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Jean Piaget

The Shift from Heteronomy to Autonomy

Jean Piaget is among the first psychologists whose work remains directly relevant to contemporary theories of moral development. In his early writing, he focused specifically on the moral lives of children, studying the way children play games in order to learn more about children's beliefs about right and wrong(1932/65). According to Piaget, all development emerges from action; that is to say, individuals construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of interactions with the environment. Based on his observations of children's application of rules when playing, Piaget determined that morality, too, can be considered a developmental process. For example, Ben, a ten year old studied by Piaget, provided the following critique of a rule made-up by a child playing marbles: "it isn't a rule! It's a wrong rule because it's outside of the rules. A fair rule is one that is in the game". Ben believed in the absolute and intrinsic truth of the rules, characteristic of early moral reasoning. In contrast, Vua, aged thirteen, illustrates an understanding of the reasoning behind the application of rules, characteristic of later moral thinking. When asked to consider the fairness of a made-up rule compared to a traditional rule, Vua replied "It is just as fair because the marbles are far apart"(making the game equally difficult).


In addition to examining children's understanding of rules about games, Piaget interviewed children regarding acts such as stealing and lying. When asked what a lie is, younger children consistently answered that they are "naughty words". When asked why they should not lie, younger children could rarely explain beyond the forbidden nature of the act: "because it is a naughty word". However, older children were able to explain "because it isn't right", and "it wasn't true". Even older children indicated an awareness of intention as relevant to the meaning of an act: "A lie is when you deceive someone else. To make a mistake is when you make a mistake". From his observations, Piaget concluded that children begin in a "heteronomous" stage of moral reasoning, characterized by a strict adherence to rules and duties, and obedience to authority.

This heteronomy results from two factors. The first factor is the young child's cognitive structure. According to Piaget, the thinking of young children is characterized by egocentrism. That is to say that young children are unable to simultaneously take into account their own view of things with the perspective of someone else. This egocentrism leads children to project their own thoughts and wishes onto others. It is also associated with the uni-directional view of rules and power associated with heteronomous moral thought, and various forms of "moral realism." Moral realism is associated with "objective responsibility", which is valuing the letter of the law above the purpose of the law. This is why young children are more concerned about the outcomes of actions rather than the intentions of the person doing the act. Moral realism is also associated with the young child's belief in "immanent justice." This is the expectation that punishments automatically follow acts of wrong-doing. One of the most famous cases of such childhood thinking was that of the young boy who believed that his hitting a power pole with his baseball bat caused a major power blackout in the New York city area.


The second major contributor to heteronomous moral thinking in young children, is their relative social relationship with adults. In the

natural authority relationship between adults and children, power is handed down from above. The relative powerlessness of young

children, coupled with childhood egocentrism feeds into a heteronomous moral orientation.


However, through interactions with other children in which the group seeks a to play together in a way all find fair, children find this strict

heteronomous adherence to rules sometimes problematic. As children consider these situations, they develop towards an "autonomous"

stage of moral reasoning, characterized by the ability to consider rules critically, and selectively apply these rules based on a goal of

mutual respect and cooperation. The ability to act from a sense of reciprocity and mutual respect is associated with a shift in the child's

cognitive structure from egocentrism to perspective taking. Coordinating one's own perspective with that of others means that what is

right needs to be based on solutions that meet the requirements of fair reciprocity. Thus, Piaget viewed moral development as the result

of interpersonal interactions through which individuals work out resolutions which all deem fair. Paradoxically, this autonomous view of morality as fairness is more compelling and leads to more consistent behavior than the heteronomous orientation held by younger children.


Piaget concluded from this work that schools should emphasize cooperative decision-making and problem solving, nurturing moral development by requiring students to work out common rules based on fairness. This is a direct rejection of sociologists Emile Durkheim's view of proper moral education (1925/1961). Durkheim, similar to Piaget, believed that morality resulted from social interaction or immersion in a group. However, Durkheim believed moral development was a natural result of attachment to the group, an attachment which manifests itself in a respect for the symbols, rules, and authority of that group. Piaget rejected this belief that children simply learn and internalize the norms for a group; he believed individuals define morality individually through their struggles to arrive at fair solutions. Given this view, Piaget suggested that a classroom teacher perform a difficult task: the educator must provide students with opportunities for personal discovery through problem solving, rather than indoctrinating students with norms.


An excellent contemporary adaptation of Piaget's theory for moral development of young children may be found in DeVries, R. & Zan, B. (1994). "Moral Children: Constructing a Constructivist Atmosphere in Early Education." New York: Teachers College Press. You may preview some portions of that book within the Classroom Practices segment of this web site. DeVries and Zan go beyond Piaget's original work to include that of more recent theorists including Lawrence Kohlberg whose theory will be described next.

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