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

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works and Historical Background
  • Morality as a Domain of Social Knowledge
  • The Morality of Social Inclusion and Exclusion of Peers
  • Morality and Prejudice
  • Prosocial Behavior and Empathy

Psychology Moral Development
Cameron Richardson, Riley Sims, Melanie Killen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0091


In the field of moral development, morality is defined as principles for how individuals ought to treat one another, with respect to justice, others’ welfare, and rights (Turiel 1983, cited under Introductory Works and Historical Background). Understanding the acquisition of morality also includes investigating the roles of prosocial behavior, emotions, beliefs, and intentionality to explain how morality is acquired in development, and to provide a full picture of moral development. The field of moral development is broad, focusing on the roles of peers, authority figures, and culture as important influences; conscience and values as self-regulatory mechanisms; perspective taking, empathy, and altruism; resource allocation and social exclusion; moral neuroscience and comparative approaches; and positive youth development and civic engagement. Whereas the interest in morality spans many disciplines (e.g., economics, biology, philosophy, and political science) and specializations within psychology (e.g., social, cognitive, and cultural), moral developmental psychology research focuses on questions of origins and changes in morality across the lifespan. While this bibliography cannot cover all of the abovementioned areas, the review will highlight both traditional and current theories to introduce the extant research on moral development.

Introductory Works and Historical Background

Written by the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud 1962 proposed the existence of a tension between the needs of society and the individual. According to Freud, moral development proceeds when the individual’s selfish desires are repressed and replaced by the values of important socializing agents in one’s life. By a proponent of behaviorism, Skinner 1938 similarly focused on socialization as the primary force behind moral development. In contrast to Freud’s notion of a struggle between internal and external forces, Skinner focused on the power of external forces (reinforcement contingencies) to shape an individual’s development. While both Freud and Skinner focused on the external forces that bear on morality (parents in the case of Freud, and behavioral contingencies in the case of Skinner), Piaget 1965 focused on the individual’s construction, construal, and interpretation of morality from a social-cognitive and social-emotional perspective. To understand adult morality, Piaget believed that it was necessary to study both how morality manifests in the child’s world and the factors that contribute to the emergence of central moral concepts such as welfare, justice, and rights. Interviewing children using the clinical interview method, Piaget 1965 argued that young children (ten years of age and younger) were focused on authority mandates, and that with age children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality. Kohlberg 1963 expanded upon Piagetian notions of moral development. While they both viewed moral development as a result of a deliberate attempt to increase the coordination and integration of one’s orientation to the world, Kohlberg provided a systematic three-level, six-stage sequence reflecting changes in moral judgment throughout the lifespan. Specifically, Kohlberg argued that development proceeds from a selfish desire to avoid punishment (personal), to a concern for group functioning (societal), to a concern for the consistent application of universal ethical principles (moral). Following Kohlberg 1963, Turiel 1983 argued for a social domain approach to social cognition, delineating how individuals differentiate moral, societal, and psychological concepts from early in development throughout the lifespan. Turiel contrasted moral rules with societal rules, which were defined as regulations that are established by consensus to make groups function smoothly. The social domain approach provides a model for an expansive line of research on moral development including topics on culture, peer and parent-child relationships, and developmental acquisition. Since the 1970s researchers have expanded the field of moral development, covering concerns regarding the relation between children’s morality and aggression, theory of mind, prejudice, emotions, empathy, peer relationships, and parent-child interactions (see Killen and Smetana 2015 for a review).

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Civilization and its discontents. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Original formulation of the psychoanalytic orientation to human development. First published in German in 1930.

  • Killen, Melanie, and Judith G. Smetana. 2015. Origins and development of morality. In Socioemotional processes. Vol. 3 of Handbook of child psychology and developmental science. 7th ed. Edited by Richard M. Lerner and Michael E. Lamb, 701–749. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Review of the theories and literature on moral development, spanning topics from morality and mental state knowledge to peer groups to society.

  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1963. The development of children’s orientations toward a moral order: I. Sequence in the development of moral thought. Vita Humana 6:11–33.

    Original formulation of a lifespan development account of moral development. Kohlberg’s theorizing built on work by Piaget.

  • Piaget, Jean. 1965. The moral judgment of the child. New York: Free Press.

    Original formulation of a constructivist account of moral development. Development proceeds toward increasing internal consistency in representations of important constructs through active engagement with the world. Covers a variety of topics, from children’s understanding of lying to their understanding of distributive justice. First published in French in 1932.

  • Skinner, B. F. 1938. The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Oxford: Appleton-Century.

    Original formulation of the theory of operant conditioning. Extended Pavlov’s notions of classical conditioning. Development proceeds when the organism becomes aware of reinforcement contingencies.

  • Turiel, Elliot. 1983. The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Thorough overview of social domain theory’s theoretical formulations. Taking a Piagetian orientation to development, development within and across the moral (justice, welfare, rights), societal (societal regulations that promote smooth social functioning), and psychological domains (privacy, bodily integrity) proceeds as a result of reciprocal individual-environment interactions.

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