Early Childhood Development – How Does Morality Come About?

We make innumerable moral judgments every day without even realizing it. But how are we able to make such judgments? Why are we able to classify something as good or bad, as moral or immoral?

  1. Basis: first terms
  2. Separation of morals, ethics and morality
  3. The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget
  4. The child’s contact with their environment
  5. Starting point: heteronomous behavior
  6. Transitional phase: departure to autonomy
  7. Morality as the final phase: autonomy and reflection
  1. What do morals, ethics and morality mean?
  2. What was Jean Piaget’s goal?
  3. How does Piaget subdivide the phases of child development and what distinguishes them?
  4. What characterizes moral competence?
  5. In what way and on what basis does moral competence arise?

Basis: first terms

Before we dive into the individual stages of child development and thus devote ourselves to the development of morals, we should briefly cover some basic concepts of ethics. These will appear again and again in the article and in many other places, which is why we should already know what we mean when we talk about morals and ethics.

What is the difference between these two concepts, morality and ethics? First of all, you have to realize that there is no such thing as one perfect borderline. In the history of philosophy many distinctions have been made, which are better or worse depending on the line of thought and conception. At this point I would like to quickly draw your attention to a modern proposal.

Separation of morals, ethics and morality

A very common definition of ‘morality’ is as follows:  A morality is a finite-historical form of freedom that is essential to man and as such requires constant justification and legitimation through the concept of morality. [1, p.45]

Morality is therefore a concept of order, that is, a set of statements which in this case have a moral character and are supported by the concept of morality. Perhaps one could already say that it includes something like a set of rules. But what does morality mean?

Morality is the willingness to be good that has become a fixed basic attitude, which has made the unconditional claim of freedom its own and the horizon of meaning in all practice. Anyone who acts from this basic attitude has moral competence. What happens out of morality is rightly considered moral, even if such a concretization of freedom in borderline cases violates the norms of a factually applicable morality. [ibid.]

Morality is nothing more than the awareness of moral action, which – as we shall see shortly – plays a central role in the development of morality. It goes beyond knowing rules (a specific moral) and observing them, because just because you follow moral rules does not mean you act morally.

Finally, we still have to classify the concept of ethics correctly. This is not difficult now, as we have already laid the foundation. Ethics has morality and morality as its subject. While morality is a system of rules, ethics goes beyond any morality and examines this system of rules as a philosophical discipline. So ethics is a theory of morality that has the relationship between morality and morality in mind.

The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget

The Swiss biologist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) set himself the task of genetically explaining the moral in children. With “genetic” Piaget did not mean the mere biological meaning in the sense of hereditary programmed, but rather in the sense of genesis (ancient Greek:  γένεσις – genesis – birth, development, origin).

So he wanted to limit the various stages of a child’s development and, with this classification, provide an explanation for the emergence of moral judgment. His research led him to a total of four stages in a child’s development from birth to the age of sixteen. [see. 2, p.100]

According to Piaget, there are two central aspects to consider: (1) the gradual reflection of structures and (2) the decentering [ibid.]. In simple terms, the first aspect means that every child first comes into the world without reflection and then gradually learns to consciously grasp and rethink intuitive behavior and instructions.

The second aspect means that every child learns on a simple level of action at the beginning, but transcends it as development progresses – an abstraction takes place:  First the things themselves and their internal relationships are worked out, then the relationships between things and finally the Relationships between entire structural systems. [2, p.101]

These two basic schemes of child development are central to our following considerations on the development of moral judgment. So let’s start with the first phase.

The child’s contact with their environment

As soon as the child is able to correctly classify more complex perceptions of the environment and enter into a relationship of interaction, a split necessarily begins – a first conflict with the world.

Simply put, this is due to the fact that the child is quickly confronted with impossibilities in all sorts of acts where he tries to impose his direct will on the world . Such barriers are important principles of the experience between I and the world.

The child learns very early in life that they cannot achieve everything they want unhindered. In this way it encounters the concept of rule. But rule is not just what parents say. In much more general terms, it denotes the innumerable processes of the entire world.

As a result, there are quite simply goals or wishes that are actually not desirable (e.g. touching the hotplate), but of course also those that have been forbidden by an authority – usually the parents. The child learns to differentiate between the following criteria:

    1. Commanded: You should
    2. Allowed: You can
    3. Prohibited: You should or must not

Every morality is a system of rules, and the essence of every morality consists only in the respect which the individual feels for these rules. The child receives the moral rules which he learns to observe, for the most part from the adults, that is, in a finished form. [3, p.7]

As long as the child is an apparatus for obeying enforced rules, it is impossible to speak of moral judgment, for obeying rules is far from equating with moral behavior. This receptive stage of child development is therefore not yet the stage of morality.

Starting point: heteronomous behavior

Piaget introduces a second distinction, for the reason mentioned above, namely that between awareness of a rule and the practice of a rule. The awareness of the rule is now the transition to moral competence. However, every child initially only learns the practice of the rule, i.e. stupid observance.

This observance is of course heteronomous, that is, externally determined. Piaget sums this up very aptly: We will describe as moral realism the tendency of the child to regard the duties and the values ​​relating to them as separate, independent of consciousness, and, as it were, compulsory. [3, p.121]

In its original form, mandatory morality is heteronomous. To be good means to obey the will of the adult. Be bad, act on your own head. [3, p.221]

Transitional phase: departure to autonomy

This second phase of external determination (the first phase was the total inability to assess one’s environment) is followed by a transition to autonomy. Now, if the child obeys a rule, it no longer obeys because of the rule of authority, but rather because the rule so commands.

This is where the two central aspects of reflection and decentering come into play. The rules are generalized and detached from concrete circumstances – an abstraction is created. The child is only aware that the rule “you should not steal” is not a rule that is only directed in one direction by the parents at them, but is a general rule.

Rules are also beginning to apply to parents (the original source of all rules). The child now obeys the rule primarily because it has learned through direct experience that the rule is not something that belongs only one-sidedly to the domain of the adults, but is the product of a common practice [1, p.19].

(1) Initially a one-sided (heteronomous) relationship
(2) Generalization of the rule as an abstraction
(3) The rule is the product of a common practice, i.e. it applies to all.

The rules are a product of the common practice of social interaction

This transition phase introduces the actual moral competence. An awareness of the rule arises: this is the level of autonomous morality at which the child is able to critically examine rules for their morality. [1, p.19].

Morality as the final phase: autonomy and reflection

This long, arduous and fragile process of development ultimately leads to the goal: moral competence. The most important point is the abstraction and reflection of the rules that one had previously only followed by someone else. Piaget also emphasizes this:

In order for a behavior to be called moral, it requires more than an external agreement of its content with that of the generally recognized rule: it also belongs to the fact that the consciousness strives for morality as an autonomous good and is itself capable of value to judge all the rules that are suggested to him. [3, p.458]

In summary, the conclusion on this extremely important topic with regard to the larger context of a social community can be drawn as follows:  The real moral insight, however, consists in the fact that such rules are not understood as an externally imposed coercion, but as a guarantee of the greatest possible freedom for all Members of the Action Community. Only a rule that ensures this is a moral rule.


by Abdullah Sam
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