Moral Development and Religion

Moral reasoning helps us to make ethical decisions and influences our ethical behaviour. If our moral reasoning is “faulty” or nonexistent then the ethical decisions that we make will be baseless as we can see from many people who suffer from a much misunderstood condition called psychopathy which manifests itself in a diminished capacity for empathy and remorse, and uninhibited, disinhibited or bold behaviour. Morality is a universal characteristic of the human psyche and influences us on a daily basis.

Many religious people believe that our morality is a God-given and absolute code that is immutable and based on the precepts of the Bible or other holy texts. There are several problems with this view:

1. Most Holy books including the Bible and the Qur’an contain, condone and even ordain practices that are considered universally and objectively* immoral such as stoning, rape, genocide, infanticide and slavery (morality is of course subjective as it concerns the subjective experience and well-being of sentient beings, but morality can be seen as objective from the point of view of a set of principles that objectively promote well-being. For an explanation of an I highly recommend Sam Harris’s brilliant book “The Moral Landscape“).

2. Those same holy books often omit to mention or sanction misdeeds such as animal cruelty, misogyny, racism, environmental pollution, torture and paedophilia, which, although only recently being taken seriously in many parts of the world, have always been a problem in society. For example, only 4 of the 10 main commandments of Exodus 20 actually address moral issues; murder, unfaithfulness, theft and lying, and the rewritten tablets of Exodus 34 (the ‘real’ 10 commandments) contain absolutely nothing of moral value at all. (See this article for more information: Which Ten commandments?)

3. There is no thought or analysis into why things like blasphemy, eating pork or shellfish, wearing cloth with two types of thread, receiving blood transfusions or moderate alcohol consumption are immoral. These precepts are merely obeyed by the faithful without any moral or even logical basis. They merely reflect the wishes of a seemingly capricious and petty entity.

4. The most controversial one is that countries with a majority atheist population (and even regions and states within a country) tend to enjoy a more peaceful and moral life than those from religious areas. The causes of this are difficult to pinpoint, and many studies into it commit the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation, claiming that atheism directly leads to peace, but wealth seems to play a huge part in a plethora of factors such as access to education, explicit moral thought, loss of religion, further increased wealth, and levels of ‘peace‘ however you wish to define it.

5. The most important point is that we choose the parts of our religion that we want to follow based on what we already feel is morally acceptable. We more often that not dismiss religious precepts which don’t obey our own internal moral framework rather than dismissing our personal feelings (although exceptions do exist such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses). Holy books are often so unclear on what is acceptable that the religious have to cherry-pick from a self-contradictory set of commands leading to a plethora of denominations each claiming to know the mind of God. The homophobe or racist will scour the Bible for anti-homosexual or pro-slavery rhetoric, whereas the moderate will see only love and acceptance in the pages of the ‘good book’. The mere existence of that internal conscience that does the choosing is actually a problem for religion rather than a vindication of it. It demonstrates that morality simply does not come from up above and it also shows up religious morality to be utterly synymous with human morality.

Many evolutionary biologists believe that morality is an emergent property of natural selection working on a highly social species. Already we observe in nature that animals of the same species rarely kill their own kind which adds to the survival chances of the gene pool as a whole. All social animals have had to modify or restrain their behaviors for group living to be worthwhile.

Many social animals such as primates, dolphins and whales have shown to exhibit what Michael Shermer refers to as “premoral sentiments“. According to Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and other social animals, particularly the great apes:

attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group.

Shermer argues that these premoral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. For any social species, the benefits of being part of an altruistic group should outweigh the benefits of individualism. For example, lack of group cohesion could make individuals more vulnerable to attack from outsiders. Being part of group may also improve the chances of finding food. This is evident among animals that hunt in packs to take down large or dangerous prey.***

There is evidence that our own sense of human morality develops as we grow older and mature into adults. Young children have almost all of their decisions made for them by doting parents and are not usually held accountable for their actions, but as we develop through adolescence, we take on ever growing levels of responsibility until blossoming as mature adults.

The ages at which we cross the threshholds of various stages of development are mostly down to both our brain chemistry, and our upbringing. Of course the former can be heavily influenced by the latter; nurture can affect our nature. Abuse and even neglect can hamper brain development and moral development. Perry (2013) notes that “the nature of [children’s] experiences adversely influences the development of their brains”.

According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, there are 6 stages of moral development. His theory is based on the work of Jean Piaget who described a two-stage process of moral development. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development expanded this into 6 stages encompassing three different levels.

Kohlberg came up with his hypothesis based on Piaget’s work, then after research and interviews with groups of children developed it into a theory. A series of  moral scenarios were presented to the children who were also interviewed in order to better understand the reasoning behind their judgments of each dilemma.

One of the scenarios is known as the “Heinz Dilemma” which goes as follows:

“In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug.

The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?” (Kohlberg, 1963).

The aim of Kohlberg’s research was not so much whether there was a right or wrong answer to the question, but the thought processes that went into each decision. So the interview responses and justifications were more useful to him than a plain yes-no answer.

Kohlberg then went on to systemise the answers into a continuum of moral development.

Level 1. Preconventional Morality

Stage 1 – Obedience and Avoidance of Punishment

Stage 2 – Self-Interest, Individualism and Exchange

Level 2. Conventional Morality

Stage 3 – Interpersonal Relationships

Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order

Level 3. Postconventional Morality

Stage 5 – Social Contract and Individual Rights

Stage 6 – Universal Principles


Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment Avoidance.

Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would consequently be put in prison, which would mean he is a bad person. Or, Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200, not how much the druggist wanted for it. Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.

The earliest stage of moral reasoning is more common in young children (especially under 8 years old), but can also be expressed by adults. People see rules as fixed and absolute and obeying the rules is a way to avoid punishment. It is sometimes characterised as blind egoism. There is no internalisation of moral values. In the Heinz Dilemma, children who demonstrate this type of reasoning are likely to say that Heinz was wrong to steal “because he’d get in trouble”.

Children of a certain age may only have good behaviour because “my mummy will tell me off”. There is no grasp of doing good because it’s good for them or just for the sake of it. Some religious adults can also demonstrate this kind of reasoning when they blindly follow the dictates of a religious text or a religious leader without analysing the moral richness of the world. Cults often cause adults to regress or fail to progress beyond this type of reasoning by imposing a strict hierarchy of authority over them, bolstered by a host of arbitrary rules that members merely follow but don’t actually understand. “If you do that, you’ll go to Hell”, is a common way that stage 1 reasoning is manifest among the religious.

Stage 2 – Self-Interest, Individualism and Exchange

Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would probably experience anguish over a jail cell more than his wife’s death.

At this stage of moral development, usually around age 11, children account for individual points of view and judge actions based on how they serve individual needs. In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best-served Heinz’s needs. Reciprocity is possible at this point in moral development, but only if it serves one’s own interests.

Not many religions or cults encourage their members to reason in this manner. Liberal religions tend to moralise at a higher stage and high-control cults prefer to control their members by getting them to blindly obey the group leadership at stage 1. However, the kind of morality which emphasises self-interest may spontaneously arise in groups where there is an Orwellian-style spy network where members report on the actions of other members. People may do all they can to appear to be following the rules of the group, but behind closed doors may lead a double life.

Stage 3 – Interpersonal Relationships

Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he tried to do everything he could without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.

Often referred to as the “good boy-good girl” orientation, this stage of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles. There is an emphasis on conformity, being “nice,” and consideration of how choices influence relationships. This stage is often seen in the early teens when children develop closer friendships and begin to seek the approval of their peers. Peer pressure is a key feature of this stage.

In religions, this moral stage may manifest itself as an extension of stage 2. Members may not lead a double life, but they may be trying to live up to the groups standards in order to gain public recognition.

Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order

Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.

At this stage of moral development, young people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments. The focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority.

Children usually demonstrate this stage of moral reasoning in their late adolescence and they are more likely to be heavily influenced by peer-pressure and popularity. They also tend to be influenced by the social rules of their in-group or clique as well as the wider rules of society.

In the religious, “I should do what my pastor tells me” is a stage 4 argument that still manages to produce outwardly moral people, without any real depth of ethical understanding. In a recent case in the US, a Jehovah’s Witness juror forced a mistrial in a murder case because halfway through the proceedings she had to go and “do research about her beliefs to discover what her beliefs are”. She clearly did not know what her beliefs were and had to have them spelled out for her. She was exhibiting a mixture of stage 4 blind obedience, and knowing intimately the workings of the Watchtower organisation I can say that there was perhaps a smattering of stage 3 social acceptance within her religious community and stage 1 avoidance of punishment from the religious leaders.

Stage 5 – Social Contract and Individual Rights

Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.

At this stage, people begin to account for the differing values, opinions and beliefs of other people. Rules of law are important for maintaining a society, but members of the society should agree upon these standards.

This stage sounds a lot like the previous stage, as there is some sense of influence from other members of a group involved. However, it is a slightly deeper way of thinking about morality as it involves seeing social unity as a cherished ideal, rather than as a practical means to an end. It involves voluntary cooperation and actually respecting the fundamental rights of others, allows for flexibility in terms of the rules of society and is a basis for democracy.

Most people reach this stage by age 20-22 but some people never reach this stage of moral development and, in a way, get stuck in the “teenage” stage. At this stage, social order is not the most important reason for being moral, and laws are not immutable.

Stage 6 – Universal Principles

Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

Kohlberg’s final level of moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.

This, the very highest developmental stage, is very rare in the population, and often occurs by the late 40s, but it is not unknown among people in their 20s or 30s, especially those with a high level of intelligence and experience. Conscience more often “wins” the conflict between law and conscience. The individual is completely guided by her own moral standard based on universal human rights and obligations.

Many religious people reach this stage, members of some religions are more likely to reach it than others. Jewish ideas of universal compassion, Buddhist and Jainist ideas of ahimsa, Christian mercy and Islamic rahim are all examples of this kind of moral outlook. Although these concepts exist in most world religions, very few are able to leave behind the “works-driven” version of their faith in order to accept universal principles.

Criticisms of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development:

Does moral reasoning necessarily lead to moral behavior? Kohlberg’s theory is concerned with moral thinking, but there is a big difference between knowing what we ought to do versus our actual actions.

Is justice the only aspect of moral reasoning we should consider? Critics have pointed out that Kohlberg’s theory of moral development overemphasizes the concept as justice when making moral choices. Factors such as compassion, caring and other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning.

Does Kohlberg’s theory overemphasize Western philosophy? Individualistic cultures emphasize personal rights while collectivist cultures stress the importance of society and community. Eastern cultures may have different moral outlooks that Kohlberg’s theory does not account for.


Shermer, Michael (2004). The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books. p. 16.

Harris, Sam (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press

Perry, B. D.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1958). “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16”. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Kohlberg, Lawrence; Charles Levine, Alexandra Hewer (1983).Moral stages : a current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, NY: Karger.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1971). From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalistic Fallacy and Get Away with It in the Study of Moral Development. New York: Academic Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence; T. Lickona, ed. (1976). “Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach”. Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Holt, NY: Rinehart and Winston.

Colby, Anne; Kohlberg, L. (1987). The Measurement of Moral Judgment Vol. 2: Standard Issue Scoring Manual. Cambridge University Press.

Piaget, Jean (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.

Gilligan, Carol (1982). In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and Morality. Harvard Educational Review 47 (4).

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1973). The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment. Journal of Philosophy, 70(18), 630–646.


One thought on “Moral Development and Religion

  1. Pingback: Vridar » Morality: Why and What Is It? (And more blog serendipity)

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