Heteronomous Vs. Autonomous Morality In Childhood Development

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many interpretations of human morality. Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists throughout the years have looked at whether morality is subjective, universal, or flawed. Individuals have attempted to discover whether there are certain types of morality that most people conform to. However, considering that human concepts of morality develop and change with time and experience, these conversations also continue to grow and change. 

Jean Piaget, a prominent child development psychologist, pioneered the discussion of morality. Piaget looked at how children understand moral issues within two theories regarding rules, moral responsibility, and issues of justice. Understanding these theories may help parents, caregivers, and community members understand the psychology of growing up human. 

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Human constructs of morality change throughout life

Heteronomous morality vs. autonomous morality

Piaget outlined two forms of morality that he believed were most common in childhood, including heteronomous and autonomous. 

Heteronomous morality (moral realism)

Heteronomous morality 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 age of six to ten years. 

A child going through the phase of moral realism may accept the rules created by authority figures and realize that if they break the rules, they will experience consequences. This situation is known as immanent justice. How severe the consequence is may correlate to how severe the broken rule is, also called 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 time. A child may believe that "bad" behavior is bad because of the consequences. They may not realize that some unhealthy behaviors come from positive intentions. They may also believe 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. Children begin to understand that there may not be an absolute right or wrong in this stage. In some cases, motivation and intentions make an action justifiable.

Moral relativism often develops around the ages of nine to ten when a child has gained the ability to see other people's moral views. For example, a child can learn 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 also have their own moral code. They may think that some of society's rules should be changed because they are unjust or that some actions should be illegal when they are legal. These changes in belief come from moral relativism. 

Why does moral relativism develop?

Moral relativism occurs when a child realizes that rules aren't infallible. Rules can change, be implemented fairly or unfairly, or be put in place to prevent chaos. In some cases, during this stage, children may change the rules of the games they play to mimic the patterns they see in adults. For instance, if they play a board game, they may implement their own house rules, changing rules that they think are unfair or could better serve them in another way. 

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 differs from a child trying to make food and accidentally breaking a dish. In some cases, positive intentions mean lesser or no punishment.

Can children understand morals?

According to Piaget, children quickly learn to discern the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. They may realize that their parents aren't infallible but ordinary people trying to raise them with rules based on their life experiences and beliefs. 

Their perception of actions that are seen as immoral may change with nuance. For example, children are often taught that all forms of lying are negative. However, the concept of a "white lie" exists, where you lie not to hurt someone. For example, you may tell someone they look attractive when you don't think they are to avoid hurting their feelings. Children may notice that some lying might keep them and others safe in this situation. However, whether this type of lie is positive or helpful is subjective. 

During this stage, intent is also analyzed in the context of lying. When a person lies, you may label them a liar. However, you can also try to determine whether the person might not have meant to lie, is misinformed, or has a bias in the situation. Lying may be labeled immoral when it betrays someone's trust or is done out of self-interest. 

Learning about consequences in childhood

As children learn to understand morals, their ideas of punishment become scrutinized. At first, a child may see the purpose of punishment to hurt them for their actions. However, as they age, 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 starts to see that justice is imperfect. Not all guilty people are punished. In some cases, the blame may be shifted onto an innocent person. During this stage, the idea of group punishment (when a group is punished for the actions of one individual) is scrutinized as well. For example, a child might notice that the entire class is punished when one child misbehaves. The idea of punishing everyone for the actions of one may be seen as ridiculous to a child and many adults. 


Understanding moral issues from a child’s perspective

Piaget was interested in three constructs determining 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 often changes with age. 


When a child tries to understand the rules, they may ask the adults in their lives who they see as authority figures for guidance. They might ask where the rules come from, who makes them, and if they can be changed. These questions pique children's curiosity 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 challenging situation, why the situation is labeled "bad," and what the outcome of the behavior means. 

For example, if a child steals a biscuit from another child, they might wonder whether the act is wrong or wrong because it hurts the other child. In addition, a child may try to discern the difference between deliberate and accidental wrongdoing when attempting to interpret moral responsibility.


In the third stage, 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 others do not have the same consequences.

Professional moral support 

The ideas of justice, morality, and social norms may be easy to accept for some people but more difficult for others, causing significant mental distress. If you struggle to cope with challenges that leave you questioning your moral compass, talking to a counselor can be an option. If you haven't previously considered counseling due to barriers to in-person care, you can also reach out for support from an online therapy platform like BetterHelp

A growing body of research points to online therapy as a valuable method of mental health treatment for concerns over morality or ethics. In one broad-based study, researchers examined the effects of online therapy on several mental illnesses, concluding that the treatment could be as effective as traditional therapy. These findings align with similar research concluding that online therapy is an effective, convenient, and flexible form of treatment. 

Unlike traditional therapy, online platforms offer the option of participating in counseling remotely—via live chat, messaging, voice call, or videoconference. In addition, you may be able to reach out to your provider outside of sessions. If you have a concern or want to ask a question, you can send them a message, and they will respond as soon as they are available. 

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Human constructs of morality change throughout life


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. They might start to notice that 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 a transition to a full-fledged adult. 

Some may argue that morality and judgment don't stop developing and that individuals continue to grow cognitively throughout life. Changes in how individuals think about these themes may come with time and experience. In addition, they may accompany an impactful life event causing significant shifts in perception and understanding. If you're experiencing a moral dilemma, you're not alone. Talking to a mental health professional is one way to receive support and understand what morals mean to you. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online or in your area to get started.

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