Thursday, June 25, 2009

Morality- Piaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss Psychologist who studied childhood development and how children develop morality. Through studying children and how they related to the rules of games that they played where he lived, he developed the idea that children move through two stages of morality.

Piaget calls the first stage heteronymous morality. Heteronymous morality is characterized by the child's belief that the rules have their own innate authority, or more simply put, the rules are the rules and that's it. In this stage, children are primarily motivated by a fear of punishment. Piaget believes that this kind of relation to the rules is a result of the child’s relation to people in positions of authority. Since adults are in a position of power over the young children and command that the child know and follow their rules, the child’s primary mode of relating to these rules becomes one of grasping what is given, and using it as his/her own (1932, p. 36).

Piaget calls the second stage autonomous morality. Piaget found that this stage begins to enter in at around age 10. Autonomous morality is characterized by the child's understanding that rules are made by people, for people. The child using autonomous morality is motivated by the spirit of cooperation, and tries to take into account the needs, wants, and feelings of others. Piaget believes that this kind of relation to the rules develops out of cooperative activity between peers in equal relationship, in contrast with the one-way power relationship of authority to child that is present in heteronymous thinking.

So why does this matter? Piaget finds that Heteronymous morality persists to the extent which the individual remains in an unequal relationship with the rules, when the authority of the rules is taken for granted and accepted into the individual’s understanding of their world (these rules are the way the world works- think religious or ideological fundamentalism).
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini walking in f...Image via Wikipedia
Heteronymous morality can persist into adulthood, and is the morality of unequal power. When people give away their own power by following the rules of authority without critical and rational examination, life becomes a game of follow the leader, and depending on the leader, this game can be a very dangerous one. However, when people stand by the spirit of cooperation and the acknowledgement of the rights of others as equals, rules presented by leaders are examined, and ultimately rejected as immoral.

Much of this information was summarized from Piaget's The Moral Judgment of the Child. (1932).
To read selected sections of it, check it out here on google books, or buy it from Amazon!


  1. Interestingly enough, I've found some budding autonomous morality within my 5 year old son, and I believe it may be because we've always allowed him to question the rules, and given him real answers, instead of, because I said so. We've given him incentive to participate in household processes and in following the rules, in order for him to make choices, and to motivate without using fear. Of course we're not perfect, of course we will sometimes use threats (stop whining or it's bed time, put that down or you're going inside), but we will often allow him to find out about the natural consequences of not following the rules, as well (oh, you fell off your slide and hurt yourself because you disobeyed and sprayed it with water? i'm sure it hurts, but you're in one piece, and you DID do what we told you not to, and that's exactly WHY we told you not to.)

    I don't think that we're the paragons of mental health, or that our son is either, but it's nice to see something budding in him, and compassion and empathy along with it.

  2. It's so cool that you're seeing that already. I have a feeling that, like you said, it is possible in younger children than Piaget found, and I think that it's exactly treating your child as his own person who's capable of learning and reasoning that helps foster this attitude!

  3. This is Rick from

    Nice... “…a rational person, one has an insight into the validity of the underlying principles and has committed oneself to them.” Lawrence Kohlberg’s system of Morality page 71

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