What is Moral Psychology?

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  • Written By: Abrielle Lynch
  • Edited By: Amanda L. Wardle
  • Last Modified Date: 23 January 2020
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Moral psychology is a field of study concerned with the implications of psychology and ethics. This field is studied in both psychology and philosophy, though each approaches the subject with different methods and from different perspectives. Psychology focuses on the ways in which moral beliefs have developed. In philosophy, moral psychology usually refers to views on moral reasoning.

Psychology studies how moral reasoning is formed and what makes things morally right or wrong. Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, theorized that the development of a person’s moral reasoning happens in multiple stages. He engaged in studies that attempted to determine how different individuals would respond to moral dilemmas. During the 1970s, both psychologists and philosophers criticized Kohlberg's theory. Others, however, credit him with introducing a new field of psychology.

Kohlberg theorized that pre-conventional moral reasoning, which controls moral decisions, develops during childhood. These decisions are based primarily on evading punishment and attaining pleasure. Choices made in this stage will be influenced by physical events that cause pleasure or pain.

The next stage of reasoning, conventional moral reasoning, is reached during the adolescent years. Decisions at this age are focused on approval from parents or figures of authority. In adulthood, the third stage of moral reasoning, post-conventional moral reasoning, is reached. At this level, an individual may be able to make decisions based upon standards that he or she has evaluated regardless of societal views.


In philosophy, moral psychology tends to refer questions of morality. These may touch on the nature of a "good" life, or how a person might achieve one. Discussions on subjects related to moral psychology have occurred in literature as early as Plato’s Republic. Philosophy may question what inspires or motivates a person to act, debating whether individuals can truly engage in selfless actions, or rather act on self-interest alone. Philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche have suggested that egoism is dominate.

Classical philosophy, which includes the works of Plato and Aristotle, was centered on the ideas of moral psychology. It remained at the center of philosophical activity until the middle ages. These theories have a smaller role in the ideas of modern ethics, however. In the modern world, moral psychology could be used to evaluate a number of issues, including policies for educational institutions in promoting good conduct or discouraging bad conduct. In philosophy, moral psychology could be useful in examining ethical theories.


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