There are three stages in Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development. In stage one, children are not concerned with moral reasoning as they prioritize other skills such as social development and dexterity. In stage two, children submit to authority and show absolute respect for regulations. In stage three, children acknowledge the flexibility of regulations according to consensual beliefs and consider the intent behind each action when judging whether it is moral or not.
See also: Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s first stage included children between the ages of five and ten, whose moral reasoning had a “heteronomous” lens, or external to the self. This meant that laws were created and enforced by authority and were not to be broken at any cost. According to their understanding, the power of authorities was absolute and the regulations were imposed indefinitely. Their reasoning for this acceptance is directly linked to the punishment for not following the rules. At this age, children worked hard to avoid consequences, and their moral reasoning for behaviors was simply to escape punishment.
As they near the end of middle childhood, children begin to appreciate the perspectives of others in their moral reasoning. They develop the ability to put themselves in ‘someone else’s shoes’ so to speak or empathize with them from their perspective. Kohlberg named this phenomenon a “morality of cooperation” as children realized that their choices affected everyone in the society, either positively or negatively. Moral reasoning no longer seemed black and white but became more complex. It is important to note that participants in this stage still recognized the importance of following the laws, as rules were ultimately meant to improve the lives of the community as a whole. It is the value of punishment that seems to decrease as they discover that the foundation of a society should not be based on consequences or personal gain.
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Piaget outlined the morality of cooperation as the stage reached after the age of ten. Defining factors for this stage include the changing of rules according to mutual consent by others in the society as well as the flexibility to do so. As children age, they realized that people must work together if they wish to achieve harmony in the community, and that includes deciding what is acceptable or not. Social harmony is characterized largely by agreements between the members and this stage is no exception. Members may have different approaches and various perspectives on a situation. Harmony is achieved when members of a society aim for the common good while still factoring in the understanding that what is right and wrong may vary. Motivation, intent, personal abilities, and situational context are all factors that must be taken into account. Piaget determined that youth had adequately reached this stage when they rejected the absolute reasoning of authorities and the idea that rules should never be questioned. In addition, youth at this stage began to outline some values that were right or wrong regardless of the outcome. For example, speeding through a stop sign was considered the wrong thing to do, even if you did not get pulled over by the police or cause an accident.
See also: Social Learning Theory
As a key stage in moral reasoning, there were even more developments at this age. As the youth attempted to implement rules for the common good, they realized the importance of a viable solution for all. Discussing possible outcomes with other members of the society helps create a fair decision. If the solution is reasonable and benefits all members, they are more likely to follow and uphold the rules. Youth in this age group count on this reciprocity, perhaps almost too literally. For example, if one friend, named Terrell, receives a new video game and lends it to his friend Randy, he shall expect the same in return. When Randy receives a new video game the next week, he believes it would be “only fair” if Randy let him borrow it as he did the same for him. Reciprocity at this age is simple; fairness is seen as the exact offering as what was given.
As youth enter adolescence, their definition of fairness is expanded beyond exact reciprocity and considers the interests of the other person. This is now called ideal reciprocity and more closely follows the old saying otherwise known as the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Teenagers at this stage are able to reflect on the perspective of the other person and empathize with their point of view. Those who have reached this level of ideal reciprocity typically try and put themselves into the other person’s “shoes” before acting on a moral decision.
Let’s imagine an example of a girl named Maria, a fourteen-year-old who happens to be watching her sister Ava backing out of the driveway through the window of their home. Ava accidentally swipes the family car on the mailbox on the way out, leaving a noticeable mark on the bumper. Ava gets out to inspect the damage but returns to the car and continues on her way instead of returning to tell her parents.
At this point in time, Ava is likely thankful that Maria is fourteen. If Maria had been younger, she would probably have run to inform her parents of the damage that Ava had caused to both the car and the mailbox. However, Maria has reached the level of ideal reciprocity and can, therefore, imagine herself in Ava’s position. She would have likely felt embarrassed and afraid to tell her parents about what she had done. She can also deduce that Ava would probably not be happy if she squealed on her, preferring instead to tell her parents herself. The “Golden Rule,” or the principle of treating others the way that you would like to be treated, would enable Maria to wait for Ava to come home so she could personally speak with her. Maria would be able to encourage Ava to do the right thing and tell her parents the truth.
Piaget believed ideal reciprocity to be the highest level of moral development. Continued studies on this theory have shown that teenagers continue to refine their moral reasoning with the accumulation of life experiences even into adulthood. Each dilemma presented throughout early adulthood sharpens decision-making skills, even with the same presented criteria. This means that one’s ‘moral compass’ becomes more accurate as they learn to choose behavior that most aligns with their beliefs. Piaget’s work is sometimes vague and many sections have been difficult to prove in studies. His timing is also incompatible with the development of children, with some sections starting too early and others too late. While young children could recognize the moral intent of another person, they also assumed that this was driving the actual decisions made. Despite the critiques of his theory, Piaget is still considered a pioneer in moral reasoning. His work led to the development of other theories, including the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, whose conclusions are still supported by modern studies conducted today.
See also: Problem-Based Learning (PBL)