In my Human Growth and Development class in college we talked a great deal about how we learn the difference between right and wrong. A psychologist by the name of Jean Piaget put forth a theory that between the ages of 5 and 10 years old, children are directed by a “heteronomous” morality or what was termed by Piaget as “Concrete Operational” stage (Berk 16; Table 1.4). This means that they see things in a very black and white point of view, seeing rules as absolutes. Children learn these “rules” from their parents, family members, and religious or educational teachers who they see as godlike authority figures.
From age 10 on through into adolescence, children start seeing things through the perspective of other people. They begin to develop a more self-directed sense of morality. Though children still want to follow the rules to a degree, they begin to see that rules sometimes are not absolute. According to Piaget this was the “Formal Operational” stage (Berk 16; Table 1.4).
A Developmental psychologist by the name of Lawrence Kohlberg expanded on this theory to develop “stages” in which these lessons were learned. Kohlberg felt that “… moral understanding is promoted by the same factors Piaget thought were important for cognitive development…” (Berk 319) He believed that there were three levels of development with various stages in between.
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation – how can punishment be avoided?
2. Self-interest orientation – what’s in it for me and what do I have to do to get it?
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity – what is socially accepted or the good boy/girl attitude
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation – based on law and order morality
Level 3 (Post- Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles – this is the principled sense of right and wrong
There are many theories and ideas on when or how we develop our sense of right and wrong. There are just as many on where we learn them. What is obvious is that as a species we are extremely complex in our behaviors and each of us is responsible for our sense of right and wrong. We are each responsible for acting upon them to have a more fulfilled and meaningful life.