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To understand adult morality, Piaget believed that it was necessary to study both how morality manifests in the child’s world as well as the factors that contribute to the emergence of central moral concepts such as welfare, justice, and rights. Interviewing children using the Clinical Interview Method, Piaget (1965) found that young children were focused on authority mandates, and that with age children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality.
He developed two phases of moral development, one common among children and the other common among adults:
The first is the Heteronomous Phase. This phase, more common among children, is characterized by the idea that rules come from authority figures in one's life such as parents, teachers, and God. It also involves the idea that rules are permanent no matter what. Thirdly, this phase of moral development includes the belief that "naughty" behavior must always be punished and that the punishment will be proportional.. This absolutism in moral development is seen in childs play from the age of 5, where they exhibit a blind belief in the rules and ideas of right and wrong passed to them by their elders.
The second phase in Piaget's theory of moral development is referred to as the Autonomous Phase. This phase is more common after one has matured and is no longer a child. In this phase people begin to view the intentions behind actions as more important than their consequences. For instance, if a person who is driving swerves in order to not hit a dog and then knocks over a road sign, adults are likely to be less angry at the person than if he or she had done it on purpose just for fun. Even though the outcome is the same, people are more forgiving because of the good intention of saving the dog. This phase also includes the idea that people have different morals and that morality is not necessarily universal. People in the Autonomous Phase also believe rules may be broken under certain circumstances. For instance, Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, which was against the law but something many people consider moral nonetheless. In this phase people also stop believing in the idea of immanent justice.
- Walsh, Keiron Piaget's Theory of Moral Development. Development of Moral Understanding. URL accessed on 20 July 2011. Dead link.