Moral development theories are based on the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 to 1980). Piaget devoted a large part of his work on epistemological studies with children with an emphasis on their moral views and understanding of right and wrong. Piaget believed that development springs out from action and that the people learn about everything that surrounds them by interacting with the world. While studying children's games, Piaget concluded that morality itself can be defined as a developmental process
According to Piaget's theory, the initial stage of children's views on morality relies strictly on rules and authority. Most children he interviewed defined lying as "naughty words," or as something that is not right and untrue. Children's moral understanding is due to the egocentrism in their thinking and to the subjective relations with adults.
Piaget observed that when playing games children try to follow rules considered fair by everyone in the group. Thus children move on to an "autonomous," stage of moral reasoning, which allows them to apply a critical approach in order to agree on what rules will be fair for everybody. That is why Piaget described moral development as the outcome of interactions between individuals which help them reach a solution all consider fair. Unlike the theory of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, which stated that moral development derives from a person's attachment to a group and to its authority and rules, Piaget claimed each person shapes its own view on morality trying to come to a fair resolution.
American-born psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927 to 1987) developed and extended Piaget's studies on moral development. Kohlberg is known for his theory on the stages of moral development, according to which moral reasoning is divided into six stages and three major levels as follow:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
The first level, the pre-conventional one, is typical for children as morality is defined by the direct consequences of a person's behavior. The pre-conventional level of moral reasoning comprises the first two stages, determined respectively by obedience and punishment and by the person's own interest. At the first stage, certain behavior is judged as morally wrong because it brings punishment, while at the second stage individuals use their best interest to measure what is right and wrong. At stage 1, moral reasoning is determined by egocentric cognition and it only aims to follow the rules in order to avoid punishment. At stage 2, however, rules are being followed only if they are in the person's interest. Based on such interests individuals can bargain on what is morally right and wrong.
The conventional level is the second level of moral reasoning, consisting of stages 3 and 4. Usually, adolescents and adults apply the conventional level of moral reasoning as they decide on the morality of actions based on the society's general understanding of rules and norms. At the third stage of moral development, people start realizing they are playing certain roles within society and develop understanding of common views and expectations, which are superior to individual interests. At this level, individuals use stereotypes to judge what is morally right and try to act as society expects them to in order to be "good."
Laws and norms are the starting point for moral reasoning at the fourth stage of moral development. People realize they are part of a larger social structure with respective responsibilities. The authority of laws derives from the understanding that they protect the whole society.
The post-conventional level represents the individual's will to judge the morality of actions by his or her own principles. Individuals understand they are separate parts of society and that their own view on morality can have supremacy over the other rules. At the fifth stage people are aware of the existence of various views and values in society that should be respected, while laws are considered social contracts.
Stages 1-5 have been empirically studied as children were asked to solve moral dilemmas, the most popular of which is the Heinz Dilemma, whereas the sixth stage only rests on theory. According to Kohlberg, the last stage of moral development is spurred by some basic ethical views on right and fairness, which would eventually serve to establish laws and norms.