Moral Development Theory


One’s evolving sense of morality

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-influenced interpretations of prior construals
  • Learner is … a transforming individual
  • Learning is … construing and reconstruing
  • Teaching is … occasioning, prompting, triggering, listening




Moral Development Theory is constructed on the foundation of Cognitive Developmentalisms, positing distinct stages in the emergence of one’s moral judgment. At lower levels, self is at the center and decisions are made on the basis of external considerations, such as threats of punishment or expectations of tit-for-tat. Social considerations arise at middle levels, which are guided by senses of good/bad and feelings of responsibility. Higher levels are oriented by societal, environmental, and other broad concerns, guided by moral principles that are widely applicable.


Since Moral Development Theory is based on Cognitive Developmentalisms (specifically, Jean Piaget's Stage Theory of Cognitive Development), it is subject to the same sorts of criticisms. Moral Development Theory has been especially criticized for gendered and classist assumptions rooted in its original research population of undergraduate males at prominent universities. Perhaps most condemningly, individual persons can demonstrate remarkable diversity in the moral judgments – and so, while such theories might offer typographies of moral decisions, it may be inappropriate to leap from “types” of morality to “stages.”

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Lawrence Kohlberg; Carol Gilligan

Status as a Theory of Learning

As with most Developmental Discourses, Moral Developmental Theory can be construed as a theory of learning, insofar as it offers insight into the emergence of moral judgment.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Moral Developmental Theory is not a theory of teaching, but versions have been used to inform programs intended to support social development among learners. With the growing embrace of collective-based teaching structures over the past few decades, versions of the theory have risen to considerable prominence in some educational contexts.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Moral Development Theory is anchored to a significant evidence base, but subject to diverse – and, some argue, incompatible – interpretations. It also sits in a shadow of unresolved accusations around its research subjects (see “Commentary,” above).

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Moral Development Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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