Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct; moral quality or character; a doctrine or system of morals.
There are a couple more definitions, but I think you begin to see that this is not a clear-cut topic. From an empirical viewpoint, each of the theories I will discuss--Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan--suffer from shortcomings of data collection. Piaget's work is based on observation, both naturalistic and laboratory. Both Kohlberg and Gilligan based their work on interviews; Kohlberg interviewed only males and Gilligan interviewed only females. Other researchers attempting to reconcile these shortcomings have found that there is very little statistical difference between morality of males and females. In other words, I am going to take the viewpoint that the moral reasoning of both males and females is a developmental process that occurs over time. As such, I will present the theories without gender-specific leanings. It is possible that either gender, with no gender identity issues involved, may follow the pattern set forth by either one of these theorists. With all of this disclaiming out of the way, let us first take a look at Piaget's proposed development of moral reasoning. But first, here is one more definition to clear the way.
Moral development: changes in a sense of justice and of right and wrong; changes in behavior related to moral issues; changes in reasoning behind judgment of one's own and others' behaviors
Piaget: Jean Piaget is the foremost pioneer in researching cognitive development of children. As this was his primary focus, he saw moral behavior as a reasoning or cognitive process that also developed as the child's mental abilities increased. I will note that one of the main criticisms, possibly limitations, of Piaget's theory is that he seemed to stop with early adolescence--roughly age 11-13--so it appears as if he believed that all cognitive development and moral reasoning was determined by the onset of puberty. I will not be using age ranges here, except in the most broad sense.
Stage 1: Heteronomous Morality--children seem overly concerned with rules. These rules are unchangeable, having been generated by "someone higher" than the child. Breaking a rule is expected to be followed by immediate punishment, with no exceptions. Even if the child unintentionally breaks a rule, it is expected that they will receive the same punishment as someone who willingly attempts to circumvent them. Ignorance or meaning well is no excuse. Children in this stage become irate not only when a rule is violated but also when that violation goes unpunished.
Stage 2: Incipient Cooperation--children are more social and take the time to learn the rules before starting an activity. If there is a question about an unclear rule or if a situation arises that is not covered by preexisting rules, then the children will work together to generate the needed rule. Everyone will then be expected to follow the new rule, as well as all other established rules, and punishment for rule-breaking is expected to be handed out to all in an equal manner. In other words, your reason for breaking a rule is still not important, only whether or not you follow the rules.
Stage 3: Autonomous Cooperation--older children are fully aware that rules are created by people and, as people themselves, they can change the rules as long as everyone involved agree to them. At this stage, Piaget noted that motives become more important in determining punishment. If a child breaks a rule because it is unfair, then the rule may be rewritten. However, if a child breaks a rule to gain an unfair advantage--to cheat--then that child should be punished.
Piaget reasoned that a child's view of the rules evolved as their cognitive abilities increased. In the earlier stages of childhood, he reasoned, children have to see things in an absolutist sense because they are not yet capable of seeing the world from different perspectives. They can barely grasp two concepts--before and after, then and now, etc.--at the same time, so they can only understand the black-and-white perspective of following the rules versus not following them. As a child grows in their ability to see more possibilities and to see the world through the eyes of others, they come to see rules as more malleable because they may not have been created to cover every possible contingency. They understand that the world is more complex and that they need to be more flexible to fit in with this complexity.
Kohlberg: Lawrence Kohlberg studied under Piaget. As a result, you might be able to see the influence of Piaget's cognitive development theory on Kohlberg's expansion. Again, Kohlberg's initial research was limited by the fact that he interviewed only male subjects. He presented each person (ages ranging from under 5 to adulthood) with somewhat ambiguous moral scenarios and then asked them a series of questions to determine their reasoning behind their answers. Kohlberg was not concerned about what each subject saw as morally right or wrong behavior, but rather, the reasoning behind their judgements. Incidentally, subsequent researchers who included both males and females found that there was statistically no significant difference between the genders in each of the levels I will describe in a moment. In other words, the reasoning remained similar, regardless of one's gender. The end result is one of the most commonly-taught stage theories about moral development. Kohlberg proposed 3 levels, each with 2 stages or "orientations" (some may even see them as sub-levels), of development for moral reasoning. He did speculate that less than 10% of the adult population would be found in the highest level/orientation, though.
Level 1: Pre-conventional morality--behavior is judged based on the consequences, i.e. whether you are punished or rewarded.
Orientation/sub-level 1-1: Punishment-Obedience. As long as you don't get caught, you are doing nothing wrong. If you are rewarded, then you must have done something right.
Orientation/sub-level 1-2: Instrumental Exchange. Behavior is not "bad" if you gain some sort of benefit from it (the "What's in it for me?" mentality). If the benefit is worth any potential risk of punishment, then the behavior is considered acceptable. If, however, the payout does not compensate for negative consequences, then the behavior is wrong.
Level 2: Conventional morality--behavior is judged based on its fit with society's norms and expectations.
Orientation/sub-level 2-1: Good Child. Motivation behind one's behavior is the primary factor that is judged when determining whether you did wrong or right. If you meant well, then any negative results (e.g. broken items or hurt feelings) are mitigated by your intent and you weren't being bad so much as making a mistake. This is much more forgivable at this stage. If, on the other hand, you had malicious intent, then it is expected that you will receive the full extent of the punishment warranted by the behavior and its outcome. Children in this orientation also start to think ahead toward establishing a particular reputation among their peers and authority figures. If they wish to be seen as a "good child," then they will attempt to follow rules and engage in more pro-social behaviors. If, on the other hand, they feel that they will gain more respect, more benefits, from being a "troublemaker" or "bad child," then they will act out and break rules to gain this peer approval.
Orientation/sub-level 2-2: Law and Order. Children (and most adults, according to Kohlberg) begin to advocate following society's rules in order to maintain the general good. An understanding develops for the child of this abstract concept of fairness. The idea of what is fair moves from what is most beneficial or convenient to the individual to what is more equitable to the majority. Fairness occurs when all individuals receive the same or similar results for the same or similar behaviors. As such, individuals in this orientation partially internalize local laws. The idea of "it's the law, so I must obey it" begins to take root. Individuals who break the law are seen as "bad" people and are expected by people in this orientation to receive the "just" punishment for their crime. Yes, motivation is still a factor. This is why a decree of manslaughter has a lesser sentence than premeditated murder. Yet, in both cases a life was taken, so in both cases punishment is expected by people in the Law and Order orientation.
Level 3: Post-conventional morality--behavior and judgment of the morality of behavior is based on an internalized moral code. This moral code is influenced by one's earlier development, by the society in which they were raised, by their parents and other family members, by peers and authority figures, by media influences, and by any other experiences to which they were exposed throughout one's life. Ultimately, all of these factors come together to form a uniquely personal internalized moral code. As individuals understand even more abstract reasoning and see that the world is much more complex than black-and-white, or even the basic primary colors of the rainbow, they see that there are many factors that make each behavior, each situation unique and subject to its own "rules" for judgement at that moment.
Orientation/sub-level 3-1: Social Contract. An individual in this orientation sees society as a mutually agreed-upon contract between each of its members. If the majority of the society believes a rule has a purpose and they agree to its value, then violators of said rule will be punished with the agreed-upon consequences of breaking it. If enough people question the rule, if one does not understand why the rule is in place, then the society needs to come together to explain itself or to rewrite the rule with a more rational explanation. This is also true if the punishment does not fit the crime. When a law is completely unjust, especially to a large portion of that particular society, then individuals in this orientation feel it is not only right, but also their moral duty, to protest or violate that particular law until it is eradicated or rewritten so that all individuals are subject to it in the same way.
Orientation 3-2: Universal Ethics. This is quite possibly the most difficult to identify without careful analysis of the reasoning presented, and even then it can only be determined after eliminating the possibility that the individual is operating at a previous level or orientation. This could be why Kohlberg believed that very few individuals would reach this level of moral reasoning. In this orientation, the guiding force for one's moral behavior and reasoning is an internal code that the individual developed over time through their various experiences. This code may be influenced by the logic of society or by a religious ethical code. However, it is considered uniquely personal to the individual and it is much more adaptable, while at the same time paradoxically less malleable in some circumstances, than the "codes" found in previous orientations. Any time society's rules come in conflict with this internal moral code, the individual's code will trump the rules. This will occur for people in this orientation even if following their internal ethics will result in punishment for doing so. The thing about this orientation is that you can find people on both sides of the controversial topics who are using the same kind of reasoning. Each side as determined that they are right because of their personal perspectives. This is what makes many topics controversial. This is also why it is considered the highest form of moral reasoning--it is both adaptable (based on individual circumstances) and absolutist (what is right is right) at the same time.
The confusion about the final sub-level--its malleability and rigidity--adds to the difficulty in placing an individual at this highest level of reasoning. In all other levels and orientation, it becomes clear to see who is "right" and who is "wrong" and to determine the consequences of the behavior. Aside from the gender issue, which I stated was proven to be mostly smoke and mirrors, the other main criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it emphasizes western ideals of justice and fairness. Collectivist ideals, the argument goes, would place more emphasis on what is right for the greater good of the whole unit or society. This would place collectivist reasoning in the Law and Order or the Social Contract orientation, however, so I don't see it as being completely dismissed. One could also argue that the idea of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few" is also a universal ethics concept if presented with the right reasoning. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why we continue to teach Kohlberg's theory when discussing the development of moral reasoning. Note that he doesn't talk about the development of moral behavior, but about the thought processes behind taking action and judging the actions of others. This is a very important distinction. One can understand what is morally right and still behave immorally.
By the way, here are a couple more definitions to help before I discuss the last of the main moral development theories.
Amoral: to have no morals, neither moral nor immoral. To have no concept of right or wrong or to not care whether one's behaviors are right or wrong.
Immoral: to be the opposite of moral. To choose to behave in a way that is contrary to a set moral code.
Gilligan: Carol Gilligan's biggest criticism of both Piaget's and Kohlberg's theories is also her criticism of all psychological theory, especially the psychoanalysts such as Freud and Eriksson. That is to say she believed that psychology treated women as aberrant second-class citizens because most of the work was done by men studying men. Yes, she was one of the pioneers of feminism in psychology. I want to note, however, that Freud's work was based on almost all women patients. Just some food for thought; I know the Freud debate is a colossal can of worms. Regardless, Gilligan proposed that females developed their moral reasoning along a different path from those proposed by Piaget or Kohlberg. She, too, has three stages, but she also proposed transitional states between them. Once again, I am only using the most general terms concerning age and once again I am not using gender-related terms.
Stage 1: Orientation toward individual survival. The individual thinks about what is best for their self. Almost all behavior is seen by others as being selfish. To the individual, if they get what they want, then they are right.
Transition 1-2: Individual begins to move from completed selfishness to understanding responsibility to others. Behaviors begin to be shaped by a consideration of the consequences one's behavior has for others and may be modified in order to reduce the impact of a purely selfish act.
Stage 2: Goodness as self-sacrifice. The individual sees that one must sacrifice one's own wishes for the needs and wants of others. This is a complete reversal of the first stage, almost as if the person is compensating for their earlier selfishness.
Transition 2-3: Individual begins to move from an absolute view of goodness to a modified view of truth. The needs of both the individual and others are taken into consideration when determining a course of action.
Stage 3: Morality of nonviolence. Any behavior that could harm anyone, either one's self or others, is seen as wrong. This, according to Gilligan, is a more sophisticated form of reasoning that places all humans on the same level. Compromise and mutual agreement seem to be the goals of this stage. It is considered moral behavior if everyone is satisfied and no one is harmed in the process.
While Gilligan did open our eyes to the possibility that women are socialized differently compared to men, subsequent research shows that there really is very little difference between the genders in terms of the moral developmental process. Both men and women seem to progress through
their moral development in similar ways. Research has even shown that there is very little difference between cultures when you break down the reasoning behind what is determined to be wrong or right behaviors. That is the essence of these theories: the development of the reasoning process, not the development of particular behaviors.
[Side note: at the time that Gilligan made her claims, there was a significant difference in the way children were socialized based on their genders. However, as time moved forward, society began to treat the genders more equally. As a result, any gender differences that may have existed were slowly being eradicated through equal treatment. Similar patterns can be noted when comparing cultures. Earlier research claiming differences in development based on culture were conducted when cultures were very distinct and has little contact with one another. As globalization and exposure to more cultures increased, these differences began to disappear.]
A critical thinker would be able to see the similarities between each of these three theories and conclude that what they all have in common is that the idea of morality evolves as an individual's ability to grasp new concepts changes and as that individual is exposed to more of the world, including different perspectives and new ideas. What a person determines to be morally right or wrong, to be punishable or excusable, is influenced by the level of reasoning at which that person can be found. Before you judge whether or not someone is moral, amoral, or immoral, perhaps you might consider the reasoning the person gives for their behavior, as well as your reasoning in judging them.