Moral Development Theories. Essay Sample

Published: 2022-03-10 03:10:44
Moral Development Theories. Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories: Human development
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1106 words
10 min read

For centuries, social mores were defined by religious scripture, which was later replaced by national and international legislation. However, the emergence of moral compass or moral principles within an individual psyche remained a mystery until the 20th century, when Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg tried their hands at explaining the origins of morality. Evolutionary, psychoanalytical, and cognitive theories of morality emergence rely on various sources of moral behavior, but even the most detailed perspective does not account for cultural or gender differences.

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Evolutionary Theories of Morality

Some researchers believe that humans developed morality through evolution. Acts of kindness and moral behavior, such as grooming, sharing food, or caring for babies, can be seen in many species. Therefore, moral behavior in humans can be seen as a natural development of animal instincts.

According to the supporters of the evolutionary theory, moral behavior stems from reciprocal altruism and kin selection. The latter means that humans, like monkeys, bears, and other species, are more prone to showing kindness to members of their families, clans, or tribes. Moral behavior towards other members of the species outside the familial group stems from reciprocal altruism, a willingness to be kind in hopes of receiving similar kindness in return in the future.

While evolutionary theories explain similarities in social behaviors across species, they do not account for complex social behaviors humans engage in, nor do they clarify the differences in decision-making present when humans face controversial moral dilemmas. Therefore, morality cannot be seen merely as an evolutionary device inherited from ancestors.

Psychoanalytical Theories of Morality

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories have been largely disproved, but his ideas about the different parts of a personality existing in a constant battle for domination are still widespread. According to Freud, the id is the source of our biological drives. At the same time, the ego tries to suppress them to inspire social approval, and only the superego can provide an internal moral compass for socially responsible and acceptable behavior. Freud posited that the superego developed in children after the age of five as they progressed through several stages of development, with each of them centered around a specific erogenous zone, such as oral, anal, or phallic.

Having never worked with children, Freud created theories that lost credibility by the middle of the 20th century. However disproved and criticized, Freud’s theories can still hold a kernel of truth when considered in parallel with evolutionary and cognitive perspectives. For example, the father of psychotherapy considered the age of five to be the time of superego emergence, while cognitivists found the age of moral changes to be around 9 to 11 years.

Cognitive Theories of Morality

As evolutionary and psychoanalytic theories were disproved, cognitive scientists elucidated their views on how morality emerged in early and middle childhood along with other cognitive processes. Jean Piaget pioneered the idea of heteronomous and autonomous morality. The former is present in children until they reach the age of ten, governing over behavior through rules instilled by parental figures, teachers, or peers. Children obey the social norms to escape punishment or receive praise. Piaget believed most kids developed autonomous morality, independent of outside rules and norms, after the age of ten. At this stage of morality development, children develop an internal moral compass or a set of personal behavioral rules.

Still, Jean Piaget’s theory was centered around early cognitive development, and morality was but one of its facets. His work enabled Lawrence Kohlberg to expand on the cognitive theory of moral development. The American psychologist perceived moral development as an ongoing lifelong process. Using hypothetical moral dilemmas and interviews with children of different ages, he split it into three stages: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional morality, each comprising two levels. At the preconventional morality stage, children remain egocentric and self-interested, only obeying outside rules in fear of punishment or in search of praise. Once entering the conventional morality stage, children learn to behave following society rules to make a good impression, fit in with the group, and later - to maintain social order and a safe environment for everyone. The postconventional morality stage calls for deep insight into abstract moral concepts and the development of universal moral principles regardless of social norms or laws. According to Kohlberg, most people do not achieve the sixth stage of morality development even upon reaching adulthood.

Unfortunately, Kohlberg’s theory cannot be considered a golden standard either, as his research methodology and some of his hypotheses were inherently flawed. For instance, the initial research sample exclusively included boys; therefore, the theory cannot be applied to women, as their moral development hinges on care and social connections rather than laws or rules. Moreover, the boys interviewed were faced with hypothetical moral dilemmas for which they lacked relevant experience, such as a man’s decision to steal medicine to heal his terminally ill wife. Kohlberg’s ideas of morality may also be unfit to explain the concept for collectivist cultures of the East, as most of the questions dealt with the rights of an individual, which are highly valued among the individualist societies of the West.

Moreover, the concept of distinct morality stages and an individual’s gradual passing from one to another also came to be questioned by the end of the 20th century. Additional research demonstrates that people can rely on universal morality principles in one instance and revert to established social mores in the next. Researchers have found that the outcome depends on the parameters of the situation rather than the person’s age or perceived moral development stage. Considering the accumulated criticism, Kohlberg’s moral development theory cannot be considered universally applicable or viable.


Religious mores and legislation represent the social norms and rules humanity has followed for thousands of years. However, aside from external punishment and praise, humans develop internal moral compasses throughout early and middle childhood. The specifics of moral development have long been a controversial issue. Evolutionary perspective considers it an advanced version of the same reciprocal altruism and kin selection many animal species demonstrate. Sigmund Freud explains morality as a result of the superego’s victory over id and ego. Cognitivists, such as Piaget and Kohlberg, posit that morality develops along with other cognitive functions. Still, even their theories are not all-encompassing or universal, as the initial research methodologies are questioned along with the hypotheses and conclusions made about the moral development stages, their independence and sequence. Kohlberg’s theory does not account for gender and cultural differences, but it is the best explanation of morality we have as of now. Considering the limitations of each of the existing perspectives, further research is necessary into the issue to account for individual differences.

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