Moral Development During Adolescence

15 July, 2020
Morality is something that begins to develop during childhood and continues to develop throughout a person's life. However, a critical period takes place during adolescence regarding the acceptance of ethical and social norms. Today, we'll take a closer look at moral development during adolescence.

Adolescence is a period where cognitive development becomes complete and individuals form their own identity. During this stage, young people start to become aware of and assume civil and social norms. With this in mind, we want to take the opportunity to talk about moral development during adolescence.

First, of course, we must define what morality is. Morality is the set of customs and rules that determine which behaviors are appropriate and which actions are unacceptable with society.

“Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”

– Henry D. Thoreau –

Moral development in adolescence

Jean Piaget: Heteronomous and autonomous morality

Psychologist Jean Piaget suggests the existence of two types of morality:

  • Heteronomous morality. This is the type of morality that exists from childhood, where adults impose rules and children obey them out of obligation and obedience. In other words, children don’t question the reason behind their behaviors. Rather, they follow the rules out of respect for authority.
Moral Development During Adolescence

  • Autonomous morality. This type of morality begins to emerge around 11 or 12 years of age, at the beginning of adolescence. During this stage, individuals cease to consider rules as fixed or unchangeable. Rather, young people of this age, through a process of reflection, discussion, and cooperation with their peers, create their own norms. Therefore, they obey these rules out of respect for the agreement they’ve made with others.

So, according to Piaget, adolescents present an autonomous morality, seeking fair and equal treatment for all.

“The relations between parents and children are certainly not only those of constraint. There is spontaneous mutual affection, which from the first prompts the child to acts of generosity and even of self-sacrifice, to very touching demonstrations which are in no way prescribed. And here no doubt is the starting point for that morality of good which we shall see developing alongside of the morality of right or duty, and which in some persons completely replaces it.”

– Jean Piaget –

Lawrence Kohlberg: Levels of moral development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, on the other hand, suggests that moral development occurs from childhood to adulthood on three levels:

  • Preconventional. Social norms are external to one’s self and individuals assume them without understanding their ethics. In this case, people follow rules due to:
    • Fear of possible punishments or consequences.
    • Selfish reasons.

Moral Development During Adolescence

  • Conventional. This phase is characterized by the conformity and internalization of established social agreements. Individuals respect these norms for the following reason:
    • To meet the expectations of those closest to them.
    • To maintain social order.
  • Postconventional. In this final level of moral development, individuals comprehend and accept social norms. However, they also create and construct a series of personal values and principles that guide their own conduct. Therefore, the factors that influence behavior are
    • The fulfillment of a social contract, which also takes into account one’s own judgment.
    • The defense of one’s own principles and individual conscience.

So, according to Kohlberg, most adolescents find themselves on a conventional level of morality. In other words, they try to maintain good behavior for reasons that have to do with social expectations and obedience to the law.

“Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society.”

– Lawrence Kohlberg –

  • Rodríguez, L. M. (2016). Psicología del desarrollo moral en la adolescencia. Un modelo integrativo (Doctoral dissertation, Tesis doctoral). Buenos Aires: Facultad de Psicología y Psicopedagogía de la Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina).
  • Villegas de Posada, C. (1998). Influencia de Piaget en el estudio del desarrollo moral. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología30(2), 223-232.