Piaget and Moral Reasoning 

Before we try to understand Piaget’s concept of moral reasoning, let us consider two illustrations. 

Case Study: Rajat is a very young boy. His younger brother is very hungry, but Rajat has no money left after buying medicine for his mother. His brother starts crying because of hunger. Rajat goes to a snack-stall and requests the shopkeeper to give kachori for his hungry brother. But he refuses. Finally, Rajat becomes desperate and steals two kachoris. He, then, runs out and gives that to his brother. 

Case Study: Shivani goes to a shop. She sees a pretty piece of hair band hanging there in a shelf. She imagines that it would look very nice on her dress. So, while the salesgirl turn back, she steals the hair band and runs away at once. 

Are these children equally guilty? We will try to find the answer after studying Piaget’s theory of moral reasoning. Here, Piaget called such situations as moral dilemmas, the problems that require individual judgments and moral reasoning based on our cognition. Therefore, Jean Piaget developed his theory of moral reasoning. 

He proposed two types of moral reasoning, which are closely related with cognitive development- ‘heteronomous morality’ and ‘autonomous morality’

Heteronomous moralities are those moral decisions which are based on the rules of people with supreme authority such as parents. Children who reason about moral issues using heteronomous morality hardly care about the motives or intentions behind actions. However, this type of moral reasoning may be found in some adults too. 

Besides, another type of moral reasoning is Autonomous morality, which is the ability to reason that appreciates the perspectives of others and the motives behind their words and actions. According to Piaget, autonomous morality develops parallel to the development of the stage of formal operations and abstract thinking. Now, let us answer the question asked above on the moral dilemma regarding the subject of stealing, mentioned in above two short stories. The people of typical heteronomous morality, would respond that Rajat is guiltier than Shivani because two pieces of kachori costs more than a piece of hair band. While, people supporting autonomous morality would respond that Shivani is guiltier because she is being deceitful and Rajat has good intentions of sustaining his younger brother.

Moreover, Piaget’s work on moral reasoning also inspired Lawrence Kohlberg, who too believed that moral reasoning was closely linked to cognitive development. Let us explore Kohlberg’s theory of moral development to find out more. 

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