Stages of Moral Development and the Family

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 1, 1997 - Pages 109-126

In seeking to understand human development, one of the important issues is whether there are stages in development; and if so, what is the nature of the stages and, perhaps more importantly, the relationship between them. Jean Piaget, the eminent Swiss developmental psychologist who spent his life pursuing the goal of discovering how knowledge grows,[1] presented a stage model for the development of many cognitive abilities, including moral judgment.[2] However, unlike the stages in development of cognitive abilities, Piaget saw moral development more as a “two world” theory than as a theory of true stages. Many researchers, however, both past and present, such as James Mark Baldwin,[3] Lawrence Kohlberg,[4] Carol Gilligan,[5] Larry Nucci[6] and Elliot Turiel[7] generally assume that there are stages of moral development while disagreeing on their actual nature.

Unification Thought,[8] a new philosophical system, has been shown to be compatible with Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology, while at the same time providing new insights into some of its limitations.[9] In this article, issues in moral development are examined from the viewpoint of Unification Thought, which regards relationships developed within the family as the basis for moral judgments.


1. Stages in Development

First, let us look at the concept of stages in development. Although this concept is probably the best known of Piaget’s ideas and seems to be central to his theory, in reviewing his work it becomes apparent that he has not in fact written a great deal about the stage concept.[10] However, since much of Piaget’s writing is based on the raw material of his work and it is very hard for the reader to grasp the concepts involved, as he himself acknowledged,[11] this lack of quantity does not make his position on stages less clear. In the book summarizing his work on child psychology, Piaget concludes:

Basically, the mental development of the child appears as a succession of three great periods. Each of these extends the preceding period, reconstructs it on a new level, and later surpasses it to an ever greater degree.[12]

Further explanation reveals three characteristics of stages:

(1) Their order of succession is constant… (2) Each stage is characterized by an overall structure in terms of which the main behavior patterns can be explained… (3) These overall structures are integrative and non-interchangeable. Each results from the preceding one, integrating it as a subordinate structure, and prepares for the subsequent one, into which it is sooner or later itself integrated.[13]

Gruber and Vonèche, in their anthology of Piaget’s work, include the definition of stages of intellectual development given by Piaget at a symposium in Geneva in 1955:

In this special domain, . . . I will call stages those divisions that display the following characteristics:

(1) If we are to speak of stages, the order of succession of acquisitions must be constant. Not the timing, but the order of succession…

(2) The integrative character of stages: the structures constructed at a given age become an integral part of the structures of the following age…

(3) We have always sought, together with Inhelder, to characterize a stage, not by the juxtaposition of unrelated properties, but by a structure of the whole (structure d’ensemble)…

(4) A stage includes a level of preparation on the one hand, and of completion on the other…

(5) But as the preparation of later acquisitions can bear on more than one stage… it is necessary to distinguish, in every sequence of stages, the processes of formation or the genesis and the forms of final equilibrium… I would like finally to emphasize the notion of décalage… We will speak of horizontal décalages when the same operation is applied to different contents… A vertical décalage, on the other hand, is the reconstruction of a structure by means of other operations.[14]

Thus, Piaget believed that intellectual, or cognitive, development proceeds through stages which occur in a constant order, universally regardless of culture, that are integrated hierarchically from one stage to the next, and which consist of a number of elements which taken together form a particular structure. Within each stage there are preparation (processes of formation) and completion (forms of final equilibrium) levels, and there may also be repetitions of the formative processes (known as horizontal and vertical décalages). Note that Piaget does not claim that all development is characterized by stages. In fact, he makes clear that stages so defined are found in the development of intellectual operations but not in other domains such as perception and language, in which there is “a continuity which one can divide up according to some agreed upon convention, but which presents no distinct and natural divisions.”[15]


2. An Overview of Theories of Moral Development

Given the current interest in moral education, especially following the emergence of the character education movement,[16] we have become aware of the need for a clear understanding of the development of moral reasoning. It is generally accepted that moral reasoning, i.e. the ability to judge whether actions are “good” or “bad,” is more substantial than behavior, since “good” behavior can be achieved based on many different levels of understanding. This section provides a brief overview of the foundational and current theories in this field.[17]

In his work on moral development, Piaget noted two types of morality: a morality of constraint or heteronomy, and a morality of cooperation or autonomy.[18] Heteronomous morality, which appears first, is characterized by unilateral respect for parents or authorities and the rules they prescribe, coupled with obedience to authority and authority-made rules. Autonomous morality, which develops later, is characterized by mutual respect among peers or equals, coupled with conformity based on identification with shared goals and concern for approval of others. However, Piaget did not believe that these two types of morality constitute true stages of development. His reasons included the observation that the two moralities originate in two different sorts of social relationships, namely, those involving unilateral and mutual respect. He also noted that, although the two types are age-dependent, a gradual predominance of the autonomous type over the heteronomous type of morality emerges, rather than a qualitative transformation from one to the other.

On the other hand, Piaget described three stages in the development of distributive justice in the child: (1) until 7-8 years, when justice is subordinated to adult authority, (2) between 8-11 years, a period of progressive equalitarianism, and (3) from 11-12 years, when purely equalitarian justice is tempered by considerations of equity.[19]

Thus, Piaget’s work on moral development includes the notion of stages, but rather than a single set of stages there are two types of morality, heteronomous and autonomous. The latter is considered by Piaget to be a higher and more desirable state of development than the former. There is also an indication that the development of these two types of morality proceeds through stages, albeit they may not be “stages properly so called.”[20]

The person who brought the field of moral development to the attention of the world is Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg devoted himself to the study of moral development in research for his doctoral dissertation (completed at the University of Chicago in 1958). His methodology was designed to isolate Piaget’s heteronomous and autonomous types by using moral dilemmas, which pitted conformity to authority or rules against fairness in the form of equality, reciprocity and human rights. The results led him to produce a six-stage model,[21] based more heavily on James Mark Baldwin’s theory than on Piaget’s, although the two dimensions of heteronomy and autonomy were later integrated as the two sub-stages in the three major periods. Kohlberg’s six stages are defined as follows:

Pre-conventional Level

1 - punishment and obedience orientation

2 - instrumental relativist orientation

Conventional Level

3 - interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation

4 - “law and order” orientation

Post-conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level

5 - social-contract legalistic orientation

6 - universal ethical principle orientation

At the pre-conventional level moral judgments are characterized by a concrete, individual perspective. The stage 1 heteronomous orientation focuses on avoiding punishment by obedience, while stage 2 involves the early emergence of moral reciprocity in which rules are followed when they are in one’s own interest. Individuals at the conventional level understand that norms and conventions are necessary for the functioning of society, and view morality as acting in accordance with these societal norms. Stage 3 is limited to the immediate society made up of the family and local community; the individual seeks to be good in the eyes of local authority. Stage 4 expands to the larger social system of civic duty and obedience to the law for the sake of public good. The post-conventional level is characterized by reasoning based on principles, which underlie rules and norms apart from the authority of those holding these principles. Stage 5 focuses on general individual rights and standards agreed upon by the whole society; stage 6 is based on universal, abstract, ethical principles of justice which respect the dignity of all human beings. [22]

Kohlberg, like Piaget, was not concerned with the moral behavior of his subjects, but rather their reasoning about issues involving moral judgments. His theory is based on the cognitive developmental approach, which articulates a stage sequence from the immature, young child to the mature, adult form of reasoning. Critics of this type of approach note that the so-called adult form of reasoning is often not used by adults, and even appears rather unattractive as the goal of development.[23] In the moral domain, the issue of whether there are higher and lower stages of morality, implying a goal to be achieved by all, is a serious question. In fact, Kohlberg’s final sixth stage failed to receive empirical support in later work, but rather appears as a logical construction necessary to complete his theory. Additionally, further research revealed many anomalies in the order of responses by adolescents, leading the to the proposal of a transitional stage that is post-conventional but not yet principled. These facts, coupled with attacks on stage theory in cognitive development, have generated great controversy and large amounts of research aimed at supporting or refuting his model.

Carol Gilligan, a colleague of Kohlberg, raised the issue of gender in moral development, noting that Kohlberg’s studies included only males. She provided empirical support for her theory that a morality of care and responsibility predominates among females. She also proposed a sequence of three stages: (1) caring for the self in order to ensure survival, (2) the “maternal” ethic that assumes responsibility for others’ welfare and values care and responsibility for others, and (3) the realization that the self also needs care and the understanding of the interconnection between other and self.[24] Later research suggested, though, that the two types of moral reasoning do not follow such distinct gender lines.

Elliot Turiel, in an effort to resolve anomalies in the stage sequence that appeared in many studies, developed the domain theory of development. He draws a distinction is between the domains of morality and social convention, conceiving them as distinct parallel developmental frameworks, rather than a single system as Kohlberg assumed. Turiel’s research over the past twenty years led him to conclude that social development includes coordinating understanding from several different domains, such as moral universals, cultural or social norms, and matters of personal choice.[25] He notes that moral judgments are based on concepts of harm, welfare, and fairness and are focussed on the well being of others. Social conventions, on the other hand, provide the basis for predictable social exchanges within a group, and are structured by the individual’s understanding of social organization. Thus, contrary to Kohlberg’s stage theory, in which attention to convention was seen as characteristic of the lower stage of moral reasoning, the development of understanding social convention is seen as a separate, but coexisting, domain of development.

However, as Larry Nucci points out, separating the understanding of morality and convention does not deny that development occurs in both domains. Thus, young adolescents do not regard behavior that breaks social convention (such as wearing a bathing suit to a funeral) as wrong, whereas older adolescents, who had constructed an understanding of the role of conventions in the social system, viewed the violation of such conventions as having moral consequences (showing lack of respect to the deceased and to the grieving family) and therefore as wrong.[26]

In his cross-cultural research of Hindu culture, Richard Shweder identifies three “culturally coexisting discourses of morality.” He describes them as follows: the ethics of autonomy, which is based on concepts of harm, rights, and justice related to the person as a self-contained individual; the ethics of community, based on concepts of duty, hierarchy, interdependency, and the role and status of the person in relation to other members of the community; and the ethics of divinity, which expresses the belief that a sacred order is immanent in the world and protects the spiritual aspects of the person from degradation. He suggests that “there may be some advantage in possessing multiple discourses for covering the complexities of such an important area of human experience as ethics.”[27]

We may note that in Nucci’s and Shweder’s research, issues involving violation of social convention are also seen as moral issues. Shweder illustrates this point by the example of people’s attitudes toward a certain widow in the community who ate fish two or three times a week.[28] For the Indian Brahmans, this was a very serious violation because widows should devote themselves to their deceased husbands and not eat food (such as fish) which is believed to stimulate sexual appetite and lead them to have sexual relations with other men. For Americans, on the other hand, a rule making it wrong for widows to eat fish would be considered a violation of the widow’s personal freedom to choose what to eat. Shweder and his colleagues note that in both cases the judgment of this item had really nothing to do with fish, but rather reflected the participants’ moral view of the widow’s moral rights and responsibilities. Shweder concludes:

The differentiation of moral events from conventional events is not necessarily a developmental universal and the distinction between morality and convention, useful as it is within certain cultural worldviews, may well be culture-specific… Within a culture like our own where the morality versus convention distinction does play a part, there are undoubtedly events that fall on the boundaries or partake of both domains, and it is relevant and important to ask the question proposed by Turiel, Nucci, and Smetana, “Which are the pure moral or conventional events and which are the mixed events?” Within orthodox Hindu culture, however, the relevant question may well be, “Are any events purely conventional?”[29]


The final issue with regard to moral development that will be addressed in this article was raised by Joseph Reimer, another colleague of Kohlberg. Reimer points out that Piaget had a negative view of the role that parents play in their children’s moral development, seeing the unequal relationship between child and adult as a necessary evil not designed to promote moral development.[30] Kohlberg believed that family life played no role in moral development, as evidenced by studies of children raised on an Israeli kibbutz. However, Reimer, a co-worker on that project, notes that the kibbutz is not a non-familial environment comparable to an orphanage, but rather a type of family system, albeit one that structures family life differently from the nuclear family.

Reimer cites studies by Sally Powers and her colleagues that showed that behaviors expected to stimulate (e.g. competitive challenging, non-competitive sharing of perspectives) or inhibit (e.g. avoidance, distortion) moral development were not related to adolescents’ levels of development. On the other hand, mothers’ and fathers’ levels of affective support were positively related, while mothers’ and families’ levels of affective conflict were negatively related, to their children’s level of development. In other words, family interaction was found to be a significant factor in moral development.[31] Reimer’s conclusion is that an expanded theoretical framework is needed to understand how moral development proceeds within the context of the family and other salient institutions.

Research by Betsy Speicher[32] also shows that parenting behavior has a greater impact on moral development than Piaget or Kohlberg allowed for. Her re-analysis of cross-sectional data from the Oakland Growth Study and longitudinal data from Kohlberg’s study showed numerous positive associations between parents’ and offspring’s moral judgments. Her conclusion, like Reimer’s, calls not for replacing Kohlberg’s developmental (constructivist) approach with an alternative theoretical paradigm, but rather for the integration of various theoretical approaches in order to understand the underlying developmental processes.

Similarly, Judith Smetana, in her review of the influence of parenting on social and moral development,[33] proposes a third alternative to the opposing approaches of structural-developmental theories and traditional socialization theories. Her analysis accepts that the process of moral development entails construction rather than reproduction of social knowledge through social interactions. While she calls for recognition of the importance of the role played by parents in this process, she regards their influence as occurring through reciprocal relations, rather than a unidirectional parenting effect. She also notes that the child constructs knowledge from a variety of social experiences and partners, including peers as well as adults.

Finally, in his cross-cultural research into moral development, Shweder reports an alternative post-conventional morality in Hindu society. This appears to develop from the tendency to view the family, not the marketplace, as the prototype of moral relationships:

Through a complex of relationships based on mutual reliance (e.g., husband and wife), asymmetrical interdependency (e.g., parent to child) and the obligations and agreements associated with kinship status (father, son, mother, daughter), the family seems to be able to function without the necessity of either a contract or outside regulation. In nonabusive families, of which there are many, a combination of loyalty, deference, empathy, altruism, love, and hierarchy protects the vulnerable from exploitation, while rewarding the powerful for caring for the weak.[34]


To summarize this brief review of current thought on moral development, most researchers continue to accept that moral development progresses through stages, or at least is dependent on the development of other structures that are age-related. They disagree, however, on the defining characteristics of these stages and the force driving the individual’s development. A variety of models have been proposed: based on cognitive development, as the individual increases his/her ability to reason and make moral judgments (Piaget and Kohlberg); social development, with moral development occurring within one of several domains of social development and progressing as the individual increases his/her ability and knowledge regarding social judgments (Turiel and Nucci) or with increasing development of the concept of self in relation to others (Gilligan and Smetana); and as requiring a broader theoretical framework including factors such as parenting, family relationships, and relationships to other members of the community (Reimer, Speicher, and Shweder). In addition to the question of the nature of stages of moral development, other issues that remain unresolved are gender differences, the relationship between social convention and morality, and the role of the family in moral development. In the following section, we will discuss the Unification Thought model of moral development based on the family in relation to these issues.


3. Development in Unification Thought – The Family as the Model

Stages of Moral Development

Based on the preceding review, the issues to be addressed are whether stages of moral development exist as true stages, satisfying Piaget’s criteria for stages listed above; are such stages distinct from stages of cognitive development; and, if so, what is the basis for defining such stages and the force driving development through the stages. Finally, the relationship between the stages in this model and those proposed by others, such as Piaget, Kohlberg, and Gilligan, will be discussed.

Unification Thought affirms a stage model of development: human beings are born with the potential for perfection, but with the responsibility for achieving that state through a process of growth.[35] Original human nature is defined[36] as having the following characteristics: united Sung Sang and Hyung Sang (roughly translated as internal character and external form); harmonious Yang and Yin (related to the concepts of masculinity and femininity but with certain important differences); individuality; loving character; the ability to live according to laws, and to behave according to free will; creativity; and the ability to relate to others. Unification Thought maintains that the most essential characteristic of human nature is to possess a loving character, i.e. that the essence of true human nature is love, to be a “being with Heart.”[37]

According to Unification Thought, relationships within the family are the primary way through which each person grows and develops their ability to love. There are three major stages of development: beginning with the young child, through the growing child to adult who marries, and concluding with the parent. Through these major stages the individual experiences four basic types of relationship, with corresponding types of love between the individuals involved: children’s love (from children to parents), fraternal or brother-sister love (between siblings), conjugal love (between husband and wife), and parental love (from parents to children). These four types of love are classified according to orientation:[38] vertical, between individuals of different ages or generations, i.e., parental and children’s love, and horizontal, between individuals who are peers or the same generation, i.e., conjugal and brother-sister love.[39]

It is also noted that these types of love[40] have direction as well as orientation. Thus, parental love is downward in direction, to children from their parents who are older and in a position of greater responsibility and authority, whereas children’s love is upward from children to their elders. Distinction is also made between the love of males and females: father’s love, husband’s love, son’s love, and brother’s love have different qualities from the corresponding mother’s love, wife’s love, daughter’s love, and sister’s love.[41]

Unification Thought also points out that these different relationships form the structure not only of the family, but also apply, by extension, to all relationships in human society. For example, individuals differing in age by twenty years or more, i.e., by a generation, relate to each other through a vertical relationship similar to that between parents and children. Individuals of the same generation relate horizontally, like siblings. The nature of people’s relationships with each other in society, therefore, is based on the relationships developed within the family.

Using relationships within the family as the model, it becomes clear that the emergence of each type of relationship is age-dependent. A child goes through stages in forming relationships: from a position in which he or she relates primarily to parental figures and receives parental love; to relationships with siblings in which there is reciprocal or mutual love; to the conjugal relationship, also involving reciprocal and mutual love but with the addition of sexual love; to the stage of being a parent to one’s own children and giving parental love. Thus, there is an order in which achieving the highest stage is the goal of development.

Yet, as each new relationship is entered into and develops, the existing relationships are not broken or abandoned. As the child grows to adulthood he or she continues in the relationship with his or her parents as their son or daughter, and as the brother or sister of siblings. Even as a parent, one still continues to have parents and, therefore, to be their child, although the style of that relationship changes.

Finally, there is a hierarchical relationship between stages. Before advancing to the next stage the individual has experienced the previous stage. In fact, according to the criteria Piaget gave for true stages, each previous stage must be successfully completed as preparation prior to advancing to the later one. The family model asserts that there are serious consequences in the moral domain for children or adolescents engaging in pre-marital sexual activity prior to successfully developing brother-sister relationships and friendships with peers, and likewise for entering the stage of parenthood prior to the development of a successful conjugal relationship.[42]

Unification Thought draws a clear connection between the moral development of the individual and the development of these relationships within the family, and hence to their projection into society. Ethical judgments of human behavior in relation to other members of society are based on the standards of family relationships. This approach, therefore, regards the development of relationships within the family as the basis for moral development.

The Unification Thought model of development based on relationships within the family constitute true stages by Piaget’s criteria. The stages are age-dependent. The stages occur in a universal order (child, brother/sister, husband/wife, parent). Each has its characteristic structure consisting of several describable elements (relationships with horizontal or vertical orientation, consisting of types of love defined by direction and character, i.e. male or female). Moreover, there is hierarchical integration of the stages (before advancing to the next stage the individual has experienced the previous stage).

These stages differ from those described by theories of cognitive development in two respects. First, the stages of moral development have content distinct from cognitive development: moral development proceeds through three periods that contain the four types of relationship within the family that form the prototype for moral judgments. Second, while each stage is integrated within the higher stages, it also continues to exist in a transformed form. In other words, it is impossible for the adult to function on the pre-operational level on a particular task after having reached the level of formal operations, but each adult continues to relate as a child to their parents, as brother or sister to their siblings, and as spouse to their husband or wife even after becoming a parent him/herself. However, the nature of these relationships is transformed and integrated as the individual reaches the higher stage, for example siblings relate differently to each other as adults with their own children compared to how they related when they themselves were children.

Within the family model, the distinction between vertical and horizontal orientation in relationships can be likened to the distinction made by Piaget, and also Kohlberg, between heteronomous and autonomous moral development. Heteronomous morality can be understood as developing through the experience of the vertical relationships that children have with their parents, while autonomous morality develops through the experience of horizontal relationships children have with their siblings and later their spouses. It is interesting to note that this model predicts a third type of morality, corresponding to the other vertical relationship, namely parental (from parent to child), in which the individual is actually in the position of the authority making the rules.

Thus, relating this model to Kohlberg’s stages, the pre-conventional level stages 1 and 2 clearly correspond to the young child first relating vertically to parents (stage 1) and then horizontally to siblings and peers (stage 2). The conventional level stages 3 and 4 correspond to the older child, adolescent, and finally single adult, in vertical relationship to family and local community and horizontal relationship to the larger group of society. At this point the correspondence becomes less clear, suggesting, as empirical data and other theorists have implied, that Kohlberg’s model fails to describe accurately development above the conventional level.

In the family model the next stage is that of marriage, which is a new type of horizontal relationship involving sexual activity along with intentions of permanence, exclusivity, and creation of a family.[43] Following marriage is the stage of parenthood with the new vertical relationship with children for whom the parents are responsible to give love, care for, and ensure well being. Since the family model extends to relationships within society as a whole, this final stage includes circumstances such as promotion at work, which puts the individual in a position of authority, responsible for other employees, i.e., in a vertical relationship. While the attributes Kohlberg suggests for the post-conventional level, namely the understanding of principles underlying the structure of society or humanity as a whole, need not be rejected, the family model suggests that other elements as suggested by Gilligan, such as assuming responsibility for others’ welfare and understanding the interconnection between self and other, should also be included as components of moral reasoning on the post-conventional level. As Robert Kegan has stated, partnering, parenting, and working demand “of adults a qualitative transformation of mind every bit as fundamental as the transformation of the school-age child from magical thinking to concrete thinking or the transformation from concrete to abstract thinking required of the adolescent.”[44]

Thus, we can conclude that the Unification Thought family model of moral development provides a model of development involving true stages, distinct from cognitive stages of development, and that the defining characteristics and driving force in this model are the relationships experienced within the family. Moreover, the Unification Thought model gives additional insights into the still poorly-understood area of post-conventional moral reasoning.

Gender Differences in Moral Development

The family model clearly predicts gender differences in moral development. The distinction between yang and yin, or masculine and feminine, is one of the basic characteristics of the Unification Thought understanding of human nature. However, this should not be misunderstood as implying that men have only yang (masculine) characteristics and women only yin (feminine) characteristics. Rather, men and women both have yang and yin aspects of intellect, emotion, and will, but they are expressed differently.[45] Thus although Unification Thought emphasizes the different roles of father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter, it does not predict exclusive differences in moral development.

Social Convention and Moral Development

Unification Thought affirms that the four relationships developed within the family are universal, providing the basis for moral judgment that applies to all human beings regardless of culture. However, due to the fact that the family does not exist in its ideal form at this time, a variety of moral standards have developed that are particular to different cultures. Until the ideal of the family is restored throughout the world, these varied standards are used within the cultures to determine moral behavior, and often cause confusion and conflict in situations where different cultures meet. Unification Thought proposes that in the future universal standards that apply to all humankind, based on the family model, will be the basis for true moral judgments.

The Role of the Family

The model of development based on the family proposed by Unification Thought obviously ascribes a primary role to the family. Relationships learned within the family are the basis of each person’s experience of relationships with all others, and thus the basis for moral judgments. Piaget observed that children initially develop heteronomous morality in the context of parental authority. However he neglected to observe that these same children, after developing autonomous morality in the context of peer influence, later become parents themselves, and as such become the bearers of authority. We suspect that had he studied adult moral reasoning in detail, this stage, and its dependence on initial experience as a child under parental authority, would no doubt have become apparent to him.

The Unification Thought model clearly differs from theories such as Kohlberg’s that regard cognitive development as the basis for the development of moral reasoning. In this view, moral development is not a question of developing reason or following laws, but rather depends on development of heart—the ability to love and care for others—in various kinds of relationships that are primarily experienced within the family. Thus, the highest level of moral reasoning is neither autonomous nor heteronomous respect for law, i.e. is not obedience to laws whether determined by some authority or agreed upon by peers, but consists of making judgments based on love and concern for all people whatever their age and position in relation to oneself. This model also states that development of such ability depends primarily on experiencing the four types of love in relationships experienced within the family, i.e. as child to parents, as brother and sister, as husband and wife, and as parent to one’s own children.

Those who view moral judgments as belonging to the social rather than cognitive realm of development also regard social experiences, in the form of reciprocal interactions with parents and peers, as the basis for the construction of moral and social knowledge.[46] The Unification Thought family model goes beyond this position in ascribing a central role to all family relationships, i.e. as child, sibling, spouse, and parent, in the development of moral knowledge and the ability to make moral judgments. And, as noted above, this model regards moral judgment as based on the type of relationship involved rather than on an intellectual process involving cognitive or social structures or knowledge. Thus, this position holds much in common with a social domain analysis, while also suggesting a somewhat different perspective.


4. Implications for Future Research

The effort in this article to expand the theoretical framework used to understand moral development by including the family as the model of development has both theoretical and empirical implications. On the theoretical side, the family model allows an understanding of stages of moral development that are distinct from those in cognitive development, and yet satisfy the criteria of true stages. The family model supports the differentiation between heteronomous and autonomous morality, observed by Piaget, to be explained as different types of relationship within a single structure, the family, rather than appearing as separate moralities.

The family model also explains a transitional stage of development in adolescence. Adolescence is the time when family relationships change dramatically: the former child moves from the position in which being a child receiving love from parents who are in a vertical relationship is primary, through the increasing importance of horizontal relationships with siblings and peers, to the possibilities of new horizontal (conjugal) and vertical (to his/her own children) relationships. Such an increase in the types of relationships experienced and restructuring of their priorities would be expected to be accompanied by a profound restructuring of moral judgments. The development of a complete understanding of the restructured moral reasoning required of adults is still awaited. We have presented reasons why the family model may be valuable in this enterprise.

The family model also explains gender differences, since the roles of father and mother, husband and wife, son and daughter are different within the family structure. Thus, a formulation such as Gilligan’s, in which the ethics of care and justice predominates in females, is congruent with this model. However, the family model in Unification Thought is clear in its affirmation of the equality of value of each position within the family.

Finally, as pointed out above, it is natural that a theoretical model which makes the family the framework supporting moral development allows explanation of the various empirical findings of the impact of family interaction and parenting on moral development. Beyond this, however, the theory ascribes to the family the fundamental role of driving force rather than simply a modifying factor in a course of development that depends on the development of cognitive structures and/or social knowledge.

On the empirical side, it is obvious that if we develop our moral and ethical values from family relationships, then the nature of those family relationships will have significant impact on the quality of those values. This model predicts that as each individual experiences different relationships within the family, as child, sibling, spouse, and parent, they enter a new realm of moral obligations. An analysis of the stages of individuals in terms of moral reasoning should reveal a correspondence with their family experiences. Thus, for example, changes are predicted following marriage, or the onset of sexual activity, and parenthood.

This model also predicts serious consequences of failure to fully experience the various types of family relationships. Thus, given the numerous members of our current society raised in families with a single parent, multiple parents, teenage parents, etc., that do not resemble the family unit with four types of relationship or do not provide experience of successfully developed relationships of all four types, we can predict that these individuals would not exhibit the same level of moral judgments as those who experience successfully developed family relationships. Lest misunderstanding occur, let it be noted that these four types of relationship are not experienced exclusively in relationship to one’s biological parents, siblings and children exclusively. Thus, the family model does not in any way devalue relationships with adopted parents or long-term caregivers as providers of parental love.

One particular point that the family model raises as significant in moral development is the beginning of sexual relationships. Unification Thought stresses that this relationship should be reserved for the conjugal relationship between husband and wife, and therefore represents the entrance into the third type of relationship. Thus, we should expect that individuals who have experienced sexual relationships show different moral judgments from those who have not. This has serious implications for our current societal situation in which there are numerous teenage pregnancies, leading to “children having children.” Ten years ago, Allan Bloom mourned the loss of “spiritual virginity” among students who entered college having lost their physical virginity, leading them to be “flat-souled” and devoid of interest in the mysteries of life. [47] The family model of moral development suggests that the loss of virginity has consequences not only for their motivation to develop as individuals, but also affects their moral judgments in relation to others.

Finally, this model predicts a stage of moral development corresponding to parenthood, in which the individual is in the position of authority making the rules (justice) and responsible to give love (care) to children. Again, this leads to the prediction of different moral judgments between individuals who have experienced parenthood and those who have not.


5. Conclusion

As researchers such as Reimer, Speicher and Shweder have noted, the study of moral development may benefit not so much by replacing the cognitive developmental constructivist account pioneered by Piaget and Kohlberg, as by expanding the theoretical framework to include various approaches, including the role of family relationships. This article has gone beyond that suggestion. Not only does it suggest that experience of all major family relationships, i.e. as child, sibling, spouse, and parent, are factors in moral development, it proposes that participation in relationships within the family is the driving force in moral development. The results are promising. The model provides substantial explanatory power in the interpretation of data gathered in the numerous studies summarized above, and also suggests a number of questions that should be addressed in the future. 



[1] Piaget’s published works are extensive both in number and in the topics covered. The main features of his work regarding cognitive development are to be found in Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1969). For a comprehensive review of his work, see Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonèche, eds., The Essential Piaget (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995).

[2] Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1932; Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1948).

[3] John M. Broughton and D. John Freeman-Moir, eds., The Cognitive Developmental Psychology of James Mark Baldwin (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982).

[4] Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981); The Psychology of Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984).

[5] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[6] L. Nucci and E. Weber, “The Domain Approach to Values Education: From Theory to Practice,” in W. Kurtines and J. Gewirtz, eds., Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development; Volume 3: Applications (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991).

[7] Elliot Turiel, The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[8] Unification Thought, the philosophical expression of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s teachings, has been presented in several texts under the name of the Unification Thought Institute, directed by Dr. Sang Hun Lee. The most recent expression is Essentials of Unification Thought (Tokyo: Unification Thought Institute, 1992).

[9] Jennifer Tanabe, “The Epistemological Basis for the Development of Knowledge,” paper presented at the Twenty-third Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society, Philadelphia, PA, June, 1993.

[10] Gruber and Vonèche, The Essential Piaget, p. xxv.

[11] Jean-Claude Bringuier, Conversations with Jean Piaget (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 24.

[12] Piaget and Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child, p. 152.

[13] Ibid, p. 153.

[14] Gruber and Vonèche, The Essential Piaget, pp. 815-16.

[15] Ibid., pp. 814-15.

[16] See, for example, Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (New York: Bantam Books, 1991).

[17] A clear overview of theories of moral development in relation to moral education has been prepared by Mary Elizabeth Murray, and is available on the Moral Development and Education Home Page (

[18] Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, p. 197.

[19] Ibid., p. 315.

[20] Ibid., p. 284.

[21] Lawrence Kohlberg, “Moral Development,” in Broughton and Freeman-Moir, eds., The Cognitive Developmental Psychology of James Mark Baldwin, pp. 277-325.

[22] Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development; Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development.

[23] See Jennifer Tanabe, “Developmental Psychology: The Need for a New Epistemological Foundation,” in The Establishment of a New Culture and Unification Thought (Tokyo: Unification Thought Institute, 1991), for further discussion of the limitations of the cognitive developmental approach in this context.

[24] Gilligan, In a Different Voice.

[25] Elliot Turiel, Melanie Killen and Charles C. Helwig, “Morality: Its Structure, Function, and Vagaries,” in Jerome Kagan and Sharon Lamb, eds., The Emergence of Morality in Young Children (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[26] Nucci and Weber, “The Domain Approach to Values Education.”

[27] Richard A. Shweder, Nancy C. Much, Manamohan Mahapatra and Lawrence Park, “The Big Three of Morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and the Big Three Explanations of Suffering,” in Paul Rozin and Allan Brandt, eds., Morality and Health (London: Routledge, in press).

[28] Richard Al Shweder, Manamohan Mahapatra and Joan G. Miller, “Culture and Moral Development,” in Kagan and Lamb, eds., The Emergence of Morality in Young Children, pp. 43-45.

[29] Shweder, Mahapatra and Miller, “Culture and Moral Development,” p. 72.

[30] Joseph Reimer, “The Case of the Missing Family: Kohlberg and the Study of Adolescent Moral Development,” in Andrew Garrod, ed., Approaches to Moral Development: New Research and Emerging Themes (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), pp. 93-94.

[31] Ibid., pp. 96-99.

[32] Betsy Speicher, “Family Patterns of Moral Judgment During Adolescence and Early Adulthood,” Developmental Psychology 30/5 (1994), pp. 624-32.

[33] Judith G. Smetana, “Parenting and the Development of Social Knowledge Reconceptualized: A Social Domain Analysis,” in J. E. Grusec and L. Kuczynski, eds., Handbook of Parenting and the Transmission of Values (New York: Wiley, in press).

[34] Shweder, Mahapatra, and Miller, “Culture and Moral Development,” pp. 78-79.

[35] Essentials of Unification Thought, p. 94.

[36] Essentials of Unification Thought, pp. 111-12.

[37] Unification Thought defines heart as “the emotional impulse to seek joy through love; it is the source of love and the core of God’s character.” Essentials of Unification Thought, p. 99.

[38] Essentials of Unification Thought, p. 204.

[39] Jennifer Tanabe, ed., Unification Thought Supplementary Materials (Barrytown, NY: Unification Theological Seminary, 1990, 1992), p. 32.

[40] This model should not be confused with traditional socialization theories that assume a unidirectional influence of parents on children. See, for example, Smetana’s chapter, “Parenting and the Development of Social Knowledge Reconceptualized: A Social Domain Analysis,” for a fuller discussion of the reciprocal relations between parents and children in moral development.

[41] Essentials of Unification Thought, pp. 247-50.

[42] For a more complete description of growth through the “Four Great Realms of Heart” and the consequences of entering a higher realm too early, see Joong Hyun Pak and Andrew Wilson, True Family Values (New York: HSA-UWC, 1996), pp. 72-98.

[43] Robert Kegan offers this distinction between premarital and marital relationships in the context of demands placed on individuals by their various relationships at different times in their lives. See Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 61-63.

[44] Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads, p. 11.

[45] See Jennifer Tanabe, Contemplating Unification Thought (Barrytown, NY: Unification Theological Seminary, 1993), pp. 16-19.

[46] Judith G. Smetana, “Parenting and the Development of Social Knowledge Reconceptualized: A Social Domain Analysis.”

[47] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 134.