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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Theories and Research Questions
  • Research Measurements

Psychology Moral Reasoning
Lene Jensen, Niyati Pandya, Jessica McKenzie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • 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 judgement 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). The literature on moral reasoning is vast. Here, the vantage point is grounded in a perspective that is attentive to developmental and cultural factors in moral reasoning. Research from across the social sciences is included, as is research that directly overlaps with moral reasoning such as moral values. This article starts with information about publications that provide overviews (e.g., handbooks) and a review of classic theories, contemporary theories, and contemporary research measurements of moral reasoning. This is followed by three major sections pertaining to individual characteristics, social contexts, and culture and historical changes. The section on individual characteristics includes subsections on self, identity, prosociality, and values. The section on social context comprises subsections on family, peers, school, sociodemographic groups, civic groups, media, and religious institutions and secular societies. Finally, the section on culture and historical changes includes subsections on culture, globalization, and the natural environment and climate change. Naturally, the main sections and subsections are not mutually exclusive but rather serve as a useful organizational framework, sorting research along the lines of their primary foci.

General Overviews

Jensen 2020 is a forty-one-chapter handbook of moral development where more than ninety experts provide a comprehensive and international overview of theories and contemporary life-span research. Killen and Smetana 2023 is a twenty-seven-chapter handbook of moral development with a focus on early morality, fairness, and prejudice. Liable, et al. 2019, a twenty-three-chapter handbook, examines the role that parents play in moral reasoning and development. Vargas and Doris 2022, a handbook of essays on morality, provides an interdisciplinary overview of a variety of issues in contemporary moral psychology and philosophy. Vozzola and Senland 2022 summarizes classic and current theories of moral development in thirteen chapters, including a focus on their application to counseling and education.

  • Jensen, L. A., ed. 2020. The Oxford handbook of moral development: An interdisciplinary perspective. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Consists of sections on moral motives, moral behaviors, numerous contexts of moral development, and applications and policies. All chapters include research with diverse groups—cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic—within and across nations as well as suggestions for future research across the life span.

  • Killen, M., and J. Smetana, eds. 2023. Handbook of moral development. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Edited by two domain theory researchers, many of the contributors to this handbook have worked extensively with that approach. Additionally, the handbook includes research on early moral development, parental socialization, moral emotions, and prosocial and aggressive behaviors.

  • Liable, D. J., G. Carlo, and L. M. Padilla-Walker, eds. 2019. The Oxford handbook of parenting and moral development. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Covers theories and research on the role that parents play in moral development, including research on socialization as well as genetic and biological influences related to parenting and moral development. Classic research and contemporary research directions are included.

  • Vargas, M., and J. Doris, eds. 2022. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The main focus of this handbook is the philosophical literature on morality, with sections on history, foundations, and applications. It includes essays on the nature of moral judgements and reasons.

  • Vozzola, E. C., and A. K. Senland. 2022. Moral development: Theory and applications. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429295461

    Summarizes recent developmental research, including on neuroscience and culture, as well as classic work. A notable focus is upon the application of research for counseling and treatment as well as education in a global world.

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