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Moral Development & Conflict Resolution
Theories of Moral Development

Moral principles are concerned with justice, fairness and equity and determine acceptable behaviour. To date, moral development theories have derived from three significant theories of social development:

Our discussion of the contribution of these theories to understanding of moral development will focus on the work of four individuals who were significant in the development of the respective theories.

Sigmund Freud

The first important theory of human emotional development was proposed by Sigmund Freud as psychoanalytic theory. In his 1905 publication 'Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex' he proposed that adult personality and behaviour was determined by experiences in the first 5 years of life.

During the phallic stage - the third of five proposed stages - Freud proposed that through identification with the same sex parent, children adopt society's moral values as represented by that parent. This stage was generally thought to correspond with the 3-6 years age period. The theory suggests that children see the same sex parent as a competitior for the other parent's affection but this conflict is resolved by 'becoming like' or identifying with the same sex parent.The superego is said to develop from the child's adoption of parental standards.

Thus, psychoanalytic theory suggests that children behave morally because they have internalised the values they believe their same sex parent to hold or to avoid feelings of guilt inflicted by the conscience after transgression. The theory suggested that moral development was a process of socialization.

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Albert Bandura

The most prominent research in Social Learning Theory was the work of Albert Bandura in the early 1960s at Stanford University in California. The theory emphasised the importance of adult reinforcement and imitation in moral development.

His earliest work suggested that modelled behaviour is learnt and adopted by children through observation. Motivation to adopt behaviours occurs through external reinforcement in the form of verbal encouragement or token reward; vicarious reinforcement in the form of a favourable or appealing model; and self reinforcement usually through verbal statement. Thus, moral behaviour is learnt through direct reinfircement and observation.

Bandura did, however emphasise that behaviour cannot be understood without an understanding of mental activity. Research generated by Bandura's work focused on the efficacy of different child-rearing methods for the internalization of moral values.

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Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget published 'The Moral Judgement of the Child in 1932' emphasising the way in which children construct morality. Moral thought and construction is the means by which cognitive developmentalists' approach the development of moral thinking. He asserted that a moral act was based on a conscious judgement.

Moral Realism

Develops broadly between the ages of 2 and 8. Children respond to rules as sacred and unchanging and judge a behaviour on the basis of its consequences so that behaviour followed by a negative consequence.

Morality of Cooperation and Reciprocity

Develops from the age of 8 until 12. Children see rules as maintained through social agreement and so can be modified. Rightness is determined by the subject's intention rather than the outcome or consequence. Punishment is no longer viewed as arbitrary and obligations are perfromed in response to other's welfare and the ability to put oneself in another's place.

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Lawrence Kohlberg

 Lawrence Kohlberg began in the late 1960s to outline six stages of moral development and extend those of Piaget into adolescence and adulthood and draw on people's response to moral dilemnas. Like Piaget, Kohlberg is a member of the congnitive development school of thought. He views moral thinking as part of a sequence which also includes logical thought development and the ability to view a situation from other's perspective.

Kohlberg and Piaget share the belief that logical thinking has priority and precedes moral development so that advanced moral reasoning is only possible with advanced cognitive reasoning. Kohlberg's first two levels correspond loosely with those of Piaget.

Pre-Conventional Level

Child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad but interpret these in terms of consequence and the power of the rule enforcer.

Conventional Level

Society's expectations and rules are valued irrespective of consequence. Conformity and loyalty to order and the identified society are valued.

Post-Conventional Level

Moral values and principles are defined irrespective of society's expectations and the values of the group to which a subject belongs.


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