Three Theories of Moral Development

Psychologists seek to understand and identify why people behave the way they behave. Behaviours result from thoughts, which are influenced by certain factors and this is what psychologists seek to understand and analyse. Nevertheless, even though beliefs may determine one’s actions, beliefs alone cannot predict actions; similarly, actions alone cannot predict beliefs. Therefore, other factors contribute to actions that are considered right or wrong by a given set of people or society thus raising the issue of morality. The relativity of ‘morality’ has given rise to several theories of moral development like biological, learning, and developmental theories addressing the question of morality.

Biological theories of moral development indicate that people are moral or immoral due to some biological predispositions. Human brain is divided into four different lobes and psychologists argue that frontal lobe, which is involved in conscious thinking plays a key role in moral development. Feelings of empathy, guilt, shame, and all forms of mood are controlled in this lobe. Coincidentally, these feelings determine morality thus determine moral development. Brain activity differs with sex and research shows that women are more inclined to these moral feelings of empathy and relationships than men are. Therefore, morality may result from biological predispositions.

In learning theories, psychologists indicate that people behave in a given way based on rewards. Learning theorists hold that children learn what they are taught and this encompasses behaviours, values and morals. People can learn through modelling by emulating the people they look up to or identify with. Moreover, morals can be learned through reinforcement where people behave morally due to rewards attached to good behaviours. Repeated praise or reward would make someone behave morally for long time and with time; this becomes a habit and eventually behaviour and way of life. Learning theorists also argue that people behave morally to conform to their beliefs for they cannot bear the discomfort that accompanies behaviours that contradict their beliefs. This is called cognitive dissonance. According to learning ideologues, people behave in a way that would reward them even in altruistic behaviours. This theory does not acknowledge universalism and absolutism; it holds that moral truth exists in the context of human constructions, that which they know.

On the other hand, developmental theories claim that people develop morally just the way they develop physically and emotionally. According to these theorists, people develop morally and they can only be socially mature when they can compromise some of their desires for the sake of other people’s needs. Kohlberg puts this theory into three levels each with two stages viz. pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional levels. These stages show qualitative differences as opposed to quantitative differences in modes of thinking. Each stage asserts how cognitive development is integrated in moral growth. For instance, in stage one, individuals concentrate on how they can avoid punishment and in the process behave morally. Additionally, people will behave morally if they are to get something good from this behaviour. In stage three, people behave morally because they want to conform to societal settings while in stage four authority drives morality; the conventional level of moral development. Finally, in post-conventional level people do what is right, based on issues that promote common good for all even if it means changing laws to achieve this. In stage six, people utilize universal ethics to determine what is good or wrong. No one can bypass any of these stages; however, not everyone achieves the highest stage.

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"Three Theories of Moral Development." PsychologyWriting, 7 Aug. 2023,


PsychologyWriting. (2023) 'Three Theories of Moral Development'. 7 August.


PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Three Theories of Moral Development." August 7, 2023.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Three Theories of Moral Development." August 7, 2023.


PsychologyWriting. "Three Theories of Moral Development." August 7, 2023.