out of the boundaries of conventional or moral regulation. In most societies, an important feature relevant to moral, social, and personal decisions is social hierarchy, by which groups are accorded greater or lesser power, and status. Often, hierarchical distinctions are made on the basis of social class and gender (Nussbaum 1999).

The connections between gender and moral development have engendered intense controversies. Some have proposed that girls and women develop a morality of care, different from a morality of justice of boys and men (Gilligan 1982). Care is based on concerns with interdependence in networks of interrelationships, whereas justice is based on concerns with rules, individual rights, or equal treatment. Others, however, have argued that care and justice are part of the orientations of females and males, but that positions in the social hierarchy distinguish the perspectives of males and females (Nussbaum 1999).

Since women are usually in subordinate positions in the social hierarchy, they often experience injustices and inequalities, and in some cases are victims of oppression. The social system, therefore, can further the personal interests of some (e.g., men) at the expense of others (e.g., women) through social expectations and practices. Such arrangements constitute a source of tension and conflict within social systems. Whereas people in lower positions are part of the social system and do accept norms and practices, at the same time they can be critical of aspects of social arrangements. In many respects, moral reasoning produces social harmony since people are concerned with the welfare of others and promoting fairness. Another side of morality, however, is that it can result in conflicts and efforts at subverting societal arrangements judged to be counter to welfare, justice, and rights.


  1. Durkheim E 1961 Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. Free Press, New York
  2. Gilligan C 1982 In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  3. Kohlberg L 1969 Stage and sequence: the cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In: Goslin D A (ed.) Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. Rand McNally, Chicago
  4. Nucci L P 1996 Morality and the personal sphere of actions. In: Reed E S, Turiel E, Brown T (eds.) Values and Knowledge. The Jean Piaget Symposium Series. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ
  5. Nussbaum M C 1999 Sex & Social Justice. Oxford University Press, New York
  6. Piaget J 1932 The Moral Judgment of the Child. K Paul, Trench, Trubner, London
  7. Rawls J 1971 A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA
  8. Turiel E 1998 Moral development. In: Damon W, Eisenberg N (eds.) Handbook of Child Psychology, 5th edn. Wiley, New York, Vol. 3


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