"There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it." (Diderot)

    Moral development, sometimes called age or stage, theories are found in a number of fields, in general psychology, in cognitive psychology, in criminology, in sociology, and in adolescent psychology.  This lecture briefly summarizes the moral development ideas of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Gilligan in the larger context of a discussion about normal and abnormal adolescence.  Moral development theories should be distinguished from ordinary developmental theories in criminology, also covered in this lecture.  Developmental theories, according to Siegel (2004) are either "latent trait" theories, which hold that criminal behavior is controlled by some master trait present at birth or soon after which remains stable and unchanging throughout a lifetime; or "life course" theories, which view criminality as a dynamic process, influenced by individual characteristics as well as social experiences.  Moral development theories tend to be embraced by those with an interest in ethics; latent trait theories by those with an interest in the root psychological causes of crime; and life course theories tend to be attract researchers interested in asking why and when do offenders stop offending (i.e., the study of desistance).

    It should be noted that despite the inroads of some fairly good ideas in criminology, moral development theories are most often regarded as "eclectic" theories in the field.  Eclectic means "everything causes delinquency or crime."  They're subject to what is also called the "evil causes evil fallacy."  Blaming delinquency on being an adolescent is the same as saying "moods" or "states of mind" cause crime, and, of course, there are many things to blame delinquency on.  Theoretical efforts are likewise diverse, shooting out in multiple directions.  Neo-cognitive theory (Kelley 1994), for example, draws heavily upon the quite mysterious process of alienation that typically occurs in adolescence, and then, to take another example, there are important down-to-earth biological processes to note, such as the concept of "pubertal development" advanced by Felson & Haynie (2002), who incidently found that puberty (and an associated property crime to violent crime to drug crime pattern) was as reliable a predictor of delinquency as school performance and peer association.  There is tremendous variability to be explained from this approach, and it is quite likely that this theoretical project will remain unfinished for some time in criminology.


    It's been called the "transition" stage with no accomplishment nor completion.  Its existence has been called an "historical accident."  Experts can't even agree on when it begins (most simply use the age of puberty) and when it ends (some say an "extended" adolescence is possible up to age 25 or 30; other say there's an "early" 12-14 stage, a "middle" 15-17 stage, and a "late" 18-19 stage).  There's more mythology than science when it comes to notions of "typical" or "normal" adolescence, and explaining the breakdown that occurs.

    Daedalus, an inventor, and his son, Icarus (so the ancient Greek myth goes) were both imprisoned in a tower on the island of Crete.  To escape, Daedalus built a set of wings out of feathers and wax, but only his son, Icarus was small enough to fit thru the tower window.  Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high because Apollo, God of the Sun, would become jealous of someone entering his domain and melt the wax.  But Icarus, exhilarated by being able to soar above the Earth, flies too high, and his wings melt, plunging him into the Hellspont.  Ever since, "adolescents" have been seen as: (a) disobedient toward parents; (b) wanting to "fly" too high; and, in some interpretations, (c) condemned to hell. 

    Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended two kinds of treatments for unruly children.  For females, they should be made pregnant.  For males, they should be flogged.  Philo, a friend of Socrates, advocated infanticide if beatings didn't work.  History actually records a long record of using sex, corporal punishment, and infanticide against unruly children.  The common law doctrine of in loco parentis has deep roots in almost all civilizations.

    Historically, adolescence can be considered a by-product of the Industrial Revolution.  Prior to child labor laws, there had been no need to define any special period of life for those too young to work but too old to not be given at least some adult responsibilities.  Over the years, the age at which society permits children to assume adult roles has gradually been raised.  This "stretch" of time, then, has come to be associated with the "stress" of adolescence. 

    By the late 19th Century, numerous experts were popularizing the idea of adolescence being a "critical" stage of life. Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) pioneered the technique of "not too much" but "not too little" discipline as a cure for the problems of adolescence.  Dr. Spock, later in the 1950s, would advocate complete and total leniency.  Counterculture experts such as Keniston and Roscak in the 1960s also advocated toleration as well as popularized the idea of being "stuck in adolescence."  Freudian and Neo-Freudian ideas abounded, but it was Stanley Hall's ideas about the Six Themes of Adolescence that became the most popular hallmarks of "normal," as follows:


    1. Self-definition -- a concern for finding one's "real" self, a concern for habit formation, and little unstructured time to deal with these concerns, hence, a constant state of urgency.
    2. Estrangement and Omnipotentiality -- estrangement takes the form of feeling like a marginal member of society, with unrealistic mobility aspirations and intense job anxieties. Omnipotentiality is the feeling of absolute freedom, a reveling in all the pure possibilities that the future may hold.  For many, the "car" becomes a symbol for this.
    3. Refusal of Socialization -- a critical if not rebellious stance at continued efforts to instruct, educate, or train for society's purposes.  There's a feeling of always being under observation by a critical audience of all adult socializing agents.
    4. Celebration of Youth Culture -- a rebellious sense of solidarity based on the perceived sharing of fads, fashions, and styles by others in the same age group or generation; intense age-consciousness.
    5. Stasis as Death -- stasis means "standing still" or being in a rut, and this is avoided and despised at all costs.  There's an irrational devotion to change, to putting oneself through changes merely for the sake of change.  It takes two forms: a need to move (geographic restlessness); and a need to be moved (experimentation with states of consciousness).
    6. Physical Obsession -- there's an obsessiveness or inadmissible sense of shame over uncontrollable physical changes, like sex fantasies, body weight and contours, dietary habits, the outgrowing of clothing, outbreaks of acne, etc.


Indicators of being on a "normal" course of moral development:
1. Obsessive concern for bodily appearance
2. Fear of abandonment expressed as assertion of independence
3. Desire to be different in terms of "fads"
4. Sexual desire and manipulativeness
5. Wanting to be like other races or cultures
6. Persistent wisecracking as long as it's witty
7. Obsessive desire for success and recognition
8. Lack of self-identity or distinct self-concept
9. Emotional extremes expressed as sensitivity to criticism

Indicators of being on an "abnormal" course of moral development:
1. Driven by whim or caprice rather than purpose or gain
2. Unmoved by overtures of help & harms helpers
3. Shows no loyalty to other adolescents
4. Words are inconsistent with feelings, language is strange, humor missing
5. Claims to have always been the first to do something
6. Pathological lying for no good reason
7. Superficially charming but unable to maintain intimate relations

Indicators of being an "at-risk" youth (Middle Schools):
1. Frequent absenteeism, tardiness, or suspension
2. Academic performance below grade level or repeating a grade
3. Oppositional stance towards authority
4. Drug/alcohol involvement
5. Police/probation involvement
6. Being a "latch-key" child
7. Coming from a single parent family or foster home

Indicators of "delinquent pathways" (Justice Dept.):
1. Authority Conflict Pathway: Early signs of stubbornness, outright defiance by age 11, running away, avoiding authorities, truancy, staying out late
2. Covert Pathway: Early signs of minor mischievousness, frequent lying, shoplifting by age 10, property damage, firestarting, vandalism
3. Overt Pathway: Early acts of aggression or bullying, annoying everyone around them by age 12, having no friends and numerous enemies, interested only in escalating problems


1. Sensorimotor Stage 0-2
2. PreOperational Stage 2-7
3. Concrete Stage 7-14
4. Formal Stage 14-adult

    In short, delinquents are seen as "stuck" in the Concrete stage, only seeing things as black or white, right or wrong.  In short, they have a dualistic morality. They're only concerned with classifying things, and no other reasoning about them.


1. Trust/Mistrust Stage 0-1
2. Autonomy/Doubt Stage 2-3
3. Initiative/Guilt Stage 3-6
4. Industry/Inferiority Stage 7-12
5. Identity/Identity Diffusion Stage 12-18
6. Intimacy/Isolation Stage "Twenty-something"
7. Generativity/Stagnation Stage 20s-50s
8. Integrity/Despair Stage 60s--

    In short, delinquents are seen as "stuck" in the Identity Stage, in a semi-permanent state of identity crisis.  Male delinquents experience identity without intimacy, and female delinquents experience intimacy without identity.  Self-worth and fidelity are virtues that have not yet developed.


1. Punishment Concern stage - obedience to power and avoiding punishment
2. Individualistic Concern stage - meeting one's own needs, me first
3. Interpersonal Concern stage - having good motives, some concern for others
4. Conscience Concern stage - serving welfare of the group or society
5. Social Contract Concern stage - agreed-upon individual rights in society
6. Universal Ethics Concern stage - principles of justice for all humankind

    In short, delinquents are seen as "stuck" in a state of moral immaturity.  It doesn't depend on age, and any of the first three stages may be where they're stuck.  Most hardcore delinquents would be at the Punishment stage, where they only believe something is right or wrong because it hurts if you do what society thinks is wrong.  Others are in the Individualistic stage, where they decide what is right or wrong by reference to an egoistic sense of whether they can be blamed or not for doing wrong.  A few may be in the Interpersonal stage, where they determine right or wrong by a sense of group honor.  Kohlberg actually did some research with adult criminals, finding that they are more likely to be in stages 1 and 2 (deterred from crime by fear of sanctions).


    The differences between males and females are seen as the difference between an ethics of justice and an ethics of caring.  Boys game (for winners and losers) while girls play (for enjoyment of the game).  The theory is a feminist critique of justice, as traditional justice conceptions are seen as not allowing room for an ethics of caring.  Similar ideas can be found in what is called restorative justice or peacemaking criminology.  Although these viewpoints in criminology have separate traditions, there is enough of a connection to mention them here. 


    The "latent trait" view holds that there is some personal attribute or characteristic present in all people which controls their inclination or propensity to commit crime.  The most sophisticated model of this idea can be found in Rowe, Osgood & Nicewander (1990), but there have been a number of efforts since then to identify which trait is the "master" trait.  Suspected traits include defective intelligence, impulsive personality, genetic abnormalities, physical-chemical functioning of the brain, and/or environmental influences on brain function.   Wilson & Herrstein (1985), for example, attempted to develop a human nature theory of crime which argued that personal traits outweigh the importance of social variables.  In a latter work, similar authors (Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990) argued that "low self-control" was the "master" trait, the root cause of which was inadequate child-rearing.  Gottfredson & Hirschi's ideas in this regard are often treated as a control theory of crime.

    A fairly new "latent trait" approach has been that of Mark Colvin (Colvin 2000; Unever et. al. 2004) who argues that chronic criminals emerge from a developmental process characterized by recurring, erratic episodes of coercion.  There are two types of coercion: interpersonal (which is direct, involving the use or threat of force from parents, peers, and significant others); and impersonal (which involves pressures beyond individual control).  Colvin’s differential coercion theory integrates several existing criminological perspectives, but in brief, attempts to locate the root cause of chronic offending in the fact that such offenders grew up in homes where parents used erratic control and applied it in an erratic and inconsistent fashion.

    Also fairly new is Tittle's control balance theory (Tittle 1995), which expands on the notion of personal control as a predisposing element of criminality.  Control, as a concept, can refer to either the amount of control one is subject to by others, or it can refer to the amount of control one can exercise over others.  Those who have an excess of the first kind of control tend to engage in exploitation, plunder, and decadence.  Those who have a deficit of the second kind of control tend to engage in predation, defiance, and submission.  All six behaviors are ways to restore a balance.

    The "life course" view can probably be traced back at least to the Gluecks (Glueck & Glueck 1950), but most modern criminologists trace it to Sampson & Laub's (1993) book, Crime in the Making.  Two concepts are important from this point of view.  One is the concept of "trajectory" which is the pathway of development over the life course marked by a sequence of transactions.  Every trajectory has an entry point, success point, and the element of timing.  Normal development is characterized by avoiding any event that may be called an "off-age" event.  Two is the concept of "transition" which refers to the life events themselves which are embedded in the trajectories.  Transitions can consist of tipping points or turning points, but generally refer to radical turnaround points in life.  Most life course theorists presume that the seeds of a criminal career are planted early in life, point to "age of onset" as being the best predictor of later, more serious criminality, and research things like getting married or joining the military as turning points.  However, people may begin their trajectory into crime at different times in their life.  For example, the forensic psychologist, Terrie Moffit argues that there are two (2) main trajectories, as explained below.


    University of Wisconsin psychology professor Terrie Moffitt's developmental theory (Moffitt 1993) begins with empirical research indicating that signs of persistent antisocial behavior can be detected early in life, as early as the preschool years, and extends to the idea that adolescent deviant behavior is greatly influenced by the behavior of peer groups even after parental variables are taken into account.  The theory states that two groups of antisocial youth can be distinguished based on their ages of onset and trajectories of conduct problems.  These two groups differ enough to require separate causal explanations.  It might be helpful to illustrate some of the distinctions between these two groups in the following table:

The Dual Trajectories in the Origins of Conduct Disorder (CD)

"Early Starters"

"Late Starters"

Life-course-persistent (LCP) offenders

Adolescent limited (AL) offenders

DSM-IV conduct disorder: childhood-onset type

DSM-IV conduct disorder: adolescent-onset type

Minor aggression (bullying, fighting), lying, hurting animals, biting and hitting by age 4

Serious aggression (mugging, forced sex, use of weapon), stealing, running away, truancy, breaking & entering

Neurological problems: attention deficit or hyperactivity

Little to no problems with peer rejection; have learned how to get along with others

5-10% of the male juvenile offender population (2% females)

Majority of juvenile offender population; ceases or stops offending around age 18

    During the teenage years, the two types are indistinguishable, and no existing paper-and-pencil test for antisocial tendencies or psychopathy will be able to discriminate the two types.  That's because many of the "late starters" will "begin" with rather serious delinquency, and many of the "early starters" will be just "escalating" into serious delinquent behavior at about the same time.  Because many of the "late starters" may only be engaging in symbolic adolescent rebellion (perhaps because something is forbidden), have usually maintained empathy and avoided peer rejection, and are smart enough to see the rewards in more socially approved behavior, they usually "dropout" or desist from any pathway toward crime.  Not so with the "early starters" (the most frequently studied group) who may only be precociously escalating into serious offenses as a way of expanding the versatility of their antisocial ways across all kinds of conditions and situations.  In fact, a trajectory toward versatility might be apparent with early starters at a very young age.  The research indicates that increasingly higher levels of early conduct problems are associated with increasingly higher levels of late conduct problems, and Tremblay's (2003) research also shows that the best predictors of early starters are: having a target (sibling); parental separation before birth; and low income.

    Although the number of early starters in the population of interest may only amount to 5-10% of the total, such children and adolescents usually account for more than 50% of referrals to authorities and mental health services.  Their behavior is disruptive not only to authorities, but to their peers, and for this reason, they experience significant amounts of peer rejection.  Not only does this limit their chances for "getting ahead" on the basis of normal, lasting relationships, but their poor interpersonal or social skills are combined with three other prominent features, as follows, and discussed in separate paragraphs below:

    The first feature -- attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- refers to a complex set of behaviors characterized by three central features: (1) excessive motor activity (cannot sit still, fidgets, runs about, is talkative and noisy); (2) impulsivity (acts before thinking, shifts quickly from one activity to another, interrupts others, does not consider consequences of behavior); and (3) inattention (does not seem to listen, is easily distracted, loses things necessary for essential tasks).  ADHS should not be confused with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) which has the following cluster of symptoms: (1) arguing with adults; (2) refusing adults' requests; (3) deliberately trying to annoy others; (4) blaming others for mistakes; and (5) being spiteful or vindictive (Kosson et. al. 2002).  ADHS afflicts as many as 20% of American school-age children, boys more than girls (by a ratio of 9:1), and blacks more than other ethnic groups, for debatable reasons ranging from speculations about genetic predisposition to the possibility of exposure to hazardous toxins in black communities.  Many people afflicted with ADHD never "outgrow" it, and theories about the continuity of learning disabilities into adulthood are also controversial.  The most common treatment is methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, but it has mixed effects, and a successful treatment regimen for ADHD has yet to be found.          

    Conduct problems refer to the variety of symptoms found in the diagnostic category of Conduct Disorder (CD), and among delinquent youth, these are usually "co-occurring psychopathologies" that exist between one or more of these symptoms and ADHD symptoms.  In fact, Bartol & Bartol (2004) report on research indicating that as many as 50% of disruptive children exhibit having the symptoms of CD half the time and the symptoms of ADHD the other half of the time.  According to the APA, the central feature of CD is a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior that violates the rights of others, and early-onset CD generally begins before age 10.  Symptoms of CD include stealing, fire setting, running away, truancy, destroying property, fighting, telling lies on a frequent basis, and being cruel to animals and people.  It is the consensus of scholars that conduct disorder (CD) is roughly the juvenile equivalent of adult antisocial personality disorder.  Conduct disorder typically gets worse as the child gets older, and it is often misdiagnosed as a learning disability (because there are frequent problems with school assignments) whereas someone with a "true" learning disability may not be conduct-disordered.  CD afflicts about 16% of the male population and about 9% of the female population.           

    Below-average intelligence or low IQ refers to a lower cognitive ability and slow language development that, at times, is called by other names, such as "neuropsychological dysfunction" or impairment of "executive functioning."  Low IQ is strongly associated with an early age of onset for Conduct Disorder (CD) and has a relationship to delinquency which holds even when socioeconomic status (SES) is controlled for.  An 8 to 10 point difference is usually found on any standard intelligence test comparing delinquents with nondelinquents.  There are some interesting findings regarding ethnic differences in how low-IQ is related to delinquency, as low-IQ whites tend to follow a "susceptibility" pathway to the typical personality disorders, and low-IQ minorities (blacks, Latinos, and Asians) tend to follow a "school failure" (being held back) pathway to lower "emotional intelligence" which results in decreased empathy and violent misreading of emotional cues from others.  

Classic Theories of Child Development

Java Applet of Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Moral Development and Adolescence: The Heinz Dilemma

Prof. M. Colvin's website
The Rise and Decline of the Teenager

Colvin, M. (2000).  Crime and Coercion. NY: St. Martin's Press.
Felson, R. & Haynie, D. (2002). "Pubertal Development, Social Factors and Delinquency Among Adolescent Boys." Criminology 40(4): 967-988.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
Glueck, S. & E. Glueck. (1950). Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
Gottfredson, M. & T. Hirschi. (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press.
Hall, S. (1905). Adolescence. NY: Ayer Publishing.
Kelly, T. (1994). "Crime and Psychology of Mind: A Neo-Cognitive View of Delinquency." Pp. 29-46 in G. Barak (ed.) Varieties of Criminology: Readings from a Dynamic Discipline. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stages in the Development of Moral Thought. NY: Holt, Rinehart.
Lever, J. (1976). "Sex Differences in the Games Children Play," Social Problems 23:478-487.
Manaster, G. (1977). Adolescent Development and the Life Tasks. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Moffit, T. (1993). "Adolescent-limited and Life-course-persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy." Psychological Review 100:674-701.
Moffitt, T. (1997). "Adolescent-Limited and Life-Course Persistent Offending: A Complementary Pair of Developmental Theories," Pp. 11-54 in T. Thornberry (ed.) Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency, Advances in Criminological Theory. Newark, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Moffit, T., Caspi, A., Harrington, H. & Milne, B. (2002). "Males on the Life-course-persistent and Adolescence-limited Antisocial Pathways: Follow-up at Age 26 Years." Development and Psychopathology 14:179-207.
Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Kegan Paul.
Piquero, A. & Mazerolle, P. (Eds.) (2001). Life-Course Criminology: Contemporary and Classic Readings.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Rowe, D., Osgood, D. & Nicewander, A. (1990). "A Latent Trait Approach to Unifying Criminal Careers." Criminology 28(2):237-270.
Sampson, R. & Laub, J. (1993). Crime in the Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Siegel, L. (2004). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, & Typologies, 8e. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Tittle, C. (1995). Control Balance: Toward a General Theory of Deviance. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Tremblay, R. (2003). "Why Socialization Fails?" Pp. 182-224 in B. Lahey, T. Moffitt & E. Caspi (eds.) Causes of Conduct Disorder and Juvenile Delinquency. NY: Guilford.
Unnever, J., Colvin, M. & Cullen, F. (2004). "Crime and Coercion: A Test of Core Propositions." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(3): 244-268.
Wilson, J. & R. Herrstein. (1985). Crime and Human Nature. NY:Touchstone.

Last updated: Nov 30, 2006
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