Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

How does a child distinguish between right and wrong? Let’s suppose Tom was told by his parents not to eat any cookies from the cookie jar, but he really wanted to have one. Tom may decide not to take a cookie because he will get into trouble. But what if he is very hungry? Would it still be wrong to have a cookie? Could disobeying the rule be acceptable in this case? The answer may be found in theories like Jean Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development.

What Are Piaget’s Stages of Moral Development?

Jean Piaget identified stages of moral development in which a child adheres to rules and makes decisions. Piaget was mainly interested in three aspects of children’s understanding of moral issues: rules, moral responsibility, and justice. The stages at which children understand rules correlate with the stages of cognitive development.

moral development

What is Moral Development?

Morality is a code of conduct that guides our actions and thoughts based on our background, culture, philosophy, or religious beliefs. Moral development is a gradual change in the understanding of morality.

Children’s ability to tell the difference between right and wrong is a part of their moral development process. As their understanding and behavior toward others evolve over time, they apply their knowledge to make the right decisions even when it’s inconvenient for them to do so.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was among the first to identify that the way children think is inherently different from the way adults do. Unlike many of his predecessors, Piaget didn’t consider children to be less intelligent versions of adults. They simply have a different way of thinking.

Piaget was the first psychologist to undertake a systematic study of cognitive development. His stage theory of cognitive development explains that children’s mental abilities develop in four stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Only after having mastered each one of them, children can reach their full intellectual potential.

piaget's stages of cognitive development

For Piaget, children’s moral development is closely related to their cognitive development. In other words, children are only capable of making advanced moral judgments once they become cognitively mature and see things from more than one perspective.

Piaget formulated the cognitive theory of moral development in The Moral Judgment of the Child in 1932. His theory of children’s moral development is an application of his ideas on cognitive development.

Piaget’s Moral Development Stages

According to Piaget, the basis of children’s reasoning and judgment about rules and punishment changes as they get older. Just as there are universal stages in children’s cognitive development, there are stages in their moral development.

Piaget devised experiments to study children’s perceptions of right and wrong. Part of his research included the telling of a story about something another child did, like breaking a jar of cookies. Then, he would ask children whether they thought that action was right or wrong. He wanted to know the logic behind their moral reasoning.

child reaching for a jar of cookies

He found that while young children were focused on authority, with age they became increasingly autonomous and able to evaluate actions from a set of independent principles of morality.

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development described two stages of moral development: heteronomous morality and autonomous morality.

Heteronomous morality

The stage of heteronomous morality, also known as moral realism or other-directed morality, is typical of children between the ages of 5 and 10.

Younger children’s thinking is based on the results of their actions and the way these actions affect them. The outcome is more important than the intention. A behavior is judged as either good or bad only in terms of consequences. There is no room for negotiation or compromise. Eating one cookie from the jar because a child is hungry is just as wrong as stealing all the cookies from the jar by a naughty child. Taking cookies is forbidden and therefore always wrong, regardless of the intention.

In middle childhood, children typically believe in the sanctity of rules. Rules are made by an authority figure, such as a parent or teacher. These rules must be followed and cannot be changed, they are absolute and unbreakable.

At this stage, children’s firm belief that they must follow the rules is based upon their understanding of the consequences. Not following the rules will lead to negative outcomes. Most younger children will obey the rules simply in order to avoid punishment. Even when completely alone, a child who breaks a rule—takes the forbidden cookie from the cookie jar, for example—will expect to be punished. The physical presence of an authority figure has no importance because morality is imposed from the outside.

But as they develop and mature, children move to a higher level of morality.

Autonomous morality

The stage of autonomous morality, also known as moral relativism or morality of cooperation, is typical of children from the age of 10 and continues through adolescence.

Children are now beginning to overcome the egocentrism of middle childhood. Their appreciation of morality changes as a result of their newly acquired ability to view situations from other people’s perspectives. They are, therefore, also capable of considering rules from someone else’s point of view. Moral rules are not perceived as being absolute anymore. Instead, older children realize that rules are socially agreed-upon guidelines. They are designed to benefit all the group members and are adjustable.

Older children can assess whether a rule is fair or not. Although they still know that it is important to follow the rules, they see them as complex and flexible. They are willing to negotiate and suggest rule modifications. For instance, while playing a board game, older children may want to implement their own rules or change the ones they find unfair.

Piaget believed that the most effective moral learning comes precisely from this type of group decision-making situations.

As they get older, children begin to understand that the motives behind actions are as important as consequences. Their choice to follow the rules is no longer based on the fear of negative outcomes but on a more complex moral reasoning. During this stage, children recognize that there is no absolute right or wrong and that morality depends on intentions rather than consequences.

How Children Understand the Rules 

Another way that Piaget observed children’s morality is by having them play games, including marbles and a form of hide-and-seek. Critical to the choices made in these games was the understanding of the rules. In addition to general stages of moral development, Piaget created four stages in which the child understood rules

  • Motor Rules
  • Egocentric
  • Incipient Cooperation
  • Genuine Cooperation 

These stages correlate with Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. 

Motor Rules

While the child is under the age of four, they are in the sensorimotor stage. At this point, they are not grabbing the rules from the game unless they want to explore the feel of the paper. Children in this stage are acting based on exploring their motor schemes and how they relate to the objects of the game. Think about a toddler picking up a marble, putting it in their mouth, throwing it across the room – they’re not doing it because it’s in the rules. They just want to explore. 


Between the ages of 4-7, a child is in the preoperational stage. They are largely egocentric, and their understanding of rules is egocentric, too. When a child is egocentric, they make up the rules. A child playing with marbles, for example, may decide that all the marbles have to be placed in a cup. They may fling the marbles at the cat. However, the game played is largely created by the child themselves. 

Incipient Cooperation

From the ages of 7-11, the child is in the concrete operational stage. Children are starting to see the world from a more empathetic point of view. How they interact and communicate with other players, however, varies. Some are cooperative while others want to play the game their way. Children may sit and listen to the rules of the game, but they might not comprehend or decide to play by them. 

Genuine Cooperation 

By age 12, when the child is in the formal operational stage, they begin to understand the rules. What’s more, with this understanding comes an adoration for the rules. They start to abide by them and want other children to do the same. 

Criticisms of Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was created after he completed similar studies on boys and girls. He believed that there were no differences in their cognitive development: conservation, animism, and object permanence were all part of the process no matter what sex the child was born. Piaget’s theory of moral development was created slightly differently. 

While boys played marbles, Piaget gave girls the task of playing a game that resembled “hide and seek.” Researchers note that the two games were not a great comparison: the game of marbles was much more complicated. Following the rules required different conflicts and choices. 

What does this mean for Piaget’s assessment of morality in girls vs. boys? Well, researchers to this day are unsure. But researchers do critique his choice of having girls and boys play different games, and argue that the playing field should be level before conclusions are made. 

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Many psychologists identified stages of development: Freud created stages of psychosexual development, Erikson identified stages of psychosocial development, and Piaget also identified stages of cognitive development. But more than one notable psychologist identified stages of moral development. Alongside Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg identified stages of moral development. The two theories differ slightly but face similar criticisms.

Kohlberg vs. Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development 

There are some stark differences in how Kohlberg and Piaget constructed the stages of moral development. Piaget aimed to see how a child’s view of their place in the world shaped their morality and decisions. Kohlberg aimed to uncover how a child viewed morality. Some researchers argue that Kohlberg’s stages actually outline cognitive development as it is applied to moral development. 

The results are slightly different as well. Kohlberg creates six stages of moral development categorized by three different “levels.” Concepts from Piaget’s stages of moral and cognitive development are considered in these stages, but concepts from Freud are also integrated into this work. 

Kohlberg and Piaget face similar criticisms regarding gender differences. Kohlberg only conducted his studies on young boys! Some researchers believe that this is a misstep, and failing to include the perspective of young girls does not give an accurate representation of any differences in morality or how morality is viewed by children. Children as young as six recognize that society places different standards on boys and girls. That understanding may have an effect on how a child places moral standards on themselves and others, but that was not considered during Kohlberg’s work. 

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