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How the mind develops

From Embryo to Ethics

Help Link : Livre : Enfance et famille : Contextes et development Link : L'immense fonction de la famille dans le development des jeunes
Research : LAWRENCE KOHLBERG (1927-1987)

According to Piaget, the reason that young children have such an egocentric attitude is that they can see the world only from their own viewpoint and they feel inferior to the adults who make them obey certain rules.

But by interacting more and more with other people, children move from a moral attitude that is dictated to them by others to a moral position that is more autonomous. Children then become capable of considering rules critically and applying them selectively for the sake of shared objectives and a desire to co-operate.


As children grow, their intellectual faculties are not all that develops. Their attitudes toward other people become more sophisticated as well. The term “moral development” refers to this ever-growing ability to take other people’s perspectives into account before choosing a course of action.

According to Jean Piaget, children develop morally through social interactions that let them find solutions that are fair to all concerned (see sidebar). For Piaget, the educator’s role should therefore not be just to teach children society’s rules, however valid they may be, but rather to present children with situations that pose moral problems for them to solve. Piaget therefore rejects the idea advanced by thinkers such as the sociologist Émile Durkheim, that children begin to make moral judgments as they adopt the norms of their society.

Another important researcher who explored the differences in the moral judgment of children, adolescents, and adults was Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987). Inspired by Piaget, Kohlberg asked his subjects questions about moral dilemmas. He was interested less in the values that his subjects expressed in their answers than in the arguments that they cited to justify them. By analyzing these arguments, Kohlberg distinguished three different major levels in the development of moral judgment.

The first level, according to Kohlberg, is preconventional morality, which is observed from age 2 or 3 to age 7 or 8 (any earlier, he says, and the child is too young to have any moral judgment). At this level, children have not yet become aware of social conventions and simply do not take them into account. Instead, children judge whether an action is good or bad according to the consequences that it will have for themselves. In the early years at this level, the main question a child asks about a possible course of action is: would I be punished? A bit later, another question enters in: would I be rewarded? Children’s conduct at this level is thus directly linked to the authority of their parents and teachers.

Kohlberg’s second level of moral development is conventional morality, observed from about age 7 to about age 15. Conventional morality comes into play from the moment that a child realizes that there are conventions in society that must be followed. At the start of this stage, the child’s central concern thus becomes: what will people think of me? Then, a bit later, the child asks: what would happen if everyone acted the way I did? The actions that children at this stage regard as good are those that maintain the social order or meet the expectations of the people around them. It is essentially these goals that drive young people to conform and to be highly dependent on other people’s opinions.

Kohlberg’s third level of moral development, postconventional morality, leads to conduct that goes beyond societal conventions. It begins with questions such as: should I feel obliged to do such-and-such a thing? The most morally sensitive children may start asking such questions as early as age 12—for example, when they hear about environmental destruction and the chance to join a group to do something about it. Later on, the question may become: is such-and-such a thing consistent with universal principles, such as human rights? But only a minority of people, regardless of their age, ever worry about such lofty moral issues.

Kohlberg refines his model by dividing each of these three levels in two, thus positing a total of six phases in the moral development of the individual.

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