Martin L. Hoffman
University of Michigan
Moral development has been a topic of research interest in psychology for over six decades; before then, moral issues preoccupied philosophy from the time of Aristotle. The sustaining interest in the topic may lie in its importance for the organization of society as well as the fact that it epitomizes the existential human dilemma of how people come to grips with the inevitable conflicts between their personal egoistic needs and their moral obligations. Philosophers have postulated several answers to this dilemma that have parallels in current psychological theory. One is the doctrine of original sin, associated with early Christian theology, that states that people are born egoistic and only through punitive socialization experiences that subordinate their egoistic drives can they acquire a sense of moral obligation. This doctrine is reflected in Fruedian theory and certain social learning theories that stress the importance of punishment in moral development. The doctrine of innate purity, associated with writers like Rousseau, that sees children as inherently good though vulnerable to corruption by society, has its parallel in Piaget's view that adults are constraining and moral development requires the give and take of unsupervised interactions with peers. Philosophers like Kant, who attempted to derive universal moral principles, provided part of the inspiration for Kohlberg's efforts to construct an invariant sequence of moral developmental stages. And the British utilitarian tradition, represented by David Hume and Adam Smith, who focused on empathy as a necessary social bond, finds expression in current theory and research on empathic morality (Hume, 1751/1957; Smith, 1759/1965).
The flavor of the moral development literature, which is by now quite vast, can perhaps best be communicated by organizing it into three broad categories: stage theories of moral development; processes in the internalization of moral standards; and social influences on moral development.