Moral Development


Definitions of morality

Societal and ecological problems are considered to be a result of moral deficits, and in various scientific disciplines morality is an important subject [1]. In developmental psychology, the notion of ‘development’ generally relates to permanent positive progress across the whole lifespan [2]. Macklin (as cited in [2]) provides the principles of humaneness and humanity for a definition of morality. Rationalistic proponents of morality theories such as Kohlberg focus on reasoning as the facilitator of moral judgment and prosocial behavior. Kohlberg’s theory states that moral development passes through six sequential developmental stages. Internalistic views, which argue that reasoning is leading to moral behavior were proven flawed. Rather it was found that moral emotions and motivations are required as well [2].

Morality development across the lifespan

Morality is seen to develop from earliest childhood and research confirms observations of prosocial behavior as early as at age 2 [3]. As the information processing capability of children increases, older children need to align their morality accordingly [2]. In contrast to adolescence, intelligence, however, doesn’t seem to be related to moral development in childhood [4]. Adolescence and early adulthood appear to be especially important for moral self-development [3]. Initiatives to educate emerging adults for openness to diversity, for which moral reasoning has proven to be a predictive factor, are frequent and often fruitful [5]. Strengthening the self as a means to achieve goals and as an end-goal in itself is typically starting to be more and more replaced from childhood to mid adulthood, albeit never completely, by the purpose for social connection [6].

Moral inclusiveness and education for moral engagement

Despite (or because of) any such communal motives, there are psychological limits for the reach of individuals’ moral justice, which causes the perception of moral dilemmas. Because people tend to judge outsiders more rigidly, it is important to develop an understanding of morality that values a global perspective of impartiality and universality to overcome the phenomenon of moral exclusion [7]. It suggests integrating moral community, besides other aspects, within a complete model of morality as measured by the evidently reliable and valid Moral Identity Questionnaire [8].

Although moral progress is an inherent human capability, it needs to be individually and actively developed [2]. Antisocial and aggressive behavior was found to interlink with moral disengagement and that the strength of these processes is much influenced by the immediate interpersonal social context [1]. It is therefore critical to pay attention to what educative experiences an environment is intentionally or unintentionally cultivating [9]. Dialogic teaching promotes moral learning by expanding learners’ capacity to capture a broader understanding of the oneness with the otherness and the potential for positive individual and collective change [10].

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[1] Brugman, D., Keller, M., & Sokol, B. (2013). Introduction: Meaning, measurement, and correlates of moral development. European Journal Of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 99-105. doi:10.1080/17405629.2013.769368

[2] Schinkel, A., & de Ruyter, D. (2017). Individual Moral Development and Moral Progress. Ethical Theory And Moral Practice, 20(1), 121-136. doi:10.1007/s10677-016-9741-6

[3] Lapsley, D., & Carlo, G. (2014). Moral Development at the Crossroads: New Trends and Possible Futures. Developmental Psychology, 50(1), 1-7.

[4] Beissert, H.M., & Hasselhorn, M. (2016). Individual differences in moral development: Does intelligence really affect children’s moral reasoning and moral emotions?. Frontiers In Psychology, Vol 7 (2016), doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01961/full

[5] Gerson, M., & Neilson, L. (2014). The importance of identity development, principled moral reasoning, and empathy as predictors of openness to diversity in emerging adults. SAGE Open, 4(4), 11p.. doi:10.1177/2158244014553584

[6] Walker, L. J., & Frimer, J. A. (2015). Developmental Trajectories of Agency and Communion in Moral Motivation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 61(3), 412-439.

[7] Passini, S. (2010). Moral Reasoning in a Multicultural Society: Moral Inclusion and Moral Exclusion. Journal For The Theory Of Social Behaviour, 40(4), 435-451.

[8] Black, J. E., & Reynolds, W. M. (2016). Development, reliability, and validity of the Moral Identity Questionnaire. Personality & Individual Differences, 97120-129. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.03.041

[9] King, P. M. (2009). Principles of development and developmental change underlying theories of cognitive and moral development. Journal Of College Student Development, 50(6), 597-620. doi:10.1353/csd.0.0104

[10] English, A. R. (2016). Dialogic Teaching and Moral Learning: Self-Critique, Narrativity, Community and “Blind Spots”. Journal Of Philosophy Of Education, 50(2), 160-176.

  • This is a great topic and that you competently present here. However, I do question the reliability of the Moral Identity Questionnaire. It is extremely difficult to quantify morality, the areas of development it influences and is influenced by. Morality is embedded in social, cultural and historical context so it can never be scientifically objective . The questionnaire is also made quantifiable by the researchers which decide what counts as accurate data. In saying that the quest for producing ethically sound data is always a step in the right direction and its an important topic to research both on a societal and individual level. I enjoyed this read thanks!

    • Hi! Thank you for your great feedback. Much appreciated!
      I agree that one needs to be cautious and understand exactly what a psychological instrument measures.
      As you mention that “morality is embedded in social, cultural and historical context so it can never be scientifically objective,” and point to the difficulty of “ethically sound data,” I think morality and ethics need to be differentiated. Although both relate to what is “right” and “wrong,” ethics has more to do with societal rules, and morality means a more personal principle of justice. Following this definition, I think it is possible to define some objective and universal criteria for human morality. For example, such as how universally one can care for others in general, even beyond his/her family’s, neighborhood’s, workplace’s, city’s, country’s, religion’s, and race’s norms and rules.

      • Hi Mathias, I agree and of course ethics and morality need to be differentiated. I don’t think I explained ‘ethical data’ adequately. I mean data collected with no researcher bias, which is reliable, valid, generalizable to the population and objective. My argument here is based on psychometric data. To define intrinsic and qualities e.g. Intelligence, emotions or morality is extremely problematic. These are complex subjective concepts. that’s not to say that there is no discourse which gives es us a general view of morality its just that I question the instrument (questionnaire) made by the researchers to measure data (quantified by the researchers) to prove hypothesis. Its been interesting discussing this with you:)

      • I agree. And psychometric instruments often are developed and used under enormous commercial pressure, which is also not supportive of the goal to reduce bias. Thank you for the discussion too!

  • Cannot agree more fully with you on the thought that “moral progress is an inherent human capability, it needs to be individually and actively developed”. This is a trait that isn’t being developed in our youth today.

      • We agree so fully with this Mathias. As a youngster I was fortunate to travel a bit and it taught me that there are other opinions and thoughts outside our immediate zip code. Now that we are expanding these travels we are learning even more. My month living in Ireland taught a whole new and wonderful level. It is amazing though how we meet folks that don’t venture outside their little communities.

      • You not only get insights into these communities for yourself and your readers, but you also bring a bit more of the broader world to THEM Therefore you have an important mission! Hope people appreciate that (some may be frightened though:-)). Take care!

  • This article also reminds me of the children I worked with, who had a rough start in life. I think the lack of bonding with a caregiver (not necessarily a parent) at a young age, also impacts the ability to develop social characteristics and thus a sense for right versus wrong, ethics, morality. Children who had various different caretakers/givers, but no stability, seemed more often angry, lost and/or sad.
    So indeed, this is, to me, also the most important passage: “moral progress is an inherent human capability, it needs to be individually and actively developed”. We should make sure people feel loved, wanted, important, acknowledged.