Moral Development: Nature, Factors and Educational Implications…


Moral Development: Nature, Factors and Educational Implications…

The word “moral” is derived from the words “mores”. Mores refers to customs, folkways and conventions of a social group. The social group members are expected to conform to their mores.

Moral behaviour refers to a behaviour that tends to the good and rejects the evil. Behaviour is evil if it is unacceptable to and abhorred by a social group. Developing morality therefore signifies understanding and following a society’s rights and wrongs.

Moral development describes changes in children’s sense of fairness, of what is right and what is wrong. Note that the child’s behaviour in this context is compared to the moral standard of the social group.

At the end of this page, you should be able to:

· Describe the nature of morality

· Outline the sequence in the development of moral judgement

· List and discuss the major factors that influence moral development

· Discuss the educational significance of moral development.


 The Nature of Morality

It is difficult to give a precise definition of the nature of morality. Different perspectives define morality differently.

According to Emmanuel Kant, a moral act is an act done from duty. An act done from duty differs from an act done in accordance with duty.

An act is done from duty when the person acting does so because they feel some sense of obligation. Indeed, the individual has the option, and may choose not to act that way.

Act done in accordance with duty carries with it some sense of compulsion. There is fear of punishment. If we define a moral act as an act done from duty or from a sense of obligation, it follows that a moral act is an act that can be applied to anybody. For example, the proposition “I help my neighbour in distress because I help anybody in distress” qualifies to be a moral act. It can be applied to anybody including oneself. In this sense, morality is a universal principle guiding human conduct.

Morality is conduct or behaviour arising from some internalized standard without reference to any group’s standard of behaviour, or to some possible consequence to the individual. A moral behaviour is not selfish. It is not prudential. It is not random.

Sociologists, however, define morality in relative terms. They conceive morality from the viewpoint of a reference group standard. To them, an act is moral, if it conforms to the particular reference group standard.

This is, group mores, customs or expectations.

Therefore, sociologists define morality as behaviour that respects the rules and institutions of a society. They lay emphasis on obedience to rules and regulations. To sociologists, there is no moral act that can be applied to anybody. There are no moral universals.

Developmental psychologists consider morality in terms of children’s reasoning when faced with moral issues, and their attitude to moral transgressions. To them, morality is the ability to discriminate between right and wrong.

Development of Moral Judgment

It is amazing to consider the great capacity of human beings have for good and evil. The question: “where does morality come from?” has often been posed.

We consider here two perspectives on the development of moral judgement, namely: the perspectives of the social learning theorists and the cognitive-developmental theorists.

The Social Learning Perspective

Social learning theorists focus on how prosocial behaviour evolves. Prosocial behaviour is a helping behaviour that is directed to benefit another person. Social learning theory emerges in children as a result of their interaction with people in their immediate and wider environment.

The key issue in social learning relates to how rewards and punishments have been managed to engender morally appropriate behaviour in children. The children are members of society. Therefore, they are expected to have regard to approvals and disapprovals or generalized reinforcers of society. It is by anticipating such generalised reinforcers that the child exerts self-control over their behaviour. Therefore, morality originates from reinforcements provided by significant others in society.

Observation of models play a significant role in children’s learning of prosocial behaviour. Abstract modelling explains how this learning occurs. In abstract modelling, the child identifies with the model. Thus, when the model is directly rewarded for a pro-social behaviour, the child is indirectly rewarded also.

Abstract modelling, therefore is the process in which modelling paves the way for the development of more general rules and principles of behaviour. What this means is that, not all pro-social behaviours have to be emitted and rewarded directly for watch child for the child to learn general rules.

Observing a model receive reinforcement is adequate indirect reinforcement for learning to occur.


The Cognitive-Developmental Perspective

This will be discussed under the following sub-topics.

Piaget’s Cognitive-Developmental Perspective

Piaget (1994) reasoned that moral development follows a developmental pattern indicating increasing understanding of the meaning of justice.

Moral development, therefore, may be conceived as unfolding through three main levels:

Level One – Heteronemous Morality

Children aged 4 to 7 years are found operating under the heteronomous morality level. Children at this level believe in imminent justice.

Misconducts should be punished immediately. Rules are seen as unchangeable, and never varying. The rules have been created by an authority.

Level Two – Incipient Cooperation

Children 7 – 10 years fall in this level of morality. Play for children at this level becomes a clear social activity. They are capable of learning formal rules, and play their games according to this shared knowledge.

Rules are still seen as unchangeable though they understand the rules.

Level Three – Autonomous Cooperation

Children 10 years plus are found in the autonomous level of morality.

Children at this level become aware that formal game rules may be modified by those who play it. They now know that rules of law are created by human beings.

Therefore, rules are subject to change as the players may wish. Issue of rules and reasoning on justice are no longer bounded in the concrete.

Intentions are now taken into account in matters of justice and morality.

Kohlberg’s Cognitive-Developmental Perspective

Kohlberg (1994) contends that children pass through a series of stage in evolving a sense of justice and reasoning on moral issues.

To him, the evolution of moral judgement is tied to cognitive development. For example, school age children think either in terms of concrete, unwavering rules or in terms of the rules of society.

By adolescence, however, they are capable of reasoning on a higher plane, having attained formal level cognitive capacity. Adolescents are able to comprehend abstract principles of morality. Their standard for judging moral issues become predicated on conscience.

Kohlberg suggested a three-level sequence for understanding the development of moral judgement:

Level One – Pre-conventional Morality

At this level, children follow unwavering rules based on rewards and punishments. What inspires moral judgement is related to obedience, and self satisfaction.

Level Two – Conventional Morality

At the level of conventional morality, children approach moral problems in terms of their own position as good, responsible members of society.

This is what Kohlberg called: Good boy, good girl orientation.

Level Three – Post-Conventional Morality

At this level, children invoke universal moral principles that are considered broader than the rules of the particular society children find themselves. To do the right thing is an obligation. Morality is then considered duty to one’s own conscience based on universal ethics.

Factors that influence Moral Development

Several factors influence moral development.

Among them are:

·        Maturation

·        Rules and Regulation

·        Modeling and Rewards.


The cognitive-developmental perspective maintains moral judgement unfolds with increasing maturation. The quality of a child’s moral reasoning is related to the quality of cognitive capacity of the child.

Cognitive development is predicated on level of maturation.

Rules and Regulations

Rules and regulations serve as guidelines for prosocial behaviour. They specify general expectations and thereby serve as a source of motivation to the child to conform to social expectation. The specific purpose for each rule or regulation when explained is an invaluable guide to behaviour. It serves as internalised reasons to conform.


Moral development of children is not a matter of instruction and preaching. Significant others must also model the prosocial behaviours that they expect children to exhibit. Indeed, there is great need that parents and caregivers, in addition to instruction, should also “walk the talkfor the children to emulate.


The child needs a confirmation whenever their behaviour conforms to expectation. Effective contingency management helps in engendering prosocial behaviours of children, and also discouraging anti-social behaviours.


Educational Implications of Moral Development

The educational implications of moral development are as follows:

· Morality is not inborn or given by the creator. It is acquired through living in a community of human relations. There is need for both formal and informal education (the school and the family) to provide adequate opportunities for children to observe others acting a cooperative, helpful manner.

· Children should be encouraged to interact with peers in joint activities in which they share a common goal.

· Though society prescribes rules, regulations and standards for conduct, children should not be made to harbour a feeling of vileness or guilt for minor infractions on the standards of conduct. For one thing, children’s understanding and interpretations of standards of conduct is at best, relatively naïve.

· Education in morality should not emphasise the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of actions. Children should be led to see that there are always alternative explanations for others’ behaviour. Children should be made to understand that the behaviour of their peers has several possible interpretations.

· While a child’s level of maturation may limit their understanding of moral precepts, the school should not just sit back and wait for maturation to occur. Intellectual discourse on moral issues may speed up the appearance of relevant cognitive structures that permit the child to reason about morality. Therefore, the school should provide a good setting in which values; beliefs and opinions may be critically examined.

· It may be true that contingency management engender prosocial behaviour, however, parents and teachers should be wary in the use of punishments or reproach to instill moral behaviour. The value of punishment in changing behaviour is very uncertain.

Parents and teachers should rather select the appropriate behaviours exhibited by the child and nurture these through a system of rewards.

· Parents and teachers should make effort to explicitly teach children moral reasoning and self-control. Rules and regulations should be explained and understood in terms of their value for all stakeholders in a community of relations. Rules and regulations are no absolutes designed to tame children’s freedom or excesses.

Children are neither good nor bad by their nature. Moral behaviour is learned, like most other behaviours of children. The capacity for moral judgement and moral decision unfolds with maturation and experience.

There are universal principles that guide moral behaviour. Your duty, as a caregiver, is to create an enabling environment to challenge children to reason about moral issues. It is not enough to preach moral dogmas; adults must also “walk the talk”. Example is the best moral precept.


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