current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Moral development: A sampling of the literature


How do we develop a sense of morality, a value system by which we determine what is right or wrong, good or bad? Are we born with a conscience? Philosophers and faith leaders have debated such questions for centuries. But scientists did not begin to study the origins of morality until the early 20th century.


What is meant by moral development?
According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), “All morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules.” He theorized that children develop morality in their “face-to-face social relations” beginning at birth, with both adults and peers. He described his investigations in The Moral Judgment of the Child in 1932. He came out with his more famous theory of 4-stage cognitive development in 1936.


How does morality develop?
Influenced by Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87) described moral development in three levels—preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Each level consists of two stages, and not everyone progresses through them all. The first two stages—obeying to avoid punishment and behaving to get what one wants—are commonly seen in children ages 4-10. The remaining stages focus on social agreement (stages 3 and 4) and internal principles of equality and justice (stages 5 and 6). He wrote about his theory in a number of books.

In recent years, critics have found problems with his assumptions, research method, and emphasis on individual rights. One critic, Carol Gilligan (born 1936), challenged his use of only male subjects. While men may align more with the concept of justice, women are more likely to emphasize social relationships and the welfare of others, which, she argues, is a human strength. She describes her criticisms in In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, published by Harvard University Press in 1982.

Philosopher Nel Noddings (born 1929) expanded Gilligan’s theory to an “ethics of caring,” and its implication for education. She theorized that the foundation of morality is caring, that caring is a universal human trait, and that a caring relation is ethically basic to human beings. She has published her ideas in such books as The Challenge to Care in Schools (1992), Educating Moral People (2002), and Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach (2006).


Are we born with a sense of morality?
Psychologist Paul Bloom (born 1963) argues that humans have an inborn morality. His studies with babies at Yale indicate an understanding that helping is good and harming is bad, and that good should be rewarded and bad punished. In addition, he believes babies are “endowed with compassion, empathy, [and] the beginnings of a sense of fairness” (Cook 2013). He explains his findings in Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. An article in the Smithsonian, contains comments by critics, And a 2018 article at offers a developmental perspective on the origins of morality in childhood and advocates for an explicit definition of morality.


Cook, Gareth. (Nov. 12, 2013). The moral life of babies: Yale Psychology Professor Paul Bloom finds the origins of morality in infants, Scientific American,
McLeod, S. A. (Oct. 24, 2013). Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Retrieved from
Piaget, J. (1932).The moral judgment of the child. London, UK: Kegan Paul, Trench, Thubner & Co.