Moral Development: Rationalist and Intuitionist Perspectives


Since the dawn of civilization and the genesis of the first social, interpersonal connections, the differentiation between the concepts of “good” and “bad” has been a matter of meticulous research and reflection. Eventually, the opposites of this dimension have evolved into the phenomenon of moral justification of actions, or the evaluation of actions as inherently just, harmful, or falling somewhere in between these markings. Thus, according to Gibbs (2019), the notion of moral development is primarily related to the phenomenon of social perspective-taking. The latter embodies the ability to perceive the situation through the prism of feelings of another individual in order to define the extent to which one’s behavior could be morally acceptable.

The primary goal of the present paper is to dwell on the two major approaches to the fundamentals of moral development within a human being: the Rationalist and Intuitionist theories. The former will be mostly presented with the help of Lawrence Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental approach to morality, or the process of gradual moral development of an individual that moves further from a superficial evaluation of a social setting (Gibbs, 2019). The latter, in its turn, will be discussed through the system of beliefs outlined in Jonathan Haidt’s concept of social intuitionist model that emphasizes the significance of moral intuition and emotion as a primary precursor to moral judgment and rational reasoning (Kim, 2018). Considering the fact that these approaches to moral development are contradictory in their nature, the present paper will be dedicated to the establishment of contrastive features of these theories, along with the introduction of their critique in the modern psychological and ethical contexts. The intention of defining the most relevant theory is not pursued in the current research for the sake of objectivity and impartial assessment of the concepts.

The Rationalist Perspective

A significant number of modern works on moral philosophy and ethics trace back to ancient times and pursue the idea of moral reasoning and judgment being developed through the prism of human experiences and established rules of behavior. Thus, starting with Plato’s and Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Kantian moral reasoning, the modern perception of moral development is explicitly associated with the distinct differentiation between morally justifiable and morally unacceptable human actions (McAuliffe, 2019). One of the most widespread approaches to the justification and control of one’s behavior is the so-called Rationalist perspective. In a broad sense, the notion of rationalism appeals to the idea that a person’s perception of truth and morality stems from experience, cognitive development, and deduction, or the ability to reason certain facts in order to reach a viable conclusion (Gibbs, 2019). Thus, naturally, the extent to which a person develops cognitively while existing within society determines one’s progress in the ability to employ moral reasoning and adapt to certain behavioral patterns.

One of the most prominent representatives and compilators of the Rationalist perspective on moral development is Lawrence Kohlberg. According to the fundamentals of his theory of moral development, the latter presupposes the creation of an enhanced and complicated rationale for a decision-making process (Mathes, 2019). Kohlberg’s model is essentially characterized by the presence of three major levels of reasoning, which are correlated with the expected level of cognitive development reached a certain age. Thus, these levels include pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional phases that are later divided into various stages (Mathes, 2019). The first out of six stages is called Heteronomous Morality, and it is described as the process of moral reasoning motivated by the evasion from punishment and avoiding personal pain. The second stage, Individualism, Instrumental Purpose, and Exchange Morality, is motivated by the maximization of personal pleasure and good personal outcomes.

The next stage that commences the conventional level is known as Mutual Interpersonal Expectations, Relationships, and Interpersonal Conformity Morality, and it is described as the phase during which individuals acknowledge the moral duty of taking care of their families and close surroundings (Mathes, 2019). The fourth stage, Social System and Conscience Morality, allows people to recognize the need to obey authorities and prescriptive legal considerations ad traditions. The next stage, Social Contract or Utility and Individual Rights Morality, manifests the shift toward post-conventional level, during which people are mostly driven by the fundamentals of the Utilitarian philosophy, which aims at maximizing one’s pleasure and happiness as long as one’s happiness does not interfere with another person’s well-being (Mathes, 2019). Thus, during this stage, in the pursuit of enhancing happiness for oneself and others, people tend to employ cultural awareness and tolerance.

Finally, the last stage, which is arguably only appropriate for the individuals who face moral philosophy essentials on a daily basis, is called Universal Ethical Principles Morality (Mathes, 2019). Thus, at stage six, people are motivated to act ethically in accordance with the values of every human being and system of justice, provided that there exists a universal system of ethical principles applicable to every single person. Thus, it may be concluded that Kohlberg’s rationalist approach to moral development is signified by the existence of various ethical milestones that are predetermined by one’s environment and pace of cognition evolvement.

The Intuitionist Perspective

Unlike the paradigm of rationalism, some researchers in the field of moral psychology believe in a rather reactive approach to the description of one’s behavioral patterns. The core notion featuring such an approach is the phenomenon of intuition. Thus, according to Jonathan Haidt, one of the most notorious researchers in the field, the concept of intuition stands for an “immediate reaction that is emotionally determined, devoid of reasoning, and perhaps buttressed by genetics and/or cultural frameworks (Turiel, 2018, p. 299). Thus, such an interpretation emphasizes the fact that opposing the idea of moral reasoning, intuition uses no explicit evidence and analytics in order to calculate a certain reaction, rapidly producing a response instead.

An underlining concept of Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model (SIM) is the fact that moral justification of actions, or their reasoning, may sometimes be regarded as biased, as people tend to address reasons to justify ideas generated by their intuition. In one of his publications on SIM, “Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals,” (Haidt & Hersh, 2001) appeal to the justification of intuition by the introduction of “moral dumfounding.” This phenomenon signifies the process during which individuals tend to use moral reasoning for the behavioral patterns that are incapable of justifying.

To empirically prove that theory, Haidt presented an experiment in terms of which he described the situation of brother and sister having sexual intercourse provided that the sister was using birth control at the time, and the brother was using a condom during sex (Haidt & Hersh, 2001). When Haidt asked the respondents whether that activity was morally acceptable, the overwhelming majority of people described the act as immoral and by no means acceptable within society. In order to prove the point, they appealed to the fact that it might result in inbreeding and psychological harm, even though they were repeatedly informed that no psychological or reproductive hazard was present. As a result, it may be concluded from the example that Haidt tries to justify the hypothesis that people tend to use moral reasoning only to find tangible proof for the ideas motivated by their “gut feeling.”

Another pillar of the Intuitionist perspective on moral development states that while intuition is a response that is not biased by nature due to its rapidity, moral justification of actions is frequently driven by certain motives. Among the latter, Haidt outlines relatedness and coherence motives as a driving force for decision-making (Gibbs, 2019). Thus, in the context of relatedness motive, people tend to agree with the justifications of close surroundings, not because of the objective evaluation of the situation but because they tend to be motivated to agree with them because of specific social relations (Gibbs, 2019). The notion of coherence, in its turn, appeals to the assumption that people are more likely to accept and justify precedents that are more relatable to their personal beliefs and considerations. As a result, it may be concluded that the phenomenon of the Intuitionist perspective is primarily focused on the idea of defining intuition as a major responsive force in a psychological discourse. As a result, the idea of rationalism and reasoning is replaced by an emotive response to a situation caused by one’s sixth sense.

The Comparison and Juxtaposition Between Rationalist and Intuitionist Theories

Having closely analyzed both theories promoted by Kohlberg and Haidt, it would be safe to assume that these theories serve as the binary opposition of approaches to human moral development. At the one end of the moral development dimension, one may place the fundamentals of moral reasoning and strive for justice through cognition. Naturally, the other end of the detention manifests a purely intuitive response to one’s environment.

Thus, the first ground for comparison will be the juxtaposition of ratio and emotio in the present theories. It is evident that the notion of Rationalist theory favors the predominance of ratio or the intellect and rationality as the tools for creating a person’s moral compass. As a result, the person’s maturity is implicitly assessed through their ability to ignore the emotive impulses in order to rationally evaluate all the potential outcomes and define the one that would be the most beneficial for an individual and society in general. In contrast, the Intuitionist paradigm is driven by people’s emotive and immediate response to the environment and setting. As a result, people’s intuitive reactions to situations do not primarily concern the evaluation of the surroundings prior to an action. Therefore, the moral justification of action, if present, comes after the immediate psychological response. Inevitably, both these approaches later result in an actio or a tangible action that reflects one’s moral development. The fundamental difference concerns the presence and absence of analytical reflection before the said action.

Another aspect of comparison concerns the paradigm of hierarchy and its contribution to moral reasoning. Thus, when it comes to the Rationalist approach, the hierarchy serves as a primary characteristic of one’s development and growth. Indeed, the six stages of moral development introduced by Kohlberg are compatible with one’s process of maturity and change of the immediate environment of an individual. As a result, when addressing this model, it is possible to outline a certain blueprint of a person’s psychological response based on the expected level of cognitive development specific to one’s age and position within society.

The Intuitionist response, in its turn, has no specific hierarchy and manifests as a purely circumstantial phenomenon. Moreover, the very notion of intuition is quite broad in terms of understanding, as there is no tangible response on the factors that enhance one’s intuition and ability to respond properly to the situation. For this reason, the extent to which a human being is capable of reacting morally could not be measured by the level of cognition and social adaptation to the environment. Thus, it may be concluded that the opposition between circumstantial reaction and viable hierarchy is explicit evidence that brings the aforementioned theories apart.

Another distinct feature of the present theories is either presence or absence of a goal that could be seen as reaching the absolute limit of morality. Since the Rationalist perspective measures human morality through the prism of universal justice as a utopian scenario for society, it is easier to track the extent to which morality has reached the set goal. The Intuitionist perspective, on the other hand, is rather synchronic in terms of existence within a human’s cognition, so there is no qualitative way to measure the scopes of moral development in a given paradigm.

However, despite an extensive number of differentiating qualities, there is one scholarly assumption that relates the fundamentals of these theories. Thus, as it was mentioned previously in the paper, the issue of defining intuition has created a rather vague regulation on how this approach to moral development works. While some people subconsciously perceive intuition as purely emotive merit of humans’ moral compass, Turiel (2018), in his scholarly research, appeals to the definition that intuitive thinking is based on a profound background knowledge of the subject that helps produce a rapid and appropriate response. For this reason, there is a strong correlation between a person’s analytic and reasoning skills and intuitive thinking.

Thus, whereas some decision-making examples may be regarded as a result of a solely emotive constituent, some responses may be a result of cognitive analysis of the already known information that is processed rapidly enough for a person to think that the reaction was nothing but intuitive. For this reason, it would be safe to assume that despite the explicitly opposite perception of the moral development process within a human being, both Rationalist and Intuitionist approaches tend to regard sound reasoning and analytics as a precursor of morality.

Hence, having taken all these facts into consideration, it may be outlined that the descriptions and fundamental principles of moral development mostly contradict each other in terms of approach. As a result, the vast majority of factors relevant to the theories serve in a system of binary opposition. However, regardless of the dissimilarity scope, both approaches seem to either implicitly or explicitly address reasoning and analytical thinking as a core tool for morality.

The Theories’ Critique

The first theory to be reviewed in terms of criticism within the scholarly community will be the Intuitionist theory. Thus, the first ground for criticism outlined in the scholarly works is Haidt’s hypothesis about reasoning bias that, in his view, contradicts the idea of true moral reasoning. However, according to the critics, the notion of intuition itself may be equally biased depending on the social and cognitive cues human being receives in the course of social functioning (McAuliffe, 2019). Thus, the hypothesis that human intuition is more accurate than analytical thinking and reasoning is not evidence-based, meaning that Haidt should have been more considerate when shaping the fundamentals of SIM.

Another point for criticism concerns Haidt’s assumptions on reasoning as the aftermath of intuitive thinking. According to Kim (2018), the vast majority of human decisions are made solely due to deliberate reflection and reasoning, as a mere intuitional approach would be considered thoughtless and impulsive. Hence, the major argument against the SIM model comprises the theory’s rather radical approach to explain such a complex and multilayer phenomenon as human cognition and perception of morality. One of such radical statements concerns the idea of relatedness and coherence motives being explicitly biased. According to other theorists, such human considerations as the willingness to agree with close surroundings may not be a result of bias exclusively because it could have been a meticulously analyzed decision to trust a person who has a certain level of authority in one’s life (Gibbs, 2019). For this reason, it may be concluded that intuitive perception of moral development has been mostly criticized due to the lack of empirical data to support the hypotheses outlined.

While Haidt’s SIM approach lacks specifics, the Kohlbergian approach to moral development is explicitly tangible and specific. However, when it comes to criticism, the major argument states that the conclusions presented by the scholar are drawn from a relatively small and exceedingly specific study sample (Mathes, 2019). Indeed, the most extensive study on the subject consisted of only male respondents, and the Western culture with its individualist nature was considered with no approach to the moral development scopes in collectivist Eastern cultures (Mathes, 2019). Moreover, justifying the hypothesis of binary opposition with Haidt’s model, the Rationalist approach pays almost no attention to the emotio as a major constituent of human cognition and moral development, placing the major emphasis on the rule of justice instead (Gibbs, 2019). As a result, this theory is also hardly applicable to modern society that prioritizes empathy and compassion over dry arguments. Having taken the critique of both theories into consideration, it may be rightfully concluded that none of them is capable of existing in isolation from each other, as their opposition makes them complementary and not autonomous.


The phenomenon of moral development became a subject of scrupulous psychological research as early as ancient times. Such an interest in the topic eventually resulted in the multiplicity of approaches to moral reasoning and cognition. The Rationalist and Intuitionist approach supported by Kohlberg and Haidt, respectively, are considered as some of the most prominent theories of moral development. The comparison of these theories demonstrated that they are mostly oppositional in terms of their prioritization patterns, as Rationalists tend to undermine the importance of emotion simultaneously, with Intuitionists being reluctant to acknowledge the value of rational and analytic thinking. While obtaining some strong hypotheses, both theories are now criticized for the lack of empirical justification and inability to be applied to the modern setting.


Gibbs, J. C. (2019). Moral development of reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Haidt (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J., & Hersh, M. A. (2001). Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31. Web.

Kim, M. (2018). The dynamics of moral development: Rethinking what develops and how. In Routledge international handbook of schools and schooling in Asia (pp. 591-599). Routledge.

Mathes, E. W. (2019). An evolutionary perspective on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Current Psychology, 1-14. Web.

McAuliffe, W.H. B. (2019). Do emotions play an essential role in moral judgments? Thinking & Reasoning, 25(2), 207-230.

Turiel. E. (2018). Moral development in the early years: When and how. Human Development, 61(4-5), 297-308. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Moral Development: Rationalist and Intuitionist Perspectives." August 9, 2022.