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September 25, 2013

Evolution of Morality

by Angel Pumila

The Evolution of Morality

The term, morality, refers to “a system of beliefs or set of values relating to right conduct, against which behavior is judged to be acceptable or unacceptable” (VandenBos, 2007, p. 592).  According to Kohlberg, this belief system is acquired through a gradual stage process in which one step must be successfully completed before entering another (Berk, 2012, p. 608).

Stage 1: Punishment and obedience

Stage 2: Individualism, instrumental purpose and exchange

Stage 3: Mutual interpersonal expectations, relationship conformity

Stage 4: Social system and conscience

Stage 5: Social contract and individual rights

Theorist, Marcia, found that a crisis and commitment model best described the means in which morality is acquired.  For example, when an adolescent is faced with a new situation, previous values and experiences are reviewed and reevaluated to fit the current issue.  The existing morals have been acquired through learning the values of one’s family and culture throughout childhood (Berk, 2012, p. 494).  This relationship between parental morality and adolescent morality has been found positively correlated as a predictor for moral judgment of adolescents (White, 2004, p. 220).  Reinforcement processes of acceptable behavior beginning in early childhood can explain this.  Praise and support of positive behaviors teaches children what is valued within the family.  Yet as we review a changing society over generations of time, we do see a change in values from one generation to the next.

Piaget claimed that development of morals occurs “as children act on, transform, and modify the world they live in” (Crandell, Crandell, & Vander Zanden, 2009, p. 238).  This is true in both generational and social context of morality.  For example, the morals of those born in the 1930s or 1960s in China are based upon the experiences of war and economic development that created values such as cultural obligations and honor (Lee, 2011, p. 383).  Yet, as the following generation experienced less stressors and challenges, the need to reinforce older traditions fades away.  Younger generations believe more in individualism than unity due to the less challenging experiences in their life.

In the United States, the past three generations (boomers; born between 1946 and 1963, millennials; born after 1976 and Xers; born between 1964 and 1976) have showed strong similarities in their moral values. Researcher, Cynthia Pavell (2012), studied this phenomenon and found that while the scores from all three generations were similar, some differences were found.  For example, boomers placed a higher emphasis on individualism.  “This generation grew up with the protests against the Vietnam War and the ‘age of peace and love’” (Pavell, 2012, p. 65).  Meanwhile, Xers preferred more doing than thinking or being and stressed the important of leisure time.  The author contributes this to the fact that more and more of this generation grew up in broken homes that relied on longer work hours to get by and viewed time off as a reward (Pavell, 2012, p. 66).

Each researcher provides valid arguments to the conception and evolution of moral standards.  From birth through adulthood, we witness the change as the reasoning behind doing the right thing shifts from avoiding punishment, to preserving relationships, to conforming to social expectations.  We find these values learned from our parents and modified as new experiences are encountered.  Today, adolescents face a new set of moral challenges as the world rapidly changes into a more diverse and technologically advanced place.  Their decisions about right and wrong set the foundation for the values of future generations to come.


Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants, children, and adolescents (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Crandell, T. L., Crandell, C. H., & Vander Zanden, J. W. (2009). Human development (9th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Lee, C. (2011). Learning to be a good parent across cultural and generational boundaries. Journal Of Moral Education, 40(3), 377-385. doi:10.1080/03057240.2011.596340

Pavell, C. (2012). U.S. Cross-Genrational Variations in Culturally-Oriented Value Systems. San Diego, CA: American Journal of Management. 12(1).

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

White, F. A., & Matawie, K. M. (2004). Parental Morality and Family Processes as Predictors of Adolescent Morality. Journal Of Child And Family Studies, 13(2), 219-233. doi:10.1023/B:JCFS.0000015709.81116.ce


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