6.6 Moral Development

6 min readjanuary 8, 2023

Ashley Rossi

Ashley Rossi

AP Psychology 🧠

334 resources
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According to Jean Piaget, a child’s ability for moral reasoning occurs with the ability to think symbolically 🕊️. Concepts like morality, justice, and equality are fairly complex and require a good deal of abstract thought. As we develop through childhood and adolescence our sense of morality does as well. 

Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Thinking

Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of moral reasoning by posing moral dilemmas to children, adolescents, and adults. Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning, or the way that people make decisions about what is right and wrong, develops in a series of stages, and that people are motivated to move through these stages in order to understand and justify their moral beliefs and actions.
Based on his analysis of their responses, he identified three stages of moral thinking. These stages are preconventional morality, conventional morality, and postconventional morality. One of Kohlberg’s most-used dilemmas described the situation of a man named Heinz: 
Heinz’s wife is ill and will die without the treatment of one specific drug. Heinz cannot afford the drug and is only able to raise part of the money needed. The chemist refuses to give Heinz the drug for a discounted rate, stating that he intends to make money off of it. In this dilemma, should Heinz steal the drug?

Preconventional Morality

Young children in the stage of preconventional morality (before age 9) have not yet developed their own code of morality. Instead, morality is shaped by rules the child has learned from caregivers and the consequences that will follow. Moral authority is largely self-interested and based on the consequences of their own actions. 
A child in this stage may say to steal the drug in order to be seen as a hero. Conversely, they may say that stealing the drug 💊 is bad because Heinz could go to jail.

Conventional Morality

In the stage of conventional morality, children will begin to adopt the moral standards of valued adults. Moral standards will become individualized, but are rarely questioned. Morality is largely based on adherence to social norms and maintaining social order. 
A child in this stage may say that Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and everyone will think he is a criminal. More than likely, they would fail to question Heinz’s motives or the complexity of his situation. 

Postconventional Morality

Beyond adolescence, individuals enter the postconventional stage. In this stage, morality is based on the individual’s personal set of principles and beliefs. Morality is based on a complex understanding of human rights.
According to Kohlberg, this is the highest stage of moral development and some people fail to reach it in their lifetime.
In this stage, the individual may state that Heinz should steal the drug because people deserve to live, or they may cite the greed of the pharmacist in the situation as being morally corrupt.
Preconventional morality
(before age 9)
Morality is self-interested, the child will obey rules to gain concrete rewards or avoid punishments
“If you steal the drug, you’ll go to jail!”
Conventional morality
(early adolescence)
Morality is upheld in order to gain social approval or maintain social order. Being a "good boy/nice girl."
“If you steal the drug 💊, then everyone will think you are bad.”
Postconventional morality (adolescence and beyond)
Morality is based on self-defined ethical principles and relies on the idea of human rights and justice.
“People deserve to live 😊”
According to Kohlberg, these stages were fixed in their sequence (i.e. one cannot occur before the other). Kohlberg looked at the reasoning behind the choices the subjects made, not the choice itself.
Critics of Kohlberg have noted that some of his observations tend to be culturally limited to individualistic cultures. Cross-cultural studies showed that people in individualistic societies, who value personal standards, are more likely to show post-conventional morality than those in collectivistic societies, who value community standards.
Despite these criticisms, Kohlberg's work has helped to shed light on how moral reasoning develops and how it may be influenced by social and cultural factors.

Morality, Gender, and Carol Gilligan

Feminist and psychologist Carol Gilligan further developed theories of morality by incorporating gender differences into the equation. Gilligan felt that Kohlberg’s theories centered too much around the process of male 🙍🏽‍♂️ thought. With this, she decided to study how women develop their sense of morality and how this development differs from men.
Gilligan theorized that morality in men relies on a justice-based system. In this moral code, individuals act autonomously and consequences should be based on fairness and equality. 
On the other hand, Gilligan believed that women🙍🏾‍♀️ invest more in a care-based system of morality. Women tend to emphasize inter-connectedness 🥰 over autonomy. The moral codes of women tend to focus on the avoidance of violence, rather than the distribution of justice or equality. ⚖️️

Kohlberg vs. Gilligan

Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan are both known for their work on moral development, but their theories of moral development differ in a number of important ways. Let's quickly put these two side-by-side directly!
One of the main differences between the two theories is their focus. Kohlberg's theory is primarily concerned with the cognitive process of moral reasoning, and he argued that moral development progresses through a series of stages as people gain a greater understanding of moral concepts. Gilligan's theory, on the other hand, is more concerned with the affective, or emotional, aspects of moral decision-making, and she argued that women and men often approach moral dilemmas differently.
Another key difference between the two theories is their approach to gender. Kohlberg's theory was developed based on research with male subjects, and he argued that there are no significant differences in moral reasoning between males and females. Gilligan, however, argued that there are distinct differences in the way that men and women approach moral dilemmas, and that traditional theories of moral development are biased toward a male perspective.
Despite these differences, both Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories have made significant contributions to the field of psychology, and have helped to shed light on how people develop and think about moral issues.

Practice AP FRQ - 2019

The following question is from the first set of 2019 FRQ questions. Credit to College Board and AP.
  1. A psychologist conducted a study at her home during an annual activity of children wearing masks and going door-to-door receiving candy. Some of the children arrived alone, while others arrived in a group. Over the course of the night, the psychologist asked half of the children to remove their masks when they arrived at her door. The remaining half kept their masks on. The psychologist told every child to take only one piece of candy. She then went inside the house, leaving the bowl of candy outside. This gave children the opportunity to take additional candy. The psychologist measured the percentage of children who took additional candy. The psychologist’s hypotheses were that children would take more candy when they were alone and that children would take more candy when they were masked. The results are shown in the graph below; assume all differences are significant.

From College Board

(a) Identify the operational definition of the dependent variable in this study.
(b) Explain how the data support or do not support each of the psychologist’s hypotheses.
(c) Explain why the psychologist cannot generalize her findings to all children.
(d) Explain why the study is not a naturalistic observation.
(e) Explain how each of the following might have played a role in the children’s behavior: Modeling, Deindividuation, Lawrence Kohlberg's preconventional stage.
So far, you should be able to answer all of them with the exception of "deindividuation." All of the other terms are from unit 1. To access the College Board scoring guidelines, click here.
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