Morality has to do with our ideas regarding what is right and what is wrong and how right and wrong behavior should be punished and rewarded. The classic work on the moral judgment of children was done by Jean Piaget. His work was later elaborated by Lawrence Kohlberg.

Piaget argued that there are essentially two forms of morality. One of these is derived from the child's experience with adults. The morality of unilateral authority is derived from adults in the sense that the adult sets the rules and enforces them. In general, the morality of unilateral authority appears in early childhood and is objective in the sense that the child believes that badness is associated with the amount of damage done. The young child believes that a child who breaks three cups while helping his mother set the table is more culpable than a child who has broken a single cup while trying to get cookies he was forbidden to eat.

After the child attains concrete operations and begins to interact with his peers and to participate in the culture of childhood, he attains a second form of morality, that of mutuality. In the course of playing with his friends, the child learns to make and break his own rules and to set his own rewards and punishments. At the same time, a new factor enters into his assessments of good and bad and how punishment should be meted out. He now begins to take the person's intentions into account. In the dilemma described earlier, the child of eight or nine is likely to say that the child who broke one cup did something bad and should be punished more than the child who broke three cups because the latter was doing something good.

Unilateral authority thus occasions an objective morality while mutual authority occasions a subjective morality. To illustrate, six- and seven-year-old children regard a pupil who lies about the grades he received on his report card as less culpable than a child who claims he has seen a dog the size of a house. At the early elementary school level, children reason that the child might have received the grade he said he did, whereas a dog the size of a house is physically impossible. The lie about the dog is thus more serious because it is more at variance with the objective world. In contrast, older elementary school children say that lying about the grade is more serious than lying about the dog. They reason that the child who lied about the grade intended to deceive his parents, whereas the child who lied about the dog intended only to amuse them. Deception is a more reprehensible intention than amusement and should be punished more.

The objective character of unilateral morality can also be seen in the young child's judgment regarding punishment. Up until about the age of six or seven, children assess an action's "badness" or "goodness" on the basis of whether it was objectively rewarded or punished. For example, children at this age argue that a child who is unfairly spanked by his mother must, of necessity, have done something bad. Older children, however, recognize that a child can be punished unfairly. For them, objective punishment is not necessarily an index of subjective guilt.

Another dimension of moral development has to do with the relationship between personal injury and property damage. When intention is held constant, children at all age levels from kindergarten to sixth grade judge personal injury (say, a bloody nose) as more serious and more punishable than property damage (say, a broken toy). Young children say that a bloody nose "hurts" more. By second grade, children express a kind of "cold cash" morality and say that a "bloody nose costs more" (in doctor's bills) than a toy. Finally, among the oldest children, a genuine humanism emerges, and they say personal injury is more serious than property damage because "it's another person; you shouldn't hurt people."

It should be said that both unilateral (objective) and mutual (subjective) authority and morality are important in everyday life. We all have to respect unilateral authority. For example, we obey traffic rules and pay income taxes even though we did not make the rules and may not always agree with them. Some degree of unilateral authority is essential for a society to function. Yet for a society to function as a democracy, there must be room for mutual authority as well. The electoral process is the one in which we engage in mutual authority. We also operate according to mutual authority in our marriages, our friendships, and many social relationships. One of the dangers of the disappearance of the culture of childhood is that children may not have the opportunity to acquire a solid sense of mutual authority, of their ability to make and break their own rules.

In his work, Piaget distinguished only two levels of authority: unilateral and mutual. Lawrence Kohlberg distinguished still a third level of morality in adolescence, and he argued that the unilateral and mutual authority of Piaget could be further subdivided. His six stages of moral development are described in the accompanying box. Kohlberg's last two stages, which he calls the post-conventional level, go beyond Piaget. They suggest a higher order integration of unilateral and mutual authority into a superordinate transcendent morality of abstract principles of goodness and justice.

Although Kohlberg was able to provide evidence for his stages by following the same subjects over a number of years, his work has been challenged. One of his students, Carol Gilligan, has used his work to mount a more general feminist critique of developmental psychology. She argues that Kohlberg's stages were arrived at by studying the cognitive development of boys and young men. When girls and young women are examined using Kohlberg's procedure (using moral dilemmas to assess a subject's level of moral development), young women seldom attained Kohlberg's last two stages, stages he regarded as the most advanced and mature levels of morality.

Gilligan objects that women have a different conception of morality than men. For women, interpersonal relationships are more important than abstract principles of justice. When the stages of moral development derived from the study of young men is used as the standard, women do not attain the same level of moral development as men. Gilligan's point is that young women have a different moral "voice" than men but it is not an inferior or lesser voice.

Before closing this section, a word or two needs to be said about moral judgment and action. For both boys and girls, young men and young women, moral action is likely to be situationally determined. That is to say, general moral principles are seldom guides to action in very concrete situations where many different factors operate. For example, a child may take something from a store because he is dared to do so by friends, even though he knows this is wrong. In general, the models of moral behavior the child has observed may be the most important determinants of his own moral behavior.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development


Level 1 Obedience and Punishment Orientation Obey rules so as not to be punished.
Level 2 Naive Hedonism Orientation Obey rules to obtain rewards.
Level 3 Good Boy Orientation Obey rules to win social approval.
Level 4 Authority and Social Order Orientation Obey rules because everyone else does.
Level 5 Moral Principles Orientation Obey rules that have been mutually agreed upon.
Level 6 Individual Principles Orientation Obey transcendent moral beliefs that have been individually arrived at.