Heteronomous vs. Autonomous Morality In Childhood Development

Updated May 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many different interpretations of human morality that can raise questions. Is morality just a list of behaviors that one person finds good or bad? Is there a universal rule of morality? Is there a societal rule that keeps most people’s morals in check? When we consider that human concepts of morality develop and change with time and experience, it can raise even more questions about its nature. 

In this post, we will discuss and compare heteronomous and autonomous morality, two moral theories first developed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. We’ll also examine a child’s understanding of moral issues within these two theories regarding rules, moral responsibility, and issues of justice.  

Heteronomous Morality vs. Autonomous Morality

Heteronomous Morality (Moral Realism) 

Heteronomous morality first refers to the model of morality that children comprehend from an outside source. During this stage, children think morality comes from listening to and obeying what people in authority say. This stage of morality comes to fruition around the ages of 6-10 years.  

A child going through the phase of moral realism will accept the rules created by authority figures and realize that if they break the rules, they will be punished. This is known as immanent justice. How severe the punishment is may correlate to how severe the broken rule was. This is known as expiatory punishment.

During this phase, few children question the rules, instead thinking they are absolute. They don’t realize that societal rules can evolve with the passage of time.  Meanwhile in this stage a child may believe that “bad” behavior is bad because of the consequences. They may not realize that some bad behaviors come from good intentions. They may think there is no difference between an accident and a deliberate action.

Autonomous Morality (Moral Relativism) 

Autonomous morality is based on the rules of the individual, or an “inside” source. In this stage, children begin to understand that there is no such thing as absolute right or wrong. Sometimes, motivations and intentions make an action justifiable.

Moral relativism seems to develop around the ages of 9-10 when a child has gained the ability to see the moral views of other people. For example, a child will learn how to look at the circumstances surrounding one’s actions and determine whether the action was justifiable based on their beliefs. 

In this stage, children realize that adults follow the rules of society to the best of their abilities, but they have their own moral code as well. They may think that some of society’s rules should be changed because they are unjust, or they may believe that some actions should be illegal when they are legal. This comes from moral relativism, where everyone has their moral code.

Moral relativism comes after a child realizes that rules aren’t infallible. They can change, they can be implemented fairly or unfairly, and some rules are needed to prevent chaos. Sometimes during this stage, children will change the rules of the games they play. For instance, if they play a board game, they may implement their own house rules, changing rules that they think are unfair or changing rules to their advantage.

During this stage, children begin to consider an individual’s motives in addition to their actions. For example, a child deliberately breaking a dish to be destructive because they’re angry is different than a child trying to make some food and accidentally breaking a dish along the way. Sometimes, good intentions mean lesser punishment or no punishment at all.

According to Piaget, children are soon able to discern the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. They may realize that their parents aren’t infallible godlike beings, but instead, ordinary people trying to raise them with rules they feel are the best for them.

Their perception of actions that are seen as typically immoral may even change with a bit of nuance. A child is taught that all lying is bad. However, there exists the concept of a “white lie,” where you lie in order not to hurt someone. For example, you may say that someone looks attractive when you don’t think they’re attractive because you don’t want to upset them. In that situation, maybe lying is better.

During this stage, intent is also analyzed in the context of lying. When someone tells you something untrue, you may think they are a liar. But you may determine otherwise if the person isn’t trying to lie, but is just misinformed, or has a different opinion. Lying becomes immoral when it betrays someone’s trust, not because of some “divine rule.”

Here, the idea of punishment becomes scrutinized. At first, a child sees the purpose of punishment as a way to hurt them for doing something wrong. However, they may realize that the intent isn’t to hurt but to try to make the child realize the consequences of their actions in hopes they will not repeat the undesired action.

With the concept of justice, a child will soon realize that it’s imperfect. Not all guilty people will be punished. Sometimes, the blame may be shifted onto an innocent person who carries the punishment.

During this stage, the idea of collective punishment (when a group is punished for the actions of one individual)  is scrutinized as well. For example, a child in class talks and the entire class must write sentences as a punishment. The idea of punishing everyone for the actions of one is seen as ridiculous to many children.

iStock/Goodboy Picture Company
Human Constructs Of Morality Change Throughout Life

Understanding Moral Issues From A Child’s Perspective 

Piaget was interested in three constructs that determine how a child complies with the rules and makes decisions guided by a sense of right and wrong. A child’s understanding of these constructs changes with age and level of cognitive development. 


When a child tries to understand the rules, they will likely ask the adults in their lives who they see as authority figures. A child may ask where rules come from, who makes them, and if they can be changed. These basic questions pique the curiosity of children and pave the way for understanding societal norms of rules and morality. 

Moral Responsibility

As a child tries to understand the rules, they learn how to understand the responsibility that comes with them. They may question who should be blamed for a bad thing happening. When something happens that’s supposedly bad, why is it considered bad? Is it because of the outcome? For example, if a child steals a cookie from another child, is the act itself bad, or is the fact that the other child is upset what makes the action bad? Also, a child will try to discern the difference between wrongdoing that is deliberate and accidental when attempting to interpret moral responsibility.


Here, the child considers the concept of justice itself. They may question if the punishment fits the crime. Often, a child may receive a grounding they feel is too excessive for what they did or feel like they got off easy for what they did. Meanwhile, they may see others getting away with similar behaviors and wonder if the “guilty” are always punished.

Getty/MoMo Productions


Young children can sometimes see the world in black and white. As a child develops, so does their point of view, and they begin to see shades of gray in everything. An action isn’t necessarily right because everyone says it’s right, and vice versa. They soon develop a unique moral code and principles, signaling the beginning of transition to a full-fledged adult. 

Many would argue that morality and judgement never stop developing, and we continue to grow cognitively throughout our lives. Changes in the way we think about such things may come with time and experience. Or they may come with an impactful life event causing major shifts in perception and understanding. Often, such incidents challenge our constructs of rules, morality, and justice- regardless of age. 

This may be easy to accept for many, but for some, such events can cause considerable mental distress, leading to mental health issues that negatively impact daily life. If you are having trouble coping with challenges that leave you questioning your moral compass, talking to a counselor is a good step towards processing your feelings so you may move forward.   

There is a growing body of research pointing to online therapy as a useful method of providing mental health treatment for a variety of issues, including concerns over morality or ethics. In one broad-based study, researchers examined the effects of online therapy on several different mental health disorders, finding it to be as effective as traditional therapy. These findings are in line with similar research concluding that online therapy is an accessible, effective, and flexible form of treatment. Many studies have noted that online therapy eliminates common barriers associated with seeking counseling, including cost constraints, geographical limitations, and perceived stigma.

Unlike traditional therapy, with BetterHelp, you have the option of participating in counseling remotely—via live chat, messaging, voice call, or videoconference. Plus, you’ll be able to reach out to your licensed therapist outside of sessions. If you have a concern, need to ask a question, or simply want to chat, you can send them a message and they will respond as soon as possible. 

iStock/Yaroslav Olieinikov
Human Constructs Of Morality Change Throughout Life

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