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The Different Theories of Moral Development

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  • 0:05 Psychoanalytic Moral…
  • 1:27 Evolutionary Moral Development
  • 2:55 Cognitive Theories of…
  • 7:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

How do our ideas of right and wrong come into being? There are a few theories that stand out in their explanation of moral development. These include: psychoanalytic theory, evolutionary theory and cognitive theories.

Psychoanalytic Moral Development

Children often act on whatever they desire. Little Tom was in daycare today and took a truck right out of Danny's hands. According to Freud, Tom did this because he was being driven by his id. This is the part of our inner being that is focused on satisfying our needs and desires.

Of course, if Tom grows up thinking he could always take what he wanted from other people, he wouldn't have many friends. So Freud says that's when our ego steps in. It is the part of us that directs the id toward fulfillment in socially acceptable ways. When Tom is 12, he asks his friend Danny if he can borrow his video game rather than just taking it when he is over at his house.

But Tom also has another part of himself trying to get his attention. This part of him is called the superego, or internal moral compass, and arises after age five. It suppresses urges and drives him to ideal moral behavior. The superego consists of two main parts: the ego ideal and the conscience.

The ego ideal includes rules for good behavior that are learned from authority figures. The conscience includes rules of what not to do that are learned from authority figures. In Tom's case, he now strives to lend his own stuff to his friend Danny and not constantly ask him for things.

Evolutionary Moral Development

Have you seen a panda bear care for her baby at the zoo or on TV? What about a group of monkeys sharing food? If you have, you've gotten one look into the argument for evolutionary moral development. Proponents of this theory believe that human beings have a sense of morality as a result of evolution. Animals show cooperation, generosity and love toward each other, and we exhibit those same behaviors. They point out animals also have a sense of social order, hierarchy and expected behavior, as we do in society.

There are two main points made in evolutionary development theory: kin selection theory and reciprocal altruism. This theory focuses on the tendency to be more altruistic toward those who we are related to. It explains that we have this behavior in common with animals, and the reason it has evolved to humans is that favoring our relatives keeps our species going.

In order to explain how altruistic behavior can occur with non-kin, there is the reciprocal altruism theory. This theory states that by being kind and helpful to those we are not related to, we increase the chance they will later be helpful to us. This causes our species also to flourish. It has been shown that even chimpanzees are more giving toward those other chimpanzees who have given to them. For example, they will remember those who had groomed them and are more likely to share their food with them.

Cognitive Theories of Moral Development

The perspective of cognitive theories of development is that we develop our sense of right and wrong as our thinking develops. There are two well-known leaders in the field of cognitive development and morality: Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.

Jean Piaget believed that there were two main levels to moral development during childhood. The first is called heteronomous morality, and the second is called autonomous morality. Here we have five-year-old Stacy to illustrate.

Stacy began entering the heteronomous morality stage last year at age five. She listens to her parents for guidance on what she can and can't do. She knows that by hitting her younger brother when he is annoying her, she's going to be punished by being put in time out. Stacy knows her parents' rules can't be changed.

Fast forward several years, and Stacy is now 10 years old. She has now entered the autonomous morality phase. She now knows rules don't have to be set in stone. She is aware that things like the context of a situation or someone's intentions play a role. For example, Stacy's parents always told her to be inclusive of her peers, but she did not invite a classmate to her birthday party.

When her parents show their disapproval, Stacy says, 'But this person has been mean to me all year. That's why I didn't invite her to the party. I didn't mean to make her feel left out.' Notice how Stacy explained the context of her situation and her intentions to not hurt this person.

Stacy is now 15. At this time, she is working from an ideal reciprocity frame of reference. This means she knows she should treat others the way she wants to be treated. She starts to see that this girl she didn't invite to her party years ago has a lot of problems at home. She imagines how she would feel in that situation, and she reaches out to become her friend.

Lawrence Kohlberg believed we go through three stages in which we fine tune our way of thinking and making moral decisions. He got these ideas based on an experiment where he told a story called 'Heinz's dilemma.' It is about a man whose wife was dying of cancer and needed a certain drug that was available but far too expensive. Even after raising only half the money and pleading with the pharmacist, he was not given access to the drug.

Later that night, he broke into the office and stole it. When Kohlberg would tell this story, he would follow it with questions, such as, was it right for Heinz to steal the drug? Or, if he stole it for a stranger, would it make any difference? Based on people's answers, Kohlberg identified three levels of morality: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality and post-conventional morality. Each of these levels contains two stages. People can pass through these stages at different rates, and be at different ages for each stage.

Level 1: Pre-conventional morality

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