Student Moral Development


Educators expect students to recognize and respect legal boundaries in higher education environments. Yet, sometimes educators are not prepared to understand how the complexity of students’ reasoning abilities may lead to questionable or unacceptable behaviors. Moral development theories, such as those of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Carol Gilligan, explore patterns of moral judgments made by individuals that can result in moral actions. These judgments and actions are situated in cultural contexts that hold, whether implicitly or explicitly, expectations and values that are developed over time with increasing experience. To be specific, researchers on moral development suggest that conceptions of what is “right,” and their potential legal ramifications, often shift from simplistic to more sophisticated as individuals interact with the world and face the challenges of dealing with conflicting information.
Better understanding these patterns of the development of moral judgment can help educators to respond to student behaviors in ways that are based on individual student perspectives and needs while maximizing their learning experiences. This entry provides basic information about major theories that are relevant to college students’ moral development, ways in which these ideas can contribute to educators’ understanding of how students may interpret and act on policies and the law, and implications for higher education practice.

Theoretical Background


Jean Piaget


The study of moral development originated in the work of Jean Piaget, the cognitive psychologist often credited with creating stage-based theories of intellectual and moral growth in children that served as a springboard for many to follow. Piaget’s study of the moral judgment of children involved examining the “practice and consciousness of rules” (1948, p. 4) that they employed when playing a game of marbles. Piaget’s premise was that children actively construct and reconstruct reality based on experiences that call into question their current understanding of reality. According to Piaget, the framework of this sensemaking changes qualitatively as new information that does not fit the current reality requires an adjustment in the framework. This progression of cognitive “structures” or modes that individuals use to reason about the world consistently across contexts is often believed to be at the center of human intellectual development, and it became the hallmark of Piaget’s contributions to psychology.

Lawrence Kohlberg


Lawrence Kohlberg, in the tradition of Piaget, sought to investigate moral thinking through longitudinal studies with adolescent, mostly male, boys and adults. Kohlberg assessed moral development by asking participants to settle hypothetical moral dilemmas such as the now-classic “Heinz” scenario. In this story, individuals were asked to decide whether Heinz, whose wife was dying of a terminal illness, should have stolen a drug that may have cured his wife’s condition. The scenario offers the fact that the local druggist who discovered the medicine had charged several times his cost and that Heinz had been able only to raise a portion of the needed funds. Reactions to this dilemma allowed Kohlberg to focus on how respondents came to resolutions. He viewed this process of reasoning as more important than the solution itself in the investigation of cognitive or moral development.
Kohlberg’s (1976, 1981) theory of moral reasoning concluded that individuals undergo development in a three-level, six-stage sequence. Kohlberg labeled Level 1 as “preconventional”; its two stages describe individuals making moral judgments based on following rules, avoiding punishment, and finding what is “fair.” The difference between the two stages in this level is that in Stage 1, deference is given to authorities to dictate what is “right,” while in Stage 2, the individual recognizes that everyone may not agree on what is right and bases decisions on self-interests. At this level, rules and expectations are viewed as external to self. Level 2, named the “conventional” level, also has two stages. Stage 3 involves concern for doing what is considered characteristically “good” and having motives that appear acceptable to others. In Stage 4, the society within which individuals live and the rules within them, the larger social order, become priorities. In this level, the self has internalized the rules and expectations of others at this level. Finally, Level 3, also known as the “postconventional” level, contains Stages 5 and 6. In Stage 5, human rights, based on social agreements resulting from a democratic process, are paramount. Stage 6, viewed as a more theoretical stage, because Kohlberg found little evidence to support its existence, hinges on individuals committing to justice by supporting the spirit of “universal principles” that should apply to everyone and every situation. This level involves individuals mediating between self-chosen and others’ rules and expectations to make informed judgments.

Carol Gilligan


Carol Gilligan (1982) questioned Kohlberg’s emphasis on the male, privileged populations involved in his study and his assumptions about the generalizability of his findings to women. In fact, when women’s moral development was measured using Kohlberg’s model, they often appeared “less developed.” Gilligan’s research with girls and boys along with women and men uncovered some patterns related to moral development that differed from those identified by Kohlberg. While Kohlberg’s research results emphasized a moral inclination toward ideal “justice” or obligation to rights, narratives from Gilligan’s interviews with girls and women revealed an orientation that placed more value on relationships than justice, or, in her words, an “ethic of care” (pp. 73–74) and obligation to others. While Gilligan did not claim such tendencies were gender exclusive, she aimed to illuminate new possibilities for understanding the various ways in which humans construct moral decision making.
Gilligan’s theory was the outcome of several studies that focused on judgment making in the context of various moral conflicts, whether real or hypothetical in nature, and their relationship to the self. Her theory contains three levels and two transitions. At Level 1, individuals focus on the preservation of self and survival. The transition from the first into the second level is centered on moving away from selfish desires and toward increasing responsibility and connection to others. In Level 2, individuals’ desire to be in relationships with others may override their own interests, resulting in “self-sacrifice,” or putting “good” above the self. The transition between Levels 2 and 3 starts to exhibit more balance between others and self, or as Gilligan puts it, moving “from goodness to truth” (p. 82). Finally, in Level 3, individuals prioritize “nonviolence” (pp. 103–104), the avoidance of hurt to self or others, as the primary criterion for making moral decisions.

Application to Students


When applying the developmental concepts described above to the perspectives and actions of students in higher education, it becomes clear that the moral perspective of specific students provides a lens through which they can make sense of dilemmas and conflicts, thereby interpreting the role of policies and the law. Depending on students’ moral orientation and developmental levels, the importance of laws may even be construed as different from university policies that are more local in nature and based on community needs and standards.
Kohlberg believed that children usually reason at Stages 1 and 2, while adults typically operate at Stages 3 and 4 (Rich & DeVitis, 1994). Therefore, it can reasonably be assumed that college students should generally be functioning between Stages 2 and 4. Take, for example, the all-too-common practice of college students obtaining fake identification cards for the purpose of getting into bars or accessing alcohol when they are under the legal drinking age. Such actions raise a series of potential questions about the impact of their possibly violating the law and institutional policies that may lead to disciplinary sanctions. Students at Kohlberg’s Level 2 would be operating primarily from the perspective of self-interest. At this stage, students may view the law as conflicting with what “everybody else is doing” and thus what they should also have a right to do. Moreover, at this level, fairness is relative, and self-interests are viewed as equal in value to the interests of others. However, at Stage 4, where individuals take responsibility for upholding social obligations that include the law, purchasing invalid drivers’ licenses would be inconsistent with maintaining commitment to the social contract and ideal justice. The concern for the student at this stage is not “everybody is doing it” but “what if everyone did it?” (Kohlberg, 1981, p. 411).
Another consideration is Gilligan’s assertion that students may view the conditions of “rightness” in terms of relationships with others. By way of illustration, the impetus for students to turn down their stereos or to conform to policies set forth by their residence hall leaders may be based on connection with others or a commitment to “shared norms and expectations” (1982, p. 79) more than justice or the notion of the right to independent judgment.
To be sure, moral judgments do not always translate into consistent moral actions. As humans develop reasoning skills, they often come to new understandings that may take time to progress into regularized behaviors.

Implications for Higher Education Practice


Educators who desire optimal learning outcomes when dealing with student violations of laws or policies should bear in mind the moral judgment process behind student actions. Students who decide to experiment with marijuana or other drugs in their residence halls, to cheat on tests, or to destroy the property of others—actions that may carry significant legal sanctions including dismissal or prosecution—are often operating from a perspective that accepts such risks as tolerable or even justifiable. While university officials likely have obligations to address legal violations using legal parameters, additional student sanctions can be utilized for educational purposes. In addition, violations of internal community standards or policies, such as respecting quiet hours in residence halls in the example mentioned earlier, can be dealt with creatively while taking aim at student learning and development. Finding out why students took the moral actions they did may illuminate how individuals construct what is “right.” Once this information is determined, college and university officials can call for administrative and/ or judicial actions that acknowledge, yet challenge, students’ current approach to moral judgment, potentially prompting consideration of alternative views or more sophisticated perspectives.
Michele M. Welkener

See also Disciplinary Sanctions and Due Process Rights
Further Readings
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp. 31–53). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development: The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Piaget, J. (1948). The moral judgment of the child. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Rich, J. M., & DeVitis, J. (1994). Theories of moral development (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.