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Piaget's Theory of Moral Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Jean Piaget first published his theory of child development during the 1920's but his work did not become prominent until the mid-twentieth century. Piaget is perhaps best known for his theory of children's cognitive development, but he also proposed his own theory about children's moral development. Piaget recognized that cognitive development is closely tied to moral development and was particularly interested in the way children's thoughts about morality changed over time. In this article we limit our discussion of Piaget's theory to adolescent moral development. The Middle Childhood Development Article discusses Piaget's theory with respect to younger children.

According to Piaget, youth develop the morality of cooperation, at the age of 10 years or older. As youth develop a morality of cooperation they realize that in order to create a cooperative society people must work together to decide what is acceptable, and what is not. Piaget believed that youth at this age begin to understand that morals represent social agreements between people and are intended to promote the common good. Furthermore, they recognize people may differ in the way they understand and approach a moral situation or problem. They also begin to understand that the difference between right and wrong is not an absolute but instead must take into account changing variables such as context, motivation, abilities, and intentions. Contrast this to younger youth who believe rules and laws are created by indisputable, wise authorities and believe that rules established by these wise authorities ought never be challenged or changed. Moreover, Piaget believed youth at this age begin to understand that the morality of a decision does not rest solely on the outcome of that decision. For example, youth at this age realize that running a stop sign is wrong, regardless of whether or not a person receives a traffic ticket, or causes a traffic accident.

Furthermore, youth begin to understand the reciprocal benefit of moral decision-making; i.e., a moral decision creates the optimal solution for everyone involved, even when only two people are affected. Youth begin to realize that when situations are handled in a manner that seems fair, reasonable, and/or beneficial to all parties, it becomes easier for people to accept and honor the decision. This concept of fairness is called reciprocity. Initially youths' understanding of reciprocity can be very literal and simplistic. For example, last week Terrell, age 11, lent his brand new video game to his good friend Randy. This week, it is Randy who has a new video game. Terrell is likely to insist that Randy should allow him borrow the new video game because from Terrell's perspective, "it's only fair" since he graciously allowed Randy to borrow his new game the week before. Terrell believes that fairness is simplistically determined by exact reciprocity.

By middle adolescence youth expand their understanding of fairness to include ideal reciprocity. Ideal reciprocity refers to a type of fairness beyond simple reciprocity and includes a consideration of another person's best interests. It is best described by the familiar adage, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" which many people know as the Golden Rule. Teens who have reached ideal reciprocity will imagine a problem from another person's perspective and try to place themselves in another person's "shoes," before making a moral decision. This concept is best illustrated by the following example:

Suppose Maria, age 14, was looking out the living room window one day and happens to see her older sister, Ava, backing the family's car out of the driveway. As she was watching, Maria saw Ava accidently bump into the mailbox just as she was pulling out into the street. Next, Maria saw Ava get out of the car and examine the damage to the car and mailbox. But, instead of coming back into the house to tell her parents, Ava just drove away.

At a younger age, Maria would have immediately run off to tell her parents about Ava's accident because she knows it is wrong for Ava to drive away without telling her parents what happened. Instead, if Maria has reached ideal reciprocity she will stop herself and imagine what the experience must have been like for Ava. She might realize that if she were in Ava's shoes, she might have done the same thing because she would be embarrassed and scared to tell her parents about the accident. Furthermore, she might decide that Ava would probably prefer to tell her parents about the accident herself, rather than having her little sister "tattle" on her. Therefore, Maria would wait until Ava comes home so she can talk to Ava. During this discussion Maria would encourage Ava to go to her parents with the truth in order to make things right. Thus, ideal reciprocity would enable Maria to examine the problem from her sister's perspective and to make a moral decision based upon the "Golden Rule."

According to Piaget, once ideal reciprocity has been reached moral development has been completed. However, we now know that many youth will continue to refine their moral decision-making process well into early adulthood. So although Piaget pioneered our initial understanding of moral development, research has not always been able to confirm certain portions of his theory. For instance, not only do youth continue refine their criteria for moral decisions into adulthood, but they also continue to improve their ability act according to these criteria. In other words, their moral compass operates to guide their choices and to direct their behavior. Piaget also under-estimated the age at which children are able to take into account another person's moral intention. Piaget believed that this ability did not develop until late childhood, or early adolescence. However, more recent research indicates that this ability develops sooner that Piaget once believed. Younger children are able to recognize the importance of someone's intentions when evaluating the morality of a decision; but, younger children tend to be quite naïve in their belief that people's best intentions will dictate the actual choices people make. Despite these weaknesses, Piaget's contributions were very significant because they heavily influenced the later work of Lawrence Kohlberg who published his theory of moral development during the 1950's. Unlike Piaget's earlier theories, Kohlberg's theory of moral development has generally been supported by contemporary research. Kohlberg's theory is discussed in the next section.