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Explain and Evaluate Two Approaches to Explaining Moral Development Essay

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Moral development is what we consider to be right, wrong, good or bad. It is developed from infancy through to adulthood and is the principles we use to determine what is right or wrong, fair or unfair. Each individual has their own understanding of what morality is, however generally this is determined largely by the culture or society we live in and the rules that we conform to within this society.

In psychology there are many theories around the beliefs of moral development, and how morality is developed from childhood to adulthood. The reason for the different theories is due to the methods, ways of study adopted by the psychologists to study human behaviour. These theories allow us to compare and gives us the opportunity to take into consideration all views and ideas and not to settle for just one argument or approach around this subject.


The aim of this assignment is look at the two different approaches to moral development, firstly the cognitive explanation to moral development by Jean Piaget. Then moving on to the social learning theory, and Bandura’s contribution to how morality develops. Criticisms of these theories will be discussed and evaluations based on the two studies will be made.

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Piaget was the first psychologist to study cognitive development in children. His work dates back to 1932 and his findings stated that morality develops through childhood and adolescence. He believed that children pass through different levels of morality according to their cognitive development. Piaget conducted a number of experiments and from these tests concluded that children up to the age of three or four could not make moral judgements as they were not able to understand rules at this age. He stated, if the children were unable to understand the rules and that they were breaking then they were unable to make moral judgements. He believed that once children could understand the rules, and that they were breaking them then this was the age that moral development began. From his research, this started at the age of about eight years old.

Woods B, (2004 pg.72)

Piaget believed that moral development in children of this age takes place in two stages. Stage one- heterononmous morality described as morality imposed from outside. This is when children see the rules as been made by parents, teachers or God and that they are unchangeable. Morality at this stage is based on moral punishment, you do something wrong and you will be punished. This stage is described by Piaget as the pre-operational stage of development where the child is only able to make his judgement based on the consequence of the action.

The second stage- Autonomous morality described as morality which is based on the child’s own rules is apparent when the child is able to decentre and distinguish the intent behind the action along with the consequence of the action. It is the stage at which children are able to understand that rules are flexible to change and according to the situation. Woods B, (2004 pg.72)

From Piagets experiments he was able to conclude that morality is based on the amount of cognitive development, how intelligent one is. The strengths of Piaget’s theory are that whilst conducting his experiments he did focus on children alone as learners. He contributed hugely to our understanding of education and believed that this was the key to saving our society.

Piaget’s moral theory was described by his experiment with children that involved rules whilst playing a game of marbles. Children under the age of five showed they had no rules, children aged between ages 5-10 saw the rules as fixed and children 10 and above realised the rules and also adopted them by mutual consent.

Moral dilemmas were also presented to children by Piaget to develop his theory further. He gave children a pair of stories where there first child deliberately caused a small amount of damage due to his actions. The second child caused much more damage but his actions were a result of an accident. Piaget asked the children to describe which character deserved to be punished in his attempt to understand children’s reasoning in their answers. His conclusion from his experiment was that younger children focused more on consequences, whilst the older ones took into consideration intent.

From Piaget’s theory we have a greater understanding on the influence of mental processes on behaviour, we have greater understanding on perception and thinking. Along with the above, Piagets theory has had practical benefits such learning skills to improve memory and improving problem solving skills.

Dwyer D & Charles C (2006 pg318)

Both of the above experiments have been criticised. Other theorists have claimed that games of marbles do not represent a child’s entire perception of morality. Piaget’s use of moral dilemmas has also been criticised. It has been claimed that younger children only focused on consequences because the story was narrated, however the results may not have been the same if the stories were watched on video. Younger children may have been better able to consider intentions if they were. Other theorists conducting similar research 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 to be culture specific. It has been said that it is based on moral universals. It has been claimed that the moral development of children in non western cultures may differ from that of the children Piaget investigated. (http://everything2.com/title/Piaget%2527s+theory+of+moral+development)

Critics of Piaget’s theory have also stated that his research was not very scientific, that his findings were biased as he worked alone. Researchers conducting scientific experiments need to have two or more observers; Piaget observed and noted his findings alone. He was criticised for making generalisations with his findings by being culture specific and not taking into account background, tradition and upbringing of each child. An example of this is using clinical interviews to study the thinking of children. His sample size was criticised for being too small and did not give much consideration to social understanding. Due to all the criticisms above regarding Piagets work we can evaluate his theory as weak hence leading to errors in his conclusions.

Haralambos M & Rice D. (pg 522).

Social learning theory approach to moral development is based on the idea that moral development happens as a result of observing and imitation. Albert Bandura 1977 studied this concept and came up with findings that concluded that children learn through recognition, reward and punishment. Social learning theorist, focus particularly on observational learning, imitation, recognition and reward.

Woods B, (2004 pg. 126)

Bandura conducted a number of experiments observing children’s behaviour towards an inflatable doll also called a Bobo doll. The children were separated into groups and the first watched an adult behaving aggressively towards this blown up inflatable doll. This was the aggressive model conditioning. The second group of children, the adult played with the other toys and was the non aggressive model condition. Along with a control group, which included children from the group who had witnessed an adult being violent and aggressive towards the Bobo doll.

This group was then left in a room with a number of toys but not allowed to play with them in an attempt to build up the children’s frustration. The children were later left in a room and results were noted. The children who witnessed the adult being aggressive towards the Bobo doll imitated this behaviour and those from the non aggressive model displayed lower levels of aggression and violence, hence showing that children learn through imitation. (http://psychology.about.com/od/classicpsychologystudies/a/bobo-doll-experiment.htm)

Bandura also believed that children learn from their social environment, this he believed provides models of behaviour and expectations of appropriate behaviour. He believed that children learn through observation, imitation and reinforcement which are all closely linked.

Woods B, (2004 pg. 126)

Along with Piaget’s theory, Bandura’s theory also has its criticisms. Bandura’s social learning theory takes into consideration cognitive learning but concentrates more upon the idea that morality is developed through positive reinforcement, imitation and the social environment. Woods B, (2004 pg. 71)

When evaluating Bandura’s, experiment in attempt to understanding moral development, it is important to point out that the experiments were conducted in a laboratory and hence the results may not be true in the real world. Critics have also pointed out that there may be selection bias as the children in the experiment were all from the same socio economic background, making the results invalid and not true to society.

The long term effect of this experiment is not known as the results were noted immediately, and the reality is very different to an experiment. Even though the children displayed violent behaviour towards the doll this does not prove that they would be violent towards another person. The children could also have demonstrated this behaviour to please the adult, again making the findings of this experiment inaccurate. (http://psychology.about.com/od/classicpsychologystudies/a/bobo-doll-experiment.htm)

The aim of this essay was to explain and evaluate Piaget and Bandura’s theory. Both the theorists have contributed to understanding of moral development in today’s society and both equally face criticisms to their work. The main aspects that have been pointed out and open to attack are that both Bandura and Piaget have given little consideration to feelings, culture and religious beliefs.

There sample was small not allowing general conclusions and findings to be widely acceptable. There experiments have been attacked for not being scientific. They failed to recognise that moral development has different content and meaning in different cultures and moral judgement is hugely influenced by society’s common law and traditions. Parents role and child nourishment are vital in how children and adolescents develop morally. Both Piaget and Bandura failed to take these important points into consideration when conducting their research.

Piaget has studied cognitive development and his contributions are invaluable in the development of today education and the human development theory. Bandura looked more at social learning model one is amongst one of the most influential psychologists of our time. (http://www.sid.ir/en/VEWSSID/J_pdf/97420082403.pdf)

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