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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Stages of Moral Development
  • Innate Moral Core Theory
  • Theory of Mind
  • Parenting and Attachment
  • Moral Emotions
  • Prosocial and Cooperative Behavior
  • Lying Behavior
  • Cross-species Comparisons
  • Culture and Moral Development

Childhood Studies Moral Development
Onurcan Yilmaz, Fatih Bayrak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0267


The structure of moral judgment and its ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins have been empirically studied since the emergence of psychology as a science. Although an early influential perspective emerged with Piaget, the first systematic theory, which was the subject of a great deal of empirical research, was proposed by Kohlberg. Kohlberg’s theory is regarded as a rationalist theory because, although he thinks emotional processes are at least partly involved in making moral judgments, he claims that rational thinking processes are the main determinant because, as children age and mature cognitively, they mature morally as well. In addition to the cognitive underpinnings of moral development, recent studies have also focused on the biological origins of morality, and alternative theoretical approaches arguing that morality is innate have been proposed. The best known of these are the innate moral core theory and the two-stage theory. According to these theories, making moral judgments is ingrained in our genes due to their adaptive functions, and this genetic feature causes human infants to develop moral sensitivities. Not only can we observe these moral sensitivities in 6-month-old babies, but in comparative animal studies as well. Empirical evidence also suggests that the influence of socialization increases with age. However, when we consider the variety of current theoretical frameworks, the lack of an integrative perspective becomes apparent. More importantly, experimental studies with very small sample sizes pose a fundamental problem for the progress of the field. For example, key original studies with 10–15 subjects are sometimes attempted to be replicated with 20–30 subjects, and it seems very difficult to reach a final conclusion with such small samples. Therefore, future studies should attempt to replicate the key findings in this field with multi-lab organizations such as Many Babies. However, while doing this, it is essential to consider cross-cultural differences and to adapt the methodological paradigms used in the past with Western samples to non-Western cultures, and to document their validity before application.

General Overviews

Paulus 2020 can be taken as the main reference in this section because it summarizes the different influential theoretical approaches proposed so far and emphasizes the lack of an overarching perspective that will unify all the findings in the literature. Paulus presents examples of open questions as future directions and argues how the relevant research, taken as evidence for different theories, has been criticized. Articles in this section generally refer to the importance of cross-cultural studies as a limitation of the current literature, and Lavoie, et al. 2022 and others summarize several different methodologies used in moral development research, and also point out the lack of methodological unity in the field. A recent edited handbook, Jensen 2020 provides a comprehensive summary of the moral development literature and discusses the current debates and challenges.

  • Cowell, J. M., and J. Decety. “Precursors to Morality in Development as a Complex Interplay between Neural, Socioenvironmental, and Behavioral Facets.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.41 (2015): 12657–12662.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508832112

    Demonstrates that moral sensitivity is present from early development through neural and environmental mechanisms underlying its emergence. As responses to witnessing prosocial and antisocial behaviors, brainwave differences of infants and toddlers predicted attraction to prosocial others. Differences in response times were also related to parents’ values regarding fairness and justice. Based on a social neuroscience perspective, the study empirically clarifies the biological basis and brain-behavior processes that shape moral sensitivity.

  • Dahl, A. “Definitions and Developmental Processes in Research on Infant Morality.” Human Development 57 (2014): 241–249.

    DOI: 10.1159/000364919

    In this commentary, it is emphasized that the concepts in the moral development literature are not well-defined, and to ensure theoretical development, conceptual unity should be provided first.

  • Dahl, A. “The Science of Early Moral Development: On Defining, Constructing, and Studying Morality from Birth.” Advances in Child Development and Behavior 56 (2019): 1–35.

    DOI: 10.1016/bs.acdb.2018.11.001

    In this chapter, interactionist and constructivist approaches are described and the moral development of children as shaped by daily interactions is summarized. Finally, the main limitations of the relevant research paradigms are explained by focusing on future research ideas.

  • Ellemers, N., J. van der Toorn, Y. Paunov, and T. van Leeuwen. “The Psychology of Morality: A Review and Analysis of Empirical Studies Published from 1940 through 2017.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 23.4 (2019): 332–366.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088868318811759

    This article reviews studies and research questions published in the field of moral psychology between 1940 and 2017 and categorizes the basic issues in the field under five subtitles. The adequacy of the empirical evidence for the basic research questions is questioned. The results show that many problems have not been adequately examined and empirical support is limited.

  • Garrigan, B., A. L. Adlam, and P. E. Langdon. “Moral Decision-Making and Moral Development: Toward an Integrative Framework.” Developmental Review 49 (2018): 80–100.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.dr.2018.06.001

    It is claimed that one of the most important problems in the field is that moral development studies do not examine the neural origins of moral development from an integrated perspective. By summarizing the theories in these two areas, the Social Information Processing-Moral Decision-Making (SIP-MDM) framework is proposed, taking into account the situational, cognitive, and affective factors that influence moral decision-making, and the differences among alternative theoretical explanations are discussed.

  • Jensen, L. A., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Moral Development: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    The handbook provides a comprehensive review of research on moral development across more than forty chapters. It includes four different sections: “Moral Motives,” “Moral Behaviors,” “Contexts of Moral Development,” and “Applications and Policies.” Jensen reviews the current empirical state of the literature and provides new insights into the contemporary debates and challenges in the moral development literature.

  • Lavoie, J., A. L. Murray, G. Skinner, and E. Janiczek. “Measuring Morality in Infancy: A Scoping Methodological Review.” Infant and Child Development 31.3 (2022): e2298.

    DOI: 10.1002/icd.2298

    The methods used in moral development research with infants younger than two are reviewed and it is reported that the most frequently used methods were experimental studies. In addition, although approximately one-third of the studies used longitudinal designs and the overwhelming majority of these studies reported statistically significant results, it is noted that more reliable methods in different age ranges are needed.

  • Paulus, M. “The Developmental Emergence of Morality: A Review of Current Theoretical Perspectives.” Progress in Brain Research 254 (2020): 205–223.

    DOI: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2020.05.006

    Four different theoretical approaches to moral development are critically summarized, the empirical support of each is presented and alternative interpretations of these findings are discussed in detail. The approaches in question are the innate moral core theory, the two-stage theory, the internalization model, and constructivist approaches.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.