Moral Understanding (Piaget and Kohlberg)



Morality is concerned with the rightness of behaviour and how people should act towards others. Three aspects of moral development, how children think and reason about morality, how they behave when it comes to exercising moral judgement and how children feel about moral issues.

Piaget (1932)

Aim: Interested in how children come to understand the social conventions and moral rules of their society

Method: Observed children playing a game of marbles and asked questions about the rules they were using.

Results: The youngest children used no rules. By 5, rules were fixed and followed. By 10/11, children realised that rules are not absolute and can be changed, as long as everyone is in agreement.

Evaluation: Are rules, and an understanding of them, the same as showing moral understanding, does this study have external validity? Piaget is known for using questions that when phrased a slightly different way provoke a completely different answer, how reliable is the study? He is observing the children which could lead to demand characteristics, such as the Hawthorne Effect.

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Piaget (2)

Piaget (1935/1965)

Method: He told two stories to children. In the first, the children had good intentions, but caused lots of damage (broke 15 plates trying to help their mother). In the second, the child caused less damage, but had bad intentions (broke 1 cup trying to steal a cookie). The children were asked which child was more naughty.

Results: Younger children focused on the outcomes of the story, rather than the intention. They said the child who broke 15 plates was naughtier. Older children considered the intention of the child before deciding on which child was naughtier.

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Kohlberg's Moral Understanding

  • Stage theory that is based on Piaget's work and extended into early adulthood
  • Cognitive functioning is an important factor in understanding how children approach moral issues.
  • This stage theory consisted of 3 levels that contained 6 stages between them.
    • Pre-Conventional Morality
      • Right and Wrong is determined by rewards and punishments
        • Stage 1, whatever leads to punishment is wrong
        • Stage 2, the right way to behave is the way that is rewarded
    • Conventional Morality
      • The views of others matter
        • Stage 3, you should behave in a way that conforms to good behaviour
        • Stage 4, you should fulfil ones duty
    • Post-Conventional Morality
      • Abstract notions of morality
        • Stage 5, there is a difference between moral and legal rights
        • Stage 6, behaviour should take into account the views of everyone affected before making a moral decision.
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Kohlberg (1963)

Method: A cross-sectional study carried out using 72 boys aged 10, 13 and 16, in Chicago. They were given 10 dilemmas in order to assess their moral reasoning. One of the dilemmas was Heinz' Dilemma. 

'Heinz's wife is dying of cancer and Heinz can't afford the vastly overpriced drug that will save her life.' Should Heinz:

  • Obey the law, not steal the drug, and let his wife die? (Pre-conventional morality)
  • Disobey the law, steal the drug, and go to jail (Conventional morality)
  • Disobey the law, steal the drug, and not go to jail (Post-convnetional morality)

Kohlberg asked questions such as:

  • 'Should the police arrest the chemist of the vastly overpriced drug if the wife died?'
  • 'If the person dying was a stranger, would it make a difference?'
  • 'Would it make a difference if Heinz didn't love his wife?'
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Evaluating Kohlberg's moral understanding

Artifical dilemmas were used to test understanding, in real life a child may use moral rules learnt from rolemodels.

Only boys from Chicago were used so the study is androcentric and ethnocentric. The dilemmas may only be relevant to individualistic Western cultures, especially middle class ones.

Snarey et al (1985), collectivist cultures put social duties paramount and therefore score lower on Kohlberg's scale 

Kohlberg didn't use a longitudinal study and assumed all children progressed through the stages at the same rate, this is deterministic and ignores individual differences.

Colby et al (1983), longitudinal study with 58 of the original 72 and tested their moral understanding 6 times in 27 years and found support for Kohlberg's conclusion that we all pass through the stages in the same order.

Bee (2000) said that Kohlberg's theory is reliable as it has stood up against a 'barrage of research and commentary'.

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Evaluating Kohlberg (2)

Walker et al (1987) did a cross sectional study, and a longitudinal study (1989) and both replicated Kohlberg's results.

Kohlberg looked at moral understanding in a range of other countries and found it was a universal concept. He looked at Britain, Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey, USA and Yucatan (a mix of individualistic and collective societies).

Colby and Kohlberg (1985), found similar results from longitudinal studies in Turkey and Israel.

Snarey (1985), Kohlberg's dilemmas were presented to young children, children and adults in 27 counties (western and non-western, industrialised and non-industrialised). Strong collective evidence for the universalbility of Kohlberg's stages. Some differences are apparent:

  • Stage 4 is the highest stage found in 'folk' societies (eg. tribes)
  • Stage 5 is the highest stage found in both western and non-western urbanised societies.
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