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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 nave 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.