In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Moral Development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Classic Philosophical Works
  • Classic Psychological Works
  • Measurement
  • Early Moral Development
  • The Ethic of Care
  • Cross-Cultural and Global Perspectives
  • Moral and Character Education
  • Civic Education
  • Other Applications
  • Controversies and Critiques
  • Moral Motivation, Moral Action, and Moral Exemplars
  • Professional Websites and Associations as Resources

Education Moral Development
Elizabeth C. Vozzola, Sharon Lamb, Amie Senland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0056


Moral development and moral education are difficult topics to separate, since many individuals who have theorized on and researched moral development have work that extends into moral education. While early-20th-century psychologists and philosophers were interested in altruism and conscience, the field of moral development began after World War II and as a response to fascism and the Holocaust. Its scholars asked what forces influence moral decision making, and how we raise children to grow up resistant to forces such as Nazism. We see this in Piaget’s seminal work, which describes moral growth as arising naturally in interaction with peers who are equals and away from a mere acceptance of the rules handed down by elders. Following Piaget, there were attempts to tie moral development to democracy, attempts to naturalize it, and attempts to look at the context in which this natural development could be produced. Kohlberg applied Piaget’s work to a theory of stages of moral development, using for his first sample adolescent boys. In his theory, children are said to develop from thinking that gives too much sway to external forces to reasoning that is more contractual and autonomous. There also have been several challenges to Kohlberg’s theory, for example regarding the unchangeability of the direction of the stages. Indeed, the work of the anthropologist Shweder is an important challenge to moral development in its entirety. The most discussed and controversial challenge to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development came from Carol Gilligan, who developed the idea of an ethic of care that exists alongside an ethic based on rights and justice. Moral education derived in part from Kohlberg’s work and his development of a school program called the “just community,” where students increased their moral reasoning through democratic participation in the running of the school. As a more Aristotelian, virtues-oriented philosophical approach took hold in the 1990s, the character education movement began to flourish, and for some it existed as an alternative to education that emphasized movement in stages. For some character education programs there is deep knowledge of the processes of development, while for others there is a more didactic approach. Psychological research that investigates empathy, altruism, and prosocial behavior can also be considered part of the field of moral development. New trends in the field come from several sources: evolutionary perspectives, Haidt’s theory of moral judgment, and neuroscience. There are also a number of ways in which moral development theory has become applied—to education in the professions, to sex education, and to anti-racism education, to name a few areas.

General Overviews and Reference Works

The following works provide a range of perspectives on the field of moral development. Of particular use to anyone new to the area, the years 2006–2014 saw the publication and revision of several major handbooks that provide updated and much-needed surveys of current research in this dynamic and rapidly changing field. A handbook directly concerned with moral education is Nucci, Narvaez, and Krettenauer 2014, described in Moral and Character Education. The more general overview, Killen and Smetana 2014, is composed of review articles by numerous top figures in the field. Essays cover topics such as moral development in early childhood, aggression and morality, moral identity, and insights from neuroscience, as well as evolutionary and cultural psychology. An older compendium, Puka 1994, continues to serve as a valuable historical resource because of its treasury of influential work culled from less accessible sources. Works with particular appeal to readers with an interest in moral philosophy include Reed 1997 and Wren 1990. Both examine tensions between moral philosophical perspectives and psychological theory and research. For a more contemporary view of topics that have captured the imagination of thinkers across disciplines, Narvaez and Lapsley 2009 is an edited volume on the moral self and personality, highlighting the diversity of theoretical and research perspectives in a time between major paradigms.

  • Killen, Melanie, and Judith G. Smetana, eds. 2014. Handbook of moral development. 2d ed. New York: Psychology Press.

    Review articles by multidisciplinary researchers and thinkers represent the field’s wide range of research topics, with a focus on the perspective of domain theory. Moral development researchers and doctoral students will appreciate the informed synthesis of topics under the book’s seven conceptual themes: concepts of justice, fairness, and rights; socialization, conscience, and the family; emotions, prosocial behavior, and aggression; culture, cooperation, and development; prejudice, social cognition, and intergroup attitudes; precursors to morality: cognitive, neurobiological, and comparative approaches; and moral identity, community, and the personal domain. First published in 2006.

  • Narvaez, Darcia, and Daniel K. Lapsley, eds. 2009. Personality, identity and character: Explorations in moral psychology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627125

    This volume presents cutting-edge ideas of an international group of moral personality theorists and researchers. Readers new to the field might begin with Augusto Blasi’s chapter on the moral functioning of mature adults, which lays out and evaluates two interrelated issues: the relegation of morality to the private rather than the public sphere and implicit processing theories’ challenge to conceptions of reasoned and rational moral decisions.

  • Puka, William. 1994. Moral development: A compendium. 7 vols. New York: Garland.

    The hefty price tag made this a library rather than individual reference, but in the days prior to Google and library databases, Puka’s compendium provided an invaluable resource for moral development scholars looking to find classic but hard-to-find articles central to the field. Of particular historical interest, the work includes one of the foundational documents of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s 1958 University of Chicago doctoral dissertation.

  • Reed, Donald R. C. 1997. Following Kohlberg: Liberalism and the practice of democratic community. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.

    This critical overview of Kohlberg’s stage theory provides an insightful analysis of the inherent tension between the individualist concepts in Kohlberg’s psychological theory and the collectivist ones underlying his applied work in creating just communities.

  • Wren, Thomas E., ed. 1990. The moral domain: Essays in the ongoing discussion between philosophy and the social sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    While attempting to clarify connections between moral philosophy’s theories and psychology’s empirical research, the collection of papers ultimately highlights the substantial differences between psychologists and philosophers working in the moral domain.

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