The Moral Judgement of the Child by Jean Piaget

The Moral Judgement of the Child traces children's moral thinking from preschool to adolescence, tracing their concepts of lying, cheating, adult authority, punishment, and responsibility and offering important insights into how they learn -- or fail to learn -- the difference between right and wrong.

This notepad was tagged with: Books

This notepad was written on April 4, 2022.

There are 3689 words in this notepad, and it will probably take you less than 19 minutes to read it.

What is morality? How do we learn it?

The two social worlds of the child or adult/child relations and peer relations.

  • From the adults children learn top-down constraints like more respect for superiors.
  • From peer relations children learn to respect and cooperation.
  • Constraints are inflexible, whereas cooperation is negotiable.

Morality according to Piaget is a system of rules.

  • This conception seems intuitively right, but still lacking.
    • I feel like there could be a conception of morality that does not rely on the idea of rules.
      • Does Virtue Theory operate under rules?
    • Would Wittgenstein’s Rule Following Paradox apply here?

According to Piaget, each person develops/construct their own moral beliefs through social interaction and cognitive appraisal.

Hartshorne and May showed the divide between moral judgment and action.

  • Children could recognize incorrect actions but would still do them.
  • Piaget thought that the distinction between judgment and action is silly and that judgment is a particular type of action and a richer understanding of the divide would be practical versus theoretical expressions of moral judgment.
    • Piaget called this the practice and consciousness of rules.

Piaget thought that in order to improve moral education, we would increase the amount of peer collaboration group work in participatory forms of engagement that offer children guidance about their own moral experience.

In the game of marbles everyone is subject to the same rules, equal treatment is very important.

rules are agreed-upon in the Yotie did before or during the game and then there’s a consensus on accepting the rules

Much of the case work is done through interviews with 20 boys 4-13 years old who play marbles.

  • Girls don’t really play marbles, so they talk about Hopscotch and Hide & Seek for girls.
    • This results in them finding different stages of the consciousness of rules for boys and girls which may very be true but I don’t think that there are analogous games that are scaffolding the interviews.
    • I would think that there would be a difference in the acceptance and consciousness of rules between genders only because of the amount and difference of socialization.

Observed stages of the practice of rules (in boys):

  1. Motor/Individual: play is done by their own desire or habits and nothing is really collective
  2. Egocentric (2-5 yrs old): imitates codified rules by example but still kind of plays by themself and everyone can win at once without regard for the codified rules
  3. Cooperation (7-8 yrs old): each player is trying to win and there is the beginning of mutual control and unification of rules, but ideas of the rules in general are still vague
  4. Codification of Rules (11-12 yrs old): rules are fixed and observable to everyone

Observed stages of the consciousness of rules (in boys):

  1. Rules are non-coercive (pre-egocentric): rules are just mechanical or received passively and not understood to be obligatory just as examples of play
  2. Rules are sacred/untouchable (egocentric-mid-cooperation): rules come from adults and last forever, to alter is a transgression
  3. Rules are law due to mutual consent (Cooperation-beyond): respect to be loyal but you can change if people agree with you

At first a rule is external to someone so they feel that it is more sacred, but slowly become some thing that they participate in and can change through mutual agreement.

Within the egocentric stage the child is performing some rituals but more importantly playing for themselves they see people playing and they try to follow the rules but they convince them selves that they are playing correctly but really are just playing for themselves. this is similar to when there’s a group of children in “conversation“ where they say things but don’t really respond to each other in a group they’re just trying to emulate a conversant group. they are playing but not playing to win so if two kids are playing the same game they could be doing different rules but the child doesn’t care what the other child is doing. they can change the rules when they want because they aren’t really playing the game

The third and fourth stage is when you actually get real gameplaying and respect the rules, the third stage they have awareness of most rules but not all of them and then the fourth stage there seems to be an interest in the rules themselves and there’s long judicial conversations about the rules and they like the complications of it all

Bovet says the feeling of obligation (toward a rule) starts from a command emanating from someone whom they respect.

in the first stage the consciousness of rules the child is kind of unsure whether it’s a physical law, personal ritual, or a moral law like touching the stove (heat burns: physical) or something like that

The second stage is where the child begins do you want to play and conform within the rules. (~6 yrs old this becomes explicit)

  • the researchers asked questions like where do these rules come from have they always been the same can rules be changed?
  • The child imitates (the older children) the rules of other and they regard the rules of the game as sacred and untouchable. they will not modify them even if accepted by general opinion it would still be wrong, this is because they see rules as some kind of extension of divine authority there by God or usually by their parents
  • before ages 6 to 7 the child has a limited ability of retrospection so this makes someone think that they’ve always known some thing which they have only just learned they have a hard time differentiating between what comes from themselves and from others in their knowledge base — this is somewhat related to the perception and description of time they have an indifference to the distinction of before and after, old and new
  • usually kids will accept random rules because they just think that they’ve always existed not that they’re a new invention
  • Do these interviews exhibit parts of moral dumbfounding and confabulation at such a young age?
  • There is a belief that Rules have an absolute intrinsic truth which is independent of usage
  • there is a balance between egocentricity and constraint
  • what if the parents did not teach them rules with threat of authority? could a certain sort of relativism be taught early?

The third stage is the consciousness that there are possible variations in the use of the rules, there is a cease in the belief that there are intrinsic values of rules (10+ yrs old).

  • The consciousness of autonomy
  • rules become the outcome of the free decision and where the respect in that it has enlisted mutual consent.
  • change is allowable, rules are not thought of as passed down by an older generation
  • How fast is rule change? Do you children experiment more? Is it like a language change? Do children Drive language change?
  • it seems that when a rule of cooperation replaces a rule constraint it becomes an effective moral law
  • when children learn how to modify rules they realize the reason for existence of laws a rule becomes necessary condition for agreement
  • like society, law emanates from the sovereign, it is not divine command theory

Perhaps in the consciousness of rules and their malleability, the children realize that in order to have a game or to play the game and win the game they must accept the constitutive rules of which they can change but nonetheless must except some amount of rules in order to play the game.

  • This follows from Suits’ work in The Grasshopper.

In the interviews of the children and the notion of fairness is appealed to a lot in moral explanations of why rules are perceived to be wrong. they have a notion that the rule is different but they don’t know how, they don’t have the language to describe it.

A lot of the children appeal to fairness and democracy or rather social consensus and I wonder if this is because they have been raised in the more democratic environment in which the kindergarten or the educational program encourages cooperation like what if there are more perhaps conservatively religious schools or communities in which students are in or children rather are just so drilled in and used to divine command that  they are stuck in the idea that rules are fixed and passed on from above for much longer

Stages according to me:

  1. Imitation of behavior that is rule-bound
  2. Increased awareness of rules as laws
  3. Realization of the socially constructed nature of rules

Motor behavior, egocentric behavior with external constraint, and cooperation

Motor rules, rules do the unilateral respect, and rules due to mutual respect

our children just an input mode assimilating various information taking it as their own until certain point where they start to develop consciousness and begin to be able to sort this information?

rules are either constitutive i.e. those that enable cooperation and there are rules that are constituted which are the results of that cooperation

Piaget thinks that moral rules can be divided into constituted rules dependent upon mutual consent

From a Durkheimian perspective, a rule is nothing but a condition for the existence of a social group, and if someone feels obligation it is because communal life alters the structure of someone into feeling respect.

  • Moral development happens when you enter increasingly large communities and social density increases.

Piaget asks what would happen in a society where everyone is the same age, would respect emerge? Is hierarchy natural and self-organizing, would there be a new metric that would be found to create respect like intelligence?

M. Bovet argues against Kant where following a command or duty only happens our of respect for the person issuing the command, it is not out of respect to the rule itself.

  • Moral development happens from conflicting influences and contradictory commands as you interact with more people. The child somehow has to struggle to unify the moral concepts.
  • For Bovet, all moral sentiments are rooted in the respect felt by individuals for each other.

I think that this phenomenon is not exclusive to children, what I’ve noticed when I enter spaces where people are just getting acclimated to culture norms and rules they take things to be way more literally. in this way it’s like they are seeing rules as objective or rules is purely mechanical and they aren’t sure how to abstract and where they are able to be able to bend the rules.


Piaget calls moral realism the tendencies which the child has to regard duty and the value attaching to it mind-independent and as imposing itself regardless of the circumstances. Moral realism has at least these three features:

  • Any act that shows obedience to a rule or to even an adult regardless of what they may command is good, any actor does not come to the rules is bad.
  • The letter rather than the spirit of the law is observed, and this way a rule is not something elaborated or judged or interpreted it is given and it is followed by someone because it is imposed on them.
  • There is an objective conception of moral responsibility.

Piaget wants to figure out the relation of verbal thought of the child to their active concrete thought. I think this gets it confabulation and moral thinking versus moral action.

  • They don’t want to study how children put their morals into practice, but rather how they judge their own actions.
  • Sometimes children may have their theoretical thought lag behind their practical thought like taking into account intentions of others but they do consider their own intentions.
  • moral justification might be regurgitations at first but independent of a child’s own judgement proved
    • Piaget wants to maintain that it corresponds but that it doesn’t necessarily mean that theoretical judgement interprets their actions.

One key area of interest was whether children judged acts based off of the intentions/motives vs the consequences.

  • They did this by presenting contrasting pairs of stories where well-intentioned kids made large material damage whereas ill-intentioned kids made small material damage. They also compared well-intentioned stealing with ill-intentioned stealing.
  • children below six were not really able to understand the stories
  • Up until 10, there seems to be only two types of children:
    • Actions are judged only by consequence
    • Actions are judged only by motive
    • a child can change their evaluation style between stories but they seem to be binary. in some cases they can recognize motive in themselves but not in others when doing moral judgements
    • Piaget observed that the notion of objective responsibility seems to diminish as children get older.
    • average age for objective: 7 and 9 for subjective, kids below 7 didn’t really have good answers
    • objective is consequence, subjective is intention

there is a question about if a child’s judgment means or implies objective responsibility sometimes it could just be that they recognize that it’s bad but aren’t charging it Morley, but he are use that in regards to lying there can be seen a connection of implication of objective responsibility.

they believe that a valuations based on material damage or just a result of a dog constraint reflected through childish respect for rules rather than any kind of mental thinking of the mind. It is because adults deal harshly with clumsiness. The child set up their own feelings around the adult reactions.

  • however if adults are intentional and try to make them see motives then they achieve very early learning results
  • children take the punishment as a moral judgment but most the parents will punish you based off of the quantity, but they realize it is not a moral fault

Blame is “diffused” and punishment is “organized” in so far as how they teach the child.

often times younger kids would not be able to produce the definition of a lie, but they were able to recognize them and they centered around “naughty words“ so allies naughty word so a curse word they thought was a lie but also not telling the truth is a lie

Younger children once again did not recognize intention, so unintentional mistakes versus intentional lying usually fell under the same category.

  • the rigidity of adult constraint makes them only think about the relationship of the statement to the truth, not about intentionality.
  • Naughty word —> something wrong/untrue —> intentionally falsehood
  • in the interviews the children do show that they are able to distinguish between intentional lying and unintentional mistakes.
  • I think the definitions are a product of reflection and these children have not thought extensively about what constitutes a lie, they have rough ideas and are able to find rough approximations, but usually do not have a strong idea until they’re 8+.
  • when children are in the objective stage they judge the “naughtiness” of a lie based on the distance from the truth and not on intention.
  • many children judge the naughtiness of a lie by the degree of its incredibility to adults, this makes sense because children would be berated for the more outrageous sentences.
  • using the same line of reasoning, objective and subjective thinkers were able to come to opposite conclusions, i.e. incredible statements are egregious lies to the objective thinker, but jokes to the subjective ones. an unbelievable statement is not a good lie to the subjective thinker

Lying is fairly natural to the child because they’re egocentric but the adult constraint comes more objective precisely because it does not match up with what the child believes naturally. in this way the adult’s command always feels external.

  • Until seven or eight, as shown by Stern et al, the child finds systematic difficulty in sticking to the truth.
  • this is of course mostly unconscious or without bad intent they just distort reality in accordance with what they want and how they see things
  • it is when the child comes in contact with other minds that the truth starts to become more demanding they start to see the value in it

It is about the feeling of duty that drives early moral development. They hear things from people who they respect so they begin to associate certain things.

How do children view the moral utility of not lying?

  • many children believe that you shouldn’t lie because you don’t wanna get punished. so then if God or adults did not punish you, lies would simply become permissible
    • this goes as far as some children thought that the kid who was caught and punished in a lie was more naughty
    • Piaget states that this is objective responsibility in the purest form
    • Malum prohibitum as opposed to Malum in se
    • This isn’t moral relativity, but instead they believe punishment to be a necessary condition for a lie, so if there’s no punishment, then it isn’t a lie/isn’t bad.
    • At a certain stage rules become obligatory independent of punishments, independent of the controlling power from where they emanate.
    • Bovet states that rules are initially closely bound with the person who imposes them better than elaborated by the child’s reason and thus become universal. They can be placed above the initial context.
  • as the children get older eventually they begin to understand truthfulness as necessary for mutual agreement and reciprocity and lying destroys mutual trust

interestingly enough younger children said that lies were worse when you do not believe it rather than when you do believe it. of course as children get older they come to believe that a lie is worse when it does succeed.

First a lie is bad because of punishment, then a lie is wrong per se, then finally a lie is wrong because it undermines mutual trust.

  • Unilateral respect —> Mutual respect

This idea of unilateral respect is demonstrated in that most younger children believe that it is worse to lie to a grown-up than another child. Some say it’s a little naughty to lie to kids some say not at all.

  • The older children still think it’s wrong to deceive adults but they also said it’s bad or perhaps even worse to deceive one’s peers/younger kids. Because younger kids will believe almost anything.

there are two distinct levels of activity in moral thought:

  • effective moral thought (“moral experience”) built up in reality and especially in conflict with beliefs

What would raising your child without commands or duties look like?

  • even if there are no explicit commands, conformity or non-conformity to a habit or routine becomes right or wrong

3 to 4 is when the child starts asking why’s about motivation, but it is interesting that they don’t take into account intentionality until they’re like eight

  • does the development of a theory of mind not occur until later? in this way they would take other peoples actions at face value and not ascribe intentionality to them
  • Objective responsibility is taken into account later into a child’s development when evaluating other people rather than the actions of oneself

moral realism comes from childish realism (how children think) and adult constraint

  • children take things literally and external to themselves which contributes to their realist thinking

until children are 7-8 they do not separate physical laws from moral obligations and social rules. The sun sets because he’s not allowed to be out during night, or something similar

  • in this way the universe is permeated with “moral rules”
  • however are they not just regurgitating adult thought? they could just be repeating simplified explanations that parents give to them


justice in the context of punishment (retributive justice)

Younger children on average thought that punishment was just necessary as well as the stern of the punishment the more just order children thought that perhaps punishment was not necessary always

how should lying in children be punished? Because I feel like there could be certain breeding ground for better liars because they could internalize the learning as don’t get caught instead of don’t lie

some of the punishments look like reconciliations for actions (fixing the problem and then some), some look like corporal punishment (getting smacked), some look like karmic retribution (same thing happening to them like if they lie don’t believe them), negative punishment (taking away something)

expiatory punishment - coercive from power painful punishment word comes from religion in appearing a deity to avoid divine retribution

  • there is no relation between the guilty act and the nature of its punishment
  • Foucault would’ve had something interesting to say about this because throughout history there was a systematization of punishment like 40 lashes for stealing your songs that were they tried to match the punishment to the nature of the crime but not in an exactly reciprocal manner (proportional not reciprocal). this is also seen in confession for Catholics with Hail Marys and other things like that

Reciprocal Punishment

  • this is more dependent on cooperation and mutual respect so if the rule is broken the social bond is kind of interrupted in the person wants to reconcile because they want to restore the social bond back to where it was — the person needs to realize they broke the bond of solidarity
  • other times it’s just material consequences related to the act
  • sometimes reciprocal punishment feels a little I for an eye which sometimes could just breathe a cycle of resentment like Hammurabi which is not always the best thing

6-7, 8-10, 11-12 increasing selection of reciprocal punishments

Arbitrary expiatory punishment - pain is justice because we want to make them realize the gravity of their misdeed

  • sometimes children see it as constraint others see it as preventative punishment but most times they don’t really differentiate or can’t differentiate it

simple reciprocal punishment - A person should have an analogous action done to them in order for them to realize their misdeed

Other Books Notepads

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

A transformative exploration of the power, purpose, and benefits of gatherings in our lives: at work, at school, at home and beyond.

The Other Significant Others by Rhaina Cohen

The Other Significant Others is an exploration of long-term platonic relationships in their various forms.

The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas

How can we think more deeply about travel? This was the thought that inspired Emily Thomas to journey into the philosophy of travel, to explore the places where philosophy and travel intersect.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In The End by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is a meditation on how people can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death.

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

In the New York Times bestseller Nick Hornby calls “helpful, stimulating, and very timely”, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokboki by Baek Seehee

Recording her dialogues with her psychiatrist over a twelve-week period, and expanding on each session with her own reflective micro-essays, Baek begins to disentangle the feedback loops, knee-jerk reactions, and harmful behaviors that keep her locked in a cycle of self-abuse. Part memoir, part self-help book, I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is a book to keep close and to reach for in times of darkness. It will appeal to anyone who has ever felt alone or unjustified in their everyday despair.

My Favorite Books

A list of my favorite books and book series.

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok

Is it ever all right to lie? A philosopher looks at lying and deception in public and private life—in government, medicine, law, academia, journalism, in the family and between friends.