Morality refers to a doctrine or system of beliefs, values, or principles that govern human conduct in two ways: by prescribing positive behaviors that benefit others and by proscribing negative actions that harm others. The former set of behaviors, often called prosocial behaviors, include sharing, helping, and comforting. In terms of moral judgment, these actions are viewed as good and ought to be carried out. The latter type of actions, often referred to as inhibitory or negative morality, include violations of others' rights and welfare, such as hitting, harming, and otherwise injuring others physically or psychologically, actions viewed as bad which one ought not to do.

While defining morality might be a fairly straightforward matter, speculations about its origins and development have proved far more contentious. So, too, has the role of schools and classroom teachers in promoting its growth. This entry offers a summary of the major differing views on the origins of morality and its development. It focuses on two forms of moral development—judgment and identity—that have generated decades of empirical research and have affected moral/character education in the United States. In the context of describing the normative developmental changes that occur from early childhood through late adolescence, the entry explores the roles of gender, ethnicity, and culture on moral development. The role schools and teachers in fostering moral development is considered next, with a set of recommendations for educators.


In the field of psychology, morality and its development has been variously defined by different types of psychologists. Psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939), believe that morality is rooted in the avoidance of guilt and shame and that its development is a product of the super-ego. In a similar vein, some developmental and social psychologists, such as Martin Hoffman and Jonathan Haidt, respectively, point to emotions as the basis of morality. According to Hoffman, as well as evolutionary psychologists, the origins of these moral emotions or senses date back many millennia to what has been called the ancestral environment or environment of evolutionary adaptation. While modern speculation about the biological and evolutionary basis of morality dates back to Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man, it has experienced a resurgence in the 21st century as findings from neuroscience have emerged.

Behavioral psychologists, most famously B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), offer a starkly contrasting view of the origins and development of morality regarding the mind of the newborn as a so-called blank slate, devoid of any inherent moral emotions or inclinations whatsoever. Direct experiences and the consequences they beget are the sole sources of all learning, moral and otherwise. In short, moral values are essentially synonymous with cultural mores. Morality has no biological or evolutionary basis, nor is it motivated by emotions, conscience, or judgment; it is simply those behaviors reinforced as good or bad, driven by the rewards they beget or the punishments they offset.

Despite the historic importance and one-time ascendancy of the foregoing views, the work of cognitively oriented developmental psychologists has dominated the field of moral psychology since the 1960s. Rooted in seminal work on moral judgment by Jean Piaget (1896–1980), Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) created a three-level, six-stage cognitive-structural model of the growth in moral reasoning and judgment. Like emotion-based theories, cognitive-structuralism posits that biology is important to moral development (though in terms of maturation of cognitive capacities, not the possession of inherent emotions). Like behavioral views, cognitive-structuralism posits that the environment plays a critical role in moral learning (though through thoughtful discussions of moral dilemmas, not mindless associations between behaviors and reinforcers). Given the enormous influence of Kohlberg's work on the field of moral psychology and education, his theory is described in more detail below. Before doing so, a brief discussion follows below of the important view of moral development that developed since about the 1980s.

While Kohlberg's theory and research continued to influence the field, the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed the gradual rise of empirical and theoretical work on the development of moral self-understanding and identity. The interest in moral identity and its role in moral behavior was brought into focus with Augusto Blasi's 1980 review of empirical research on moral cognition and moral action. After describing the relatively modest relations between moral judgment and moral behavior, Blasi posited that the observed gap might be explained by moral identity or the extent to which moral values and goals are regarded as core or essential aspects of the self. Individuals with strong or well developed sense of the self-as-moral would be more likely to act in accordance in with their moral judgments. The critical mechanism is a sense of personal responsibility to act and the concomitant need to maintain “self-consistency” (Blasi, 1983). Blasi's groundbreaking work on moral identity spawned much theoretical and empirical research, which is explored below.


Based on his longitudinal study of 75 males as well as numerous cross-cultural studies in disparate countries (e.g., Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey), Kohlberg posited that moral judgment develops along a three-level, six-stage continuum. Each of the three levels is composed of two stages, which describe the structure of thinking individuals use as they reason through a moral dilemma. The Moral Judgment of Interview (MJI) consists of five moral dilemmas (i.e., paragraph-length hypothetical vignettes in which the protagonist faces a decision that pits two moral values against each other). In the classic Heinz and the Drug dilemma, for example, issues of life and property rights are put at odds, and one must decide whether the Heinz should steal a drug that might save the life of his wife. However, it is not the determined course of action itself (steal/do not steal) that is used to score one's level and stage moral judgment. Rather, it is reasoning that one employs to render the decision that is of greatest interests to cognitive-structural theorists such as Kohlberg.

The first or preconventional level of development is characterized by largely egocentric reasoning, where good or right actions are defined in terms of their consequences to the self. At stage one, the first and most primitive form of reasoning, there is an unquestioning deference to superior power (e.g., “might makes right”) and the physical consequences of action (regardless of meaning or value) dictate whether it is good or bad. At stage two, right action consists of that which instrumentally satisfies one's own needs and the needs of others. While elements of fairness and reciprocity are present, they are construed in a physical, pragmatic manner (e.g., “you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours”) and not in terms of justice. Empirical research suggests that these two stages of reasoning are typical of children aged 4 through 10.

The second or conventional level of development morality is seen as conforming to and even maintaining the expectations, rules, and norms of the one's family, group, or society.

Kohlberg referred to stage three as “good-boy-good-girl orientation” because of its emphasis on pleasing others by conforming to stereotypical images of various social roles (e.g., being a “good son” by helping your mother with chores or a “good husband” by sacrificing your own safety for that of your wife). At stage four a higher level of abstraction is achieved and employed in moral reasoning. Rather than conforming to familial roles and expectations, the emphasis is now on maintaining law and order. Right behavior consists of doing one's duty, showing respect for authority and maintaining the given social systems (e.g., legal, religious). Empirical research suggests that these two stages of reasoning are typical during late childhood (Stage Three) and adolescence (Stage Four).

Finally, the fifth or postconventional level of development is characterized by a significant shift from given norms and conventions toward autonomous moral principles and values. At stage five, a “social-contract orientation” is achieved, and right action is defined in terms of general rights and standards. While still possessing legalistic overtones, reasoning at this stage involves a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions. Accordingly, an emphasis is placed upon procedural rules for reaching consensus and the possibility of changing the law (not simply conforming to it) to maximize social utility. At stage six, moral development reaches its pinnacle, and reasoning is characterized by consideration of universal moral principles. Prominent among these principles is respect for life and the notion of that all humans—regardless of class, color, and creed—possess an inherent dignity and worth that cannot be bought or bartered. Empirical research suggests that relatively few people achieve stage five reasoning and fewer still stage six. Indeed, stage six was all but removed from the model in the later 1980s because so few people demonstrated such thinking, and it is not included in the definitive scoring manual for the MJI (Anne Colby & Kohlberg, 1987).


As with any theory, Kohlberg's model of moral development is not without shortcomings and vocal critiques. Three of these are discussed below.

Gender Bias. Perhaps the most famous criticism of Kohl-berg's theory was launched from within his own research group at Harvard University. In the late 1970s Carol Gilligan began to raise concerns about gender bias in the theory, suggesting that justice-based philosophical orientation of the model emphasized traditional masculine values and traits (e.g., individual rights, rationality, and impartiality) and thus marginalized traditional feminine values and traits (e.g., interpersonal care, intuition, and social relations). Her book, In a Different Voice, which offered an alternative stage model of care-based moral development, was widely read, if not fully embraced. This and other prominent books on caring inspired numerous empirical investigations into the question of gender differences in moral orientation and judgment. These investigations lend some credence to Gilligan's critique but taken together show that gender differences are not as great as she claims (e.g., Walker, 2006). Where, for example, Gilligan posits a dichotomy—males are justice oriented and females are care oriented—the research indicated that males and females possess both justice- and care-based orientations (with females being only slightly more care oriented). With regard to moral reasoning itself, the vast majority (86%) of the 80 MJI studies reviewed by Walker revealed no such differences. Nonetheless, Gilligan's critique was in important one that pushed the field of moral psychology beyond its philosophical moorings in formal ethics and liberal social science.

Cultural Differences. A second and equally heated debate that Kohlberg's theory generated concerns his claims of universality; that is, that people the world over—from tribal nomads to inner-city urbanites— undergo the same six-stage developmental progression in their capacity to reason morally. In the most comprehensive review of this claim, involving 45 cross-cultural studies using the MJI, John Snarey reported general support for it but with a few major caveats. Chief among these is a bias favoring complex urban societies and middle-class populations (i.e., both score slightly higher). Similarly, cross-cultural studies employing the Defining Issues Test (i.e., a widely used pen and paper adaptation of the MJI) have shown educational attainment to be the single best predictor of moral reasoning scores. Age, gender, and ethnicity explain relatively little variance (if any at all) once education is accounted for.

It is important to keep in mind Kohlberg's model and these empirical studies focus on only one component of moral functioning: the development of moral judgment. Even if people across the globe exhibit the same invariant cognitive-developmental progression in their capacity to reason through a set of standardized hypothetical dilemmas, there remains plenty of room for cultural variation in the content, prioritizing, commitment to and expression of moral values and judgments. The work of cultural psychologists such as Richard Schweder and Hazel Markus provides great insights into some of these differences. So, too, does the work social-cognitive domain theorists such as Elliot Turiel, Larry Nucci, and Judith Smetana. They point to distinctions between three domains of judgment: the personal, social conventional, and moral. In doing so, domain theorists distinguish cultural mores from moral principles and identify where they may overlap and conflict. Furthermore, domain theorists believe that each domain has its own developmental trajectory. This conjecture is meant to serve as a corrective to Kohlberg's model, which is seen as conflating the personal and conventional with the moral.

The Thought/Action Problem. Perhaps that most enduring and damning shortcoming of Kohlberg's theory relates to his claim that moral judgment “can be a quite powerful and meaningful predictor of action” (Kohlberg & Candee, 1984, p. 397). As noted above, Blasi's 1980 review of the literature investigating the relations between moral reasoning and moral action suggested otherwise. This finding was not news to philosophers who had long since been writing about the thought/action problem. And, of course, most people need only look at their histories to find examples of behavioral engagement at odds with moral judgment. In educational settings, the epidemic of academic cheating offers a disconcerting illustration of the phenomenon: Most students cheat, even if they believe it is wrong or unjustifiable to do so. In short, while judgment may be a necessary component of moral action, it alone is not sufficient to compel it. Blasi's review made this clear and in doing so ushered in a new era of theorizing and research on moral motivation, one focusing on moral self, identity, personality, and character.


It is important to note at the outset that despite the theory's limitations in predicting behavior, Blasi does not seek to rid moral psychology of its interest in moral judgment. He recognizes its importance, regarding it as necessary but insufficient in explaining the complexity of human moral motivation and functioning. In particularly, the movement (or lack thereof) from thought to action needs further explanation, and Blasi's self model offers one. Rooted in the work of Eric Erikson (1902– 1994) and Jane Loevinger (1918–2008), Blasi posits that the observed gap might be explained by moral identity, that is, the extent to which one regards moral values and goals as core or essential aspects of the self,“those aspects without which the individual would see himself or herself to be radically different” (Blasi, 1984, p. 131). Individuals with strong or well-developed sense of the self-as-moral are more likely to act to in accord with their moral judgments. The critical mechanism is a sense of personal responsibility to act and the concomitant need to maintain self-consistency.

Blasi's self model also suggests that moral identity is not a unitary construct. Whereas some individuals may see honesty and fairness as essential aspects of themselves, other individuals may highlight compassion and caring for others as most salient to their sense of self-as-moral. In Varieties of Moral Personality, philosopher Owen Flanagan (1991) echoes Blasi's conjecture, arguing that “ethical goodness is realized in a multiplicity of ways” (p. 332). Lawrence Walker and his colleagues conducted several studies of moral maturity and exemplarity, focusing on three types: just, brave, and caring (see Walker, 2004). Research on moral identity has extended into domains beyond, but related to, the moral domain. Jim Younnis and Miraday Yates's work on civic identity provides a good example.

Finally, Blasi contends that moral identity is developmental in nature, that how the “essential self” is perceived and defined changes over time. Moreover, the centrality of morality to the self varies between individuals; the self comprises many qualities and their hierarchical ordering varies from person to person. In their seminal work on the development of self-understanding through childhood and adolescence, Damon and Hart found that moral qualities such as honesty and loyalty did not become a part of study participants' self-definitions until they reached adolescence. In the twenty years since Damon and Hart's 1988 book Self-understanding in Childhood and Adolescence was published, very little progress was made in creating a model of moral identity development comparable to Kohlberg's model of moral judgment development. It is clear that just as very few people ever achieve stage six reasoning ability, very few experience a full integration of morality and self. In their landmark 1992 study Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, Anne Colby and William Damon give insights into the lives of people with extraordinary commitment to moral causes and actions. For these exceptional individuals, morality has been so completely integrated into their sense of self that they report feeling as though they had no choice. Though in a different way, this sense of not choosing but rather acting automatically is at the heart of the connections between moral expertise and schema accessibility that Daniel Lapsley and Darcia Narvaez (2004) make in their social-cognitive approach to moral development.


Most Americans embrace the idea that public school curricula include some form of moral or character education. Indeed, the moral and civic purposes of education have a long history in both Western and Eastern political thought. The content and form as well as demand for moral education has varied greatly over time, even within the brief history of U.S. democracy (see Colby et al., 2003). This does not mean moral education is without its detractors or that there is no lively debate about the “what” and “how” of moral teaching and learning. Nonetheless, in the early 2000s there was increasing concessions and convergence among once divergent camps in the field. Traditional character educators, whose chief objective was the inculcation for moral virtues such as honesty and chastity, have now conceded that moral reasoning has a place in the curriculum. Meanwhile, cognitive-developmentalists such as Kohlberg have realized the motivational value of character traits.

This transformation and its history are beyond the scope of this entry, but interested readers should consult William Damon's 2002 Bringing in a New Era of Character Education and Daniel Lapsley and Clark Power's 2005 Character Psychology and Character Education. In addition, Larry Nucci's 2002) Education in the Moral Domain and Nel Noddings's 2002 Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education are excellent resources for classroom teachers as they strike a balance between theory and practice. Rheta DeVries and Betty Zan's 1994 Moral Children: Constructing a Constructivist Atmosphere in Early Education remains a long-standing and oft-cited guide for educators.

From these books and numerous other resources, the following sampling of recommendations for classroom practices rooted in Darcia Narveaz's 2006 “Integrative Ethical Education” (IEE). As the name suggests, IEE explicitly brings together traditional character education and cognitive-developmental approaches. It is also rooted the four component model of moral functioning (Rest, 1986), which highlights the need to foster growth in students' moral 1) sensitivity, 2) judgment, 3) motivation, and 4) action.

Moral Sensitivity. According to Rest, moral sensitivity is the first component of moral functioning. While psychoanalysts, emotion-based theorists, evolutionary psychologists, and domain theorists all contend that some degree of moral emotional awareness and sensitively is bred in the bone, all would also agree that the social environment and education are important in turning on and tuning in moral emotions and sensitivity. Teachers seeking to foster students' moral sensitivity should create learning environments and curricula that offer frequent exposure to moral emotions, virtues, concepts, and issues; they should help students take the perspective of others (e.g., classmates, historical figures, contemporary politicians,), and they should call attention to examples of caring and justice as well as insensitively and injustice, including bias, sexism, and racism. In doing so, teachers can help students identify moral emotions and issues and express and manage them.

Moral Judgment. Firmly rooted in Kohlberg's cognitive-structuralist model, this component of functioning concerns the capacity to interpret complex moral dilemmas. Whether real or hypothetical, moral dilemmas require people to discern the competing interests and values at stake and to render a judgment that—depending on the nature of the dilemma—gives due weight to one's own well-being, concern for others, respect for law and tradition, and principles of justice. To foster these capacities educators should engage students in dilemma discussions. Doing so effectively, however, is not easy.

Moral Motivation. This component has been relabeled numerous times in the literature (motivation, commitment, and focus) as it is probably the broadest of the four. After all, the motivation to act or not to do so is a multifaceted phenomenon contingent on both personal and environmental factors. As described above, one of the most important personal factors is moral identity. Students who see themselves as moral beings are more likely to act like moral beings. Teachers can foster students' moral identity development by exposing them to moral exemplars (e.g., honest, brave, caring) and by creating opportunities for students' to clarify and cultivate the meaning and importance of moral values and goals in their lives. Moral motivation and identity are also strengthened when educators create school and classroom cultures in which making the right choice and being a good citizen in the community are recognized and rewarded.

Moral Action. The final component of moral functioning is moral action. Even if students possess the necessary sensitivity, judgment, and motivation to act rightly, they may not possess the needed skills or know-how to do so. Resolving conflicts with others, challenging bias and racism when they occur, and taking the initiative to start or even lead good works are not easy tasks. Educators must teach these skills by creating authentic opportunities for students to practice and hone them. Community service projects and school-based organizations offer venues for such skill development. Teachers should both encourage and mentor students' efforts to address social, moral, civic, and political issues that affect them and their communities.

Moral learning in classrooms does not only occur through formal curriculum or extra-curricular programming. The “hidden curriculum” of schooling, as Philip Jackson famously called it, consists of (often unexa-mined) norms and policies that collectively give form and meaning to a wide range of behaviors. School governance structures, disciplinary procedures, the allocation of rewards, norms of teacher-student interaction, all communicate morally laden values. Issues of fairness, due process, equal opportunity, respect for differences, and equity in the distribution of scarce resources and rewards (such as teacher attention and grades) permeate the institution of public education. These factors should not be ignored. Teachers must be mindful of the rules, procedures, and norms they establish in their classroom, and they must be mindful of how they go about following them. When possible, students should be included in the process of establishing the governance structures and disciplinary procedures of their school and classroom communities; they should be given a voice in the process and on-going responsibility for ensuring that the place in which they live and learn is fair, just, and caring.


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