Cognitive Development and Moral Reasoning: Literature Review

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Table of contents

  1. Key points in Cognitive and Moral Development
  2. Piaget's Theory
  3. Kohlberg’s Moral Reasoning in relation to cognitive functioning
  4. Instruction of Cognitive development and Moral Reasoning
  5. Conclusion

There are many reasons why a student can demonstrate their understanding to core related content. External factors in a child life, such as reading or exposure to technology can expand the student’s prior knowledge to assist them in learning core-related material. As well as internal factors, such as the student’s mental capability of understanding content. These are a few explanations to support the theory of a student’s ability to grasp materials in a classroom. However, students can also show their connection to the knowledge of moral reasoning within a classroom setting. The ethical reasonings that students express can occur from external and internal factors as well. Students can base their exterior environment to validate their responses to moral reasoning. They can also use internal thinking to conclude their responses with moral reasoning. The way that students learn and base their moral judgments can be further explained by the theories of cognitive development and moral reasoning. The two theories are based on stages that increase as a child becomes more experienced, connected, and knowledgeable with the world around them. As a child grows, their cognitive development grows, and they are able to progress within each step of the stages. The external factors in a student’s life are intertwined with the instruction they receive in school. The instruction can benefit and assist a student to increase their knowledge and expose students to new perspectives in moral reasoning. There is a connection between Piaget's cognitive development theory and Kohlberg’s moral development. The two theories are based on stages, expansion in reasoning and intelligence, and moral reasoning increases as a student’s cognitive development increases. The link between these two theories can be further explained by exploring Piaget's theory, relating that to Kohlberg’s theory, and showing how the use of instruction can relate to both of these theories.

Key points in Cognitive and Moral Development

The psychologist Jean Piaget created the theory of cognitive development. This theory focuses on four stages that begin with birth and increase until adolescences. The first stage is the sensorimotor stage in which “the notion of object, that of space, that of time, in the form of temporal sequences, the notion of causality, the important notions later to be used by thought and which are developed and used by material action as early as its sensorimotor level”(Piagaet, 1973). The second stage is the preoperational stage that shows the child’s “capacity to represent something with something else, which is known as symbolic function” (Piaget,1973). The third stage is concrete operational in which a child “becomes capable of coordinating operations in the sense of reversibility, and total system” (Piagaet, 1973). The final stage is formal operational in which a child “becomes capable of reasoning and of deducting on manipulate objects, and capable of logic and of deductive reasoning on theories and propositions” (Piagaet, 1973).

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Lawrence Kohlberg became interested in Piaget’s theory and expanded that into his own research called the theory of moral development. The theory consists of six stages that explain the morality of thinking based on three levels which include, preconventional morality, conventical morality and post conventical morality. The first level contains the first two stages; obedience and punishment orientation, and individualism and exchange. Although different reasoning occurs, these two stages base their reasonings on punishment and provide no relation to “the values of the family or community” (Kohlberg, 1985). The second level includes the third and fourth stage; good interpersonal relationships and maintaining the social order. These two stages carry a “relativistic outlook and to a concern for good motives and conception of the function of laws for society as a whole” (Kohlberg, 1985). The last level involves the fifth and sixth stage; social construct and individual rights, and universal principles. During stage five, “people are making more of an independent effort to think out what any society ought to value” (Kohlberg, 1985), and at stage six people are putting action towards this thought. The idea for Piaget’s theory is the process of growth and stages through cognition, and Kohlberg’s theory is connected to cognitive functioning to allow for a broader moral reasoning. I will now address the implications of Piaget's theory to connection of cognitive functioning.

Piaget's Theory

To understand the connection between Piaget’s theory and cognition is, to define the meaning of cognition. Cognition can simply be defined as thinking or the process of obtaining knowledge through the use of thought, practices, environment, and senses. This is how development of the mind increases and expands through higher-order thinking, experience to external factors, and our primary senses. Piaget's theory elaborates on cognition through “structuralism and related it to cognitive growth”. It is through the steps provided in Piaget's theory that allows cognition to increase by mastering and understanding each step in the hierarchy that eventually leads to the highest order of thinking. This theory is solely based on the individual’s capabilities of increasing cognitive functioning without the support of another individual. Moreover, children are basing their knowledge on their environment and the experiences that occur. This can be seen in all of stages, that the children are using prior knowledge and experiences from previous stages to grow their cognitive functioning. The first stage in the theory is understanding the object permeance, which means to acknowledge the presents of an object without it being present. This enables prior experiences of observing the environment and external factors to form the understanding of object permeance. For example, a baby that is 12 months old can distinguish an object’s presence such as a toy, even if that toy is hidden or covered up. The second stage represents a child’s egocentrism and the ability to comprehend symbolic form. The child has a hard time incorporating another’s view into their thinking, but they can attribute meaning to objects through speech, which allows them to have deeper cognitive functioning by viewing the world symbolically. An example would be a child using a banana (as a phone) to pretend they are calling someone. The third stage demonstrates the child’s ability to solve and understand problems by viewing symbols in a more logical sense. Children are able to grasp the meaning of conservation and reversibility, which leads to “the logic of classifications, relations and numbers, and not yet a logic of propositions” (Piaget, 1973). This can be seen as a child being able to understand that a cat and a dog are different species, but they are both considered animals. The last stage in the theory is the highest order of thinking, which allows the individual to base their prior knowledge and experiences “to logically form reasoning on theories and propositions” (Piaget, 1973). This form of cognitive functioning permits the form of scientific reasoning to help justify and solve problems. The individual forms and understands their own identity and connects that to their concerns with society. All of these stages are divided into hierarchy categories to represent the child’s individual growth of cognitive development. The next section will represent the connection between the cognitive functioning of an individual and its relation to moral reasoning.

Kohlberg’s Moral Reasoning in relation to cognitive functioning

Kohlberg’s theory is explained by different stages to which an individual expresses their moral reasoning in social issues. This connects to cognitive functioning because the knowledge and experiences that are represented in thought, allow for a broader and deeper understanding of moral reasoning. Each stage in cognitive development provides a higher thinking process, which permits to a higher moral reasoning. This relation can be seen in Kohlberg’s theory, and I will use the first and fifth stage to show this connection. The first stage of moral reasoning relates to the second stage in Piaget's theory. The children are basing their moral reasoning on their logical sense of egocentrism. The children are “seeing morality as something external to themselves, as that which the big people say they must do” (Kohlberg, 1985). Since the children have not acquired the logical reasoning to think past an egocentric view, they base their moral reasoning on this logic. The fifth stage represents the use of logic distinguished by cognitive functioning to explain their moral reasoning. In Piaget's final stage, individuals become concerned with identify and society, which alludes to the fifth stage of Kohlberg’s theory that individuals “determine logically what a society ought to be like” (Kohlberg, 1985). The logical reasoning that is present in Piaget's theory allows for a moral reasoning based on logic. The development of these moral stages comes “from our own thinking about moral problems, by stimulating our mental process” (Kohlberg, 1985). This expansion of moral reasoning is based on the individuals own thinking but is influenced by the level of logical processes experienced by that individual. For example, a child might be able to signify moral reasoning in stage 2, but not increase to stage 3 because “they lack intellectual stimulation” (Kohlberg, 1985). The child will not be able to apply moral reasoning in a broader context due to the absence of a higher level of cognitive functioning. The stages are presented in a hierarchical order, only acknowledging experiences from the prior stages but never implementing them into a justification of moral reasoning. Once a person has reached stage 4 of moral reasoning, they will not use logic from stage 2 to answer problems for moral issues. This also occurs in Piaget's stages in which prior knowledge and experiences from earlier stages will only connect to higher logic, but not used once mastery of higher stages has been completed. Finally, the stages in moral reasoning relate to “the stages of logical and social thought which contain similar insights and advances in moral thinking may rest upon prior achievements in these other realms” (Kohlberg, 1985). This relates to the cognitive functioning because individuals need to express their moral reasoning’s based on the level of cognitive development. The moral reasoning must fit the level of cognitive functioning because children can only advance to the next stage “only after they have made equivalent progress in their logical and social thought” (Kohlberg, 1985). The level of cognitive functioning has a role into determining the level of moral reasoning that can be expressed by an individual. Both of these theories can be represented in a classroom setting and through instruction of the teacher. In the last section I will explain how these theories can be implemented into the classrooms, and the benefits it can have for students.

Instruction of Cognitive development and Moral Reasoning

These theories are heavily based on individual’s demonstration of applying and mastering the stages. Although these are influenced by the individual, instruction can promote further learning or understanding of cognitive development and moral reasoning. There are many ways in which Piagets stages can be used in instruction, but I will only focus on the preoperational and concrete operational stages. The first implication relates to the preoperational stage and that is to let the students learn by trial and error. This can be done by having students match colors to a corresponding picture. The students can learn from experimenting and use their prior experiences/knowledge of the colors to help them match it to the picture without the teacher’s assistant. This will benefit the student because they will be able to try and solve the problem on their own which will allow them to generate different directions towards solving the problem. The next implication focuses on instruction within the concrete operational stage. This can be shown through the students being involved in a science experiment relating to making a miniature volcano. The students will be able to manipulate and test different objects to make their volcano erupt. The teacher’s involvement in this form of instruction would only be to provide the materials, and the students will be able to either work together or individually to use their logic to build the volcano. In both scenarios’ students are able to use their prior experiences and knowledge to solve problems without the assistance of the teacher.

Instruction in the classroom can also be used for moral reasoning to expose students to different perspectives of their classmates. For example, once a week the teacher can give the students a scenario regarding a moral issue. The students will then take turns discussing as a class their personal insights on how to best explore or solve the scenario by using their moral reasoning. The students will each be given a chance to explain and justify their reasoning and why it would be the best solution for the scenario. The different viewpoints of all of the students can “create cognitive conflict which is motivated to think about the matter more fully” (Kohlberg, 1985). The students can benefit from these discussions because they can practice their justification for moral reasoning and learn new perspectives from their classmates that can reflect in “broader viewpoints that can lead to new stages” (Kohlberg, 1985). These theories can be incorporated into a classroom instruction to allow students to prove individual learning and understand new perspectives that increase one’s own thinking.


By focusing and understanding the meaning of cognition and how that relates to cognitive development and moral reasoning can provide insight towards students’ demonstration in core related content. Students can perceive moral reasoning on a higher level as their cognitive functioning increases. To dismiss moral reasoning as purely individual thought would not help to understand the rationale behind each stage of moral judgement. In order to relate these two theories, there needs to be prior knowledge of Piagets cognitive development. The stages in Piaget's theory determine the level of cognitive function that each age range experiences. It is through the breakdown of these stages that establish the different levels of cognitive thinking and how that is demonstrated in learning, solving problems, and connection to society. The cognitive functioning is translated towards the stages of moral reasoning. Each of the stages in moral reasoning are connected to an increase of logical thinking that enables new perspective and insights towards a superior moral reasoning. An individual need’s to be able to fully grasp the logic that will transmit to the level of moral reasoning. Both of these theories share a similar aspect towards the concerns of society. As knowledge and experience of the world increases the moral judgements veer towards basing “principles and values that make for a good society” (Kohlberg, 1985). The theories are both directed towards individual learning, which can be added in instruction to give students a chance to practice and increase their cognitive development, and moral reasoning. Overall, the use of understanding cognitive development can distinguish the differences of moral reasoning and how it connects to logical thinking. By using these theories in instruction, students can develop a stronger cognitive function and broaden their perspectives on moral reasoning.

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Cognitive Development and Moral Reasoning: Literature Review. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 18, 2024, from
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