Your moral compass, the internal code of conduct that guides your decisions and behavior, is a very personal construct. But what, exactly, guides moral development throughout life?
Morals, aka your conscience, are your personal beliefs, standards, and rules you hold yourself accountable to. They guide your choices in life and how you react in a given situation.
Everyone’s moral code is unique, even if there are mutual beliefs and agreed-upon principles. The strength of your convictions also matters: Two people may agree something is an injustice, for example, but perhaps only one feels moved to action.
Morality isn’t something set in stone. It can change as you experience life and gain perspective, but many experts believe the roots of moral development emerge in childhood.
As something intangible and difficult to measure, morality is examined primarily through theory.
It has been a subject of study for ages, pondered on by some of the first philosophers.
Aristotle wrote about morality in his book “Nicomachean Ethics,” where he linked morality with virtue, suggesting morality was identified as a state where good deeds reflected the “good” character of the soul.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud carried on the examination of moral theory in his works. Freud believed morality was fundamentally developed when a child’s naturally selfish needs were corrected or repressed by caregivers.
This framework was expanded on by other experts in the field, such as B.F. Skinner. In the 1920s and 30s, psychologist Jean Piaget also took a deep dive into the development of cognitive thinking.
In terms of moral development, Piaget theorized that children went through two distinct phases of moral existence:
- Heteronomous phase: An unquestioning adherence to rules instilled by caregivers and those in authority.
- Autonomous phase: A realization that rules can be broken, and that the individual must decide under what circumstances to do so would be acceptable.
Kohlberg’s theory of moral development
One of the most prominent models of moral development today is that of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who felt morality was influenced by complex cognitive development and social factors.
“Lawrence Kohlberg developed the most commonly used model for moral development in the 1960s,” says Dr. Ronald Stolberg, a licensed psychologist, and professor in San Diego.
“In contrast to other developmental stage theorists, Kohlberg placed almost no emphasis on a child’s age but rather focused on their responses to moral dilemmas.”
In his moral development theory, Kohlberg identified 6 stages within 3 levels where different factors take primary influence over moral development:
Level 1: Preconventional
- Stage 1: Behavior is shaped by consequences.
- Stage 2: Focus turns to reward-oriented behaviors.
Level 2: Conventional
- Stage 3: Behavior is dictated by social approval.
- Stage 4: Societal rules and laws control behavior.
Level 3: Postconventional
- Stage 5: Individual rights and freedoms dictate behavior.
- Stage 6: Behaviors are influenced by the perceived impact on all those involved.
Becca Smith is a licensed professional counselor from Forney, Texas.
She says “these stages progress from conventional reasoning, where children base their decisions on avoiding punishment and seeking rewards, to conventional reasoning, where individuals consider societal norms and values.”
Smith adds that “the highest stage is post-conventional reasoning, where a person considers individual principles and ethical considerations above laws or social expectations.”
Not everyone necessarily progresses through all stages of their moral development under Kohlberg’s model, she clarifies.
While most models of moral development agree that components of right and wrong are instilled during childhood, mental health can also play a role in someone’s conscience.
“There are several psychiatric disorders that we commonly associate with morality,” says Stolberg. “For children, we use the diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder to describe children that” consistently don’t follow:
For adults, conduct disorder is another diagnosis that comes with the same set of behaviors, says Stolberg, but with an emphasis on negative interactions with law enforcement.
“Finally, we use the diagnoses of anti-social personality disorder to describe an adult who shows little regard for right from wrong and no regard for the feelings or rights of others.”
Dr. Sara Saeedi, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Adler University in Chicago, adds that severe addiction or drug and alcohol use can also compromise morality by increasing impulsivity and impairing decision-making.
“Often people with substance use disorder prefer short-term gains and fail to take into account the long-term consequences of their actions,” she says.
“This is not a reason to excuse wrong behavior but to provide understanding and insight into why people do what they do.”
Children will develop their moral compass (or lack thereof) one way or another, but there are ways you can help guide them during the process.
Modeling is a learning behavior where a child bases their actions or thoughts on what they witness in caregivers around them.
Smith recommends actively engaging in ethical behavior as a way of modeling moral decisions for children. You can then take the opportunity to discuss your behavior and outline how your choice impacted those around you.
Morality vs. ethics
Morality and ethics are not the same things.
“Ethics are a set of rules to guide behavior in general,” indicates Stolberg. “They are agreed upon but are rigid and not very flexible. Morality on the other hand is about right from wrong, regardless of” what is circumstantial:
- ethical responsibility
Your personal morals, for example, may not align with the cultural, spiritual, or group ethics you were raised with.
Saeedi suggests avoiding generalizing behaviors with your child’s identity and instead praising kids in ways that indicate why their behaviors were desirable.
“Praise positive behavior through encouragement and don’t make judgments about a child’s identity,” she says. “For example, instead of saying ‘you’re a good boy,’ use encouraging phrases such as ‘you know when others need help’ or ‘that was a nice thing to do for your classmate.’”
Allowing for redemption
Children may learn through consequences, but Saeedi points out that redemption for poor decisions can help instill the desire to make amends in children.
“For example, say ‘your kicking hurts grandma’ and allow a chance for redemption by providing opportunities for repair and connection like ‘can you apologize to grandma and ask her if she would like a hug in order to feel better.’”
Moral development can happen continually, even as an adult.
Understanding where morality meets ethics
Stolberg says the ultimate goal of an adult developing morality is to abstractly understand why certain laws and rules are necessary for the ultimate good even if they don’t fit your personal moral code.
“By following the rules, you are agreeing to a social contract where everyone has their own opinion but have agreed to follow a set of rules for a greater good,” he says.
Thinking about others
Thinking about how your actions impact others can help you develop deeper morality, says Smith.
She adds, “This involves taking responsibility for actions and considering how they may affect yourself and those around you.”
Morals are a unique mixture of values and beliefs that guide behaviors. While you may start shaping your conscience at a young age, your experiences throughout life can keep that moral code constantly evolving.
Modeling behaviors for your children and encouraging ethical adherence can be ways to encourage moral development early in life.
As an adult, you can help grow your sense of morality by encouraging respect and understanding of the universal good, even if it doesn’t always align with your personal morals.