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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Professional Organizations and Journals
  • Early Social Science Scholarship

Psychology Moral Reasoning
Lene Jensen, Jessica McKenzie, Niyati Pandya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0037


Morality is fundamental to the human condition. From early on, children make distinctions between matters of right and wrong, and the people and institutions around them convey myriad moral messages in direct and indirect ways. A key part of morality is moral reasoning. It occurs within the individual, between individuals, and in myriad institutional and collective contexts. Moral reasoning is multifaceted. It serves, for example, to guide and determine one’s moral judgment and behavior, to prod and persuade others, and to defend and bolster behaviors to oneself and others that in fact are driven by other motives (including amoral or even immoral ones). From early on, social scientists addressed moral reasoning. They asked the kinds of questions that contemporary scholarship on moral reasoning has continued to address, such as whether or not the development of moral reasoning follows a universal pattern and what contexts are most important for the socialization of moral reasoning. Early social scientists also developed methods that have been extended by contemporary scientists, such as having research participants deliberate in response to hypothetical vignettes and observing children at play. But contemporary scholarship is also taking new directions. Whereas early scholars focused primarily on parents and peers, current work examines additional contexts such as afterschool and youth programs and the Internet. Due to improvements in neuroscience technology, neuroscientific research on moral reasoning and emotions has also emerged. And with more international exchange and globalization, the influence of culture on moral reasoning is also receiving far more attention in current scholarship. This bibliography first provides information on general overviews and then professional organizations and journals that focus primarily on moral reasoning. This is followed by a description of influential early scholarship in the social sciences and its impact on contemporary work. A section on Contemporary Theories, then, describes five approaches: Post-Piagetian Research, the Cognitive-Developmental Approach, the Domain Approach, work on Gender and Two Orientations Approach, and the Cultural-Developmental Approach. The section on theories, in turn, is followed by a section on current research topics (see Current Prominent Research Topics). Specifically, this work focuses on moral reasoning in relation to Culture, Religion, Contexts, Identity, Emotions, and Crime and Delinquency. Many of the theories and much of the current research described in these sections are rooted in psychological science. Thus, the final section of this biliography looks at emerging research on moral reasoning (see Moral Reasoning Research in Other Disciplines) in three other disciplinary areas: biology (see Research on Biology and Evolution), neuroscience (see Neuroscience Research), and anthropology (see Anthropological Research).

General Overviews

Kurtines and Gewirtz 1991 is a three-volume handbook that provides an overview of theory, research, and applied work in the area of moral psychology. While these volumes still provide very useful information, newer handbooks reflect changes in the field and provide access to more-recent scholarship. Killen and Smetana 2006, a handbook on moral development, includes twenty-six chapters covering a variety of issues pertaining to morality in the field of psychology. Doris and Moral Psychology Research Group 2010 provides an interdisciplinary overview of a variety of issues in contemporary moral psychology and philosophy. Two recent encyclopedias are also available that include entries pertaining to moral reasoning in a variety of ways. Power, et al. 2007 is a two-volume encyclopedia that focuses on moral education in American schools but includes entries on scholars of moral psychology, theory, and research. Shweder, et al. 2009 is an encyclopedia on children that has a much broader scope than moral psychology, yet many of the entries touch directly or indirectly on moral reasoning, emotions, and behaviors.

  • Doris, J. M., and Moral Psychology Research Group. 2010. The moral psychology handbook. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582143.001.0001

    This handbook draws attention to the emergent interdisciplinarity in studying human morality, particularly in its attempt to bridge philosophic and psychological perspectives. Topics included pertain to moral reasoning, character, and rules, as well as neural correlates of ethical judgment.

  • Killen, M., and J. Smetana, eds. 2006. Handbook of moral development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Covers a variety of theories and research on moral reasoning and psychology. Topics include moral development stage theory, social domain theory, conscience, sociocultural work, moral emotions, and moral education.

  • Kurtines, W. M., and J. L. Gewirtz, eds. 1991. Handbook of moral behavior and development. 3 vols. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Consists of three volumes, one each on theory, research, and application. The volume on theory includes theories by Bandura, Hoffman, and Kohlberg. The volume on research includes work on gender, empathy, and narrative. The application volume addresses issues such as drug use, moral education, and public policy.

  • Power, F., R. Nuzzi, D. Narvaez, D. Lapsley, and T. Hunt, eds. 2007. Moral education: A handbook. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    This two-volume encyclopedia pulls together a variety of information pertaining to moral education in American K–12 schools. The A–Z format of this handbook allows for quick access to information pertaining to topics such as religious moral education, moral philosophy, and character education.

  • Shweder, R. A., T. R. Bidell, A. C. Dailey, S. D. Dixon, P. J. Miller, and J. Modell, eds. 2009. The child: An encyclopedic companion. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This encyclopedia brings together contributors from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropology, pediatrics, psychology, and law. Of the more than five hundred entries on children and childhood, many highlight moral conceptions and practices across cultures. Examples of such entries pertain to civic education, family sleeping arrangements, discipline and punishment, and food preferences.

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.