Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist best known for his theory of cognitive development, also proposed a theory of moral development in the early 1930s. It was influenced by his cognitive theory and had the same basic format, being based on stages that children are supposed to pass through at certain approximate ages.

The first stage is known as premoral judgement and lasts from birth until about five years of age. In this stage, children simply do not understand the concept of rules and have no idea of morality, internal or external.

This stage roughly coincides with the sensorimotor and pre-operational stages of Piaget's cognitive theory and is related to them in the sense that since the child has a poor conception of other people's consciousnesses (if at all), and is incapable of carrying out complex mental operations, it is impossible for them to have a sense of morality.

The second stage is called moral realism and lasts from the approximate ages of five to nine. Children in this stage now understand the concept of rules, but they are seen as external and immutable. Children obey rules largely because they are there. Since a rule tells you what you're not supposed to do, moral realist children evaluate wrongdoing in terms of its consequences, not the intentions of the wrongdoer.

In terms of Piaget's cognitive theory, this stage corresponds to the pre-operational and concrete operational stages.

The third and final stage is called moral relativity. This stage begins at about seven years of age, so it overlaps at first with moral realism. Children who have reached this stage recognise that rules are not fixed, but can be changed by mutual consent, and they start to develop their own internal morality which is no longer the same as external rules. A major development is that actions are now evaluated more in terms of their intentions, which most people would see as a more sophisticated view of morality. Piaget also thought it was during this stage that children develop a firm concept of the necessity that punishment specifically fits the crime.

This stage corresponds to the concrete and formal operational stages in Piaget's cognitive theory, during which children become able to carry out complex mental operations, first on concrete examples, and then additionally on abstract concepts.

Piaget based this moral theory on two lines of research. The first of these was to observe children of different ages playing marbles, and ask them questions about the rules of the game. Children younger than five essentially had no rules at all. Between five and ten, there were rules, but the children saw them as fixed. Finally by the age of ten, the children were able to think of their own rules and recognise that these could be adopted by mutual consent.

Piaget's other technique was to present to children moral dilemmas, each consisting of a pair of stories. In one, a child deliberately caused a small amount of damage. In the other, the damage was accidental but much greater. Piaget asked children which of the characters deserved to be punished the most, and tried to find out not just their answers but the reasoning they used to arrive at them. As came out in his theory, younger children focused on consequences, while older children also took intent into account.

Both of these methods have been criticised. Unsurprisingly, many people have claimed that games of marbles do not represent a child's entire perception of morality. However Piaget's use of dilemmas has also been criticised. It has been claimed that younger children only focused on consequences because, given that the story was narrated, this was much easier to see than the characters' intentions. This view is supported by Chandler et al.1 (1973), who found that if the stories were presented on video, younger children were much better able to consider intentions. On the other hand, Armsby2 (1971) had carried out investigations with moral dilemmas and found that, although younger children had some conception of intent, they still preferred to judge in terms of consequences because they found this easier.

Piaget's theory has also been criticised on the grounds that it is based on moral "universals" which may in fact be culture-specific. It has been claimed that the moral development of children in non-Western cultures may differ from that of the children Piaget investigated.

Thirdly, the theory can be criticised from the increasingly successful viewpoint of evolutionary psychology. Piaget implied that all morality comes from socialization, but evolutionary psychologists maintain that a basic sense of morality is a cognitive adaptation produced by natural selection, and thus ultimately innate On the other hand, evolutionary psychology largely supports Piaget's assumption of moral universals.

Piaget's theory of moral development is not as well-known outside psychology as his theory of cognitive development, but it was a great influence on Kohlberg's theory, which has become one of the most important.


1 - Chandler, M.J., Greenspan, S. and Barenboim, C. (1973) "Judgements of intentionality in response to videotaped and verbally presented moral dilemmas: the medium is the message", Child Development, 44, pp.315-320.
2 - Armsby, R.E. (1971) "A re-examination of the development of moral judgement in children", Child Development, 42, pp.1241-8.

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