Understanding Moral Development

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

What is Moral Development?

Moral development refers to the process through which individuals acquire and internalize moral values, beliefs, and principles that guide their behavior and decision-making in social contexts.[1] The stages of moral development include:

  • Preconventional Level:
    • Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation: Individuals focus on avoiding punishment and obeying authority figures to satisfy their own needs and desires.
    • Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation: They begin to consider others' perspectives and may follow rules to gain rewards or favors.
  • Conventional Level:
    • Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships: Individuals value interpersonal relationships and seek approval from others by conforming to social norms and expectations.
    • Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order: They adhere to rules and laws to maintain social order and uphold societal norms and expectations.
  • Postconventional Level:
    • Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation: Individuals recognize the importance of social contracts and agreements, understanding that rules can be changed for the greater good.
    • Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles: They develop personal moral principles based on universal ethical principles and values, such as justice, equality, and human dignity.

These stages of moral development illustrate the progression from self-centered perspectives to broader considerations of societal values and universal principles. Understanding moral development helps individuals comprehend the complexities of moral reasoning and ethical decision-making in various contexts.

Moral development plays an essential role in shaping behavior and decision-making processes within personal and social contexts. On a personal level, moral development guides individuals in understanding right from wrong and helps them develop a sense of empathy, compassion, and integrity. In social contexts, moral development influences how individuals interact with others, make ethical decisions, and contribute to the well-being of their communities. It fosters the development of prosocial behaviors, respect for diversity, and a commitment to justice and fairness in interpersonal relationships and societal structures.[2]


In this article, we explore Piaget’s theory of moral development and Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning and examine the factors that influence individuals' moral development. 

Overview of Moral Reasoning and Development

Between the ages of 2 and 5, many children start to show morally-based behaviors and beliefs. For example, Tasha may see Juan take the blocks out of Tyler's hands and say, "Juan! You're gonna get in trouble!" At this point, many young children also start to show empathy-based guilt when they break the rules. For example, if Juan from the above example sees Tyler cry because his blocks were stolen, Juan might start feeling somewhat bad that he hurt Tyler's feelings. As a younger child, however, Juan would feel badly only if he was punished for taking the blocks rather than making someone else sad.

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


According to Piaget, children between the ages of 4 and 7 see the world through a Heteronomous Morality. In other words, children think that authority figures such as parents and teachers have rules that young people must follow absolutely. Rules are thought of as real, unchangeable guidelines rather than evolving, negotiable, or situational. As they grow older, develop more abstract thinking, and become less self-focused, children become capable of forming more flexible rules and applying them selectively for the sake of shared objectives and a desire to cooperate.

Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg built on Piaget's work to create his theory of the Stages of Moral Understanding. According to Kohlberg, young children at this age base their morality on a punishment and obedience orientation. Like Piaget, Kohlberg believed young children behave morally because they fear authority and try to avoid punishment. In other words, little kids follow the rules because they don't want to get in trouble. It's too much to expect preschool-aged children to automatically "do the right thing". However, most young children can understand the difference between "good" and "bad" behavior, and this understanding provides the basis for more complicated moral thinking in the future. For more information, click here.

Stages of Moral Development


Piaget's theory of moral development posits that children progress through distinct stages of moral reasoning as they age. According to Piaget, moral development is closely intertwined with cognitive development, particularly the development of logical reasoning abilities. He proposed two main stages: heteronomous morality and autonomous morality.

Heteronomous Morality (Ages 4-7)

  • Children perceive rules as absolute and unchangeable.
  • They focus on the consequences of actions rather than intentions.
  • Imposed rules are followed to avoid punishment.

Autonomous Morality (Ages 7-11)

  • Children understand that rules are created by people and can be changed.
  • They consider intentions when evaluating actions, not just outcomes.
  • Moral judgments become more based on fairness and equality.


Kohlberg's theory of moral development suggests that individuals progress through six stages of moral reasoning across three levels of moral development: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. 

Preconventional Level

  • Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience Orientation: Focus on avoiding punishment.
  • Stage 2: Instrumental Relativist Orientation: Consideration of one's own interests and the possibility of reciprocity.

Conventional Level

  • Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships: Desire to gain approval and maintain relationships.
  • Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order: Concern for societal rules and norms.

Postconventional Level

  • Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights: Recognition of societal agreements and personal rights.
  • Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles: Commitment to universal principles of justice and human dignity.

Contemporary research has provided us with additional information about how young children understand morals. Children between the ages 5 and 6 typically think in terms of distributive justice, or the idea that material goods or "stuff" should be fairly shared. In other words, everyone should get his or her exact "fair share." For example, Sally may think that it's only fair if each child gets exactly 2 cookies and the same amount of milk in their glass. Other factors, such as need or effort, are not considered. Sally wouldn't think that Susie should get an additional cookie because her lunch fell on the floor. By age 6 or 7, children begin to consider what people have earned or worked for when thinking about distributive justice. Children can also reason that some people should get more because they worked harder. For example, Jane begins to understand that Jill should earn a bigger prize because she sold more Girl Scout cookies.

Influences on Moral Development

Many different factors influence a person’s moral development throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Empathy and Social Cognition

Empathy and social cognition play integral roles in moral reasoning by enabling individuals to understand and consider the perspectives, feelings, and needs of others. Empathy, the ability to share and understand the emotions of others, fosters compassion and altruism, prompting individuals to consider the well-being of others in their moral decision-making.[3]

Social cognition, which encompasses the processes involved in perceiving, interpreting, and responding to social information, allows individuals to comprehend social norms, expectations, and moral principles within their cultural context.[4]

By integrating empathy and social cognition, individuals can engage in perspective-taking, moral reasoning, and ethical decision-making that promote prosocial behaviors and contribute to the maintenance of harmonious interpersonal relationships and societal cohesion.

Family, Culture, Peers, and Media

Family, culture, peers, and media significantly influence individuals' moral values and beliefs, shaping their understanding of right and wrong and guiding their moral decision-making processes. Families serve as primary socialization agents, imparting moral lessons, values, and ethical principles through modeling, reinforcement, and direct instruction.[5]

Cultural norms, traditions, and religious beliefs also play pivotal roles in shaping moral frameworks and influencing attitudes toward morality, justice, and fairness. Peers provide opportunities for social comparison, conformity, and moral reasoning, influencing individuals' moral judgments and behaviors through peer interactions, group dynamics, and social influence processes.

Moreover, media, including television, movies, and online platforms, disseminate moral messages, portrayals of moral dilemmas, and depictions of ethical behavior, shaping individuals' perceptions, attitudes, and moral reasoning abilities.

Nature vs. Nurture in Moral Growth

Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to moral development and reasoning. 

Genetic studies have identified specific genes associated with empathy, prosocial behavior, and moral cognition, indicating a genetic basis for moral traits.[6]

Additionally, environmental factors significantly shape people’s moral values, beliefs, and behaviors. These environmental influences may include:[5]

  • Peer relationships
  • Parenting styles
  • Cultural norms
  • Socialization practices

Twin and adoption studies further support the role of both genetic and environmental influences in moral development, highlighting the interplay between biological predispositions and environmental experiences in shaping moral reasoning and ethical decision-making.[7]

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.


  1. Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 347-480). Rand McNally.
  2. Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (2015). Handbook of Moral Development (2nd ed.). Psychology Press.
  3. Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 337-339.
  4. Zelazo, P. D., Carlson, S. M., & Kesek, A. (2018). The development of executive function in childhood: Introduction to the special section. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 166, 1-9.
  5. Grusec, J. E., & Hastings, P. D. (2016). Handbook of socialization: Theory and research. Guilford Publications.
  6. Decety, J., Michalska, K. J., & Akitsuki, Y. (2012). Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuropsychologia, 50(7), 2011-2024.
  7. Knafo, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Prosocial behavior from early to middle childhood: Genetic and environmental influences on stability and change. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 771-786.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.