How Does Heteronomous Morality Differ From Autonomous Morality?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

The idea of morality is often a bit of a moving target. There are many different interpretations of human morality. Is morality just a list of things 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?

In this post, we will discuss two different kinds of morality, heteronomous and autonomous. How do they differ? How are they similar? Let’s find out.

The History Of These Two Moralities

The person to first discover these two types was Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who was a pioneer in the field of modern psychology. Piaget was studying children and their morality. How a child thinks and reasons is quite different than how an adult does, as you probably know very well.

When it comes to Piaget, he was particularly interested in three aspects that determined how a child understood the world. These were the understanding of rules, moral responsibility, and justice. Let’s look at these three.


Find Healthy Ways Through Moral Dilemmas Affecting Your Life

When a child tries to understand the rules, they may ask a few questions about it. A child may ask where exactly rules come from, who makes them, and if they can be changed. These basic questions pique the curiosity of children.

Moral Responsibility

As a child tries to understand the rules, they then learn how to understand the responsibility that comes with rules. They may ask themselves 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 figure out the difference between wrongdoing that is deliberate and accidental.


The child will then start to think about the concept of justice itself. They may ask 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 crimes and wonder if the guilty are always punished.

As Piaget studied children, he learned that how a child viewed this concept would change as they grew older. This makes sense because, as a child grows older, their thinking becomes less back and white. Piaget divided this thinking into two types: heteronomous and autonomous morality.

As these names are quite long, they can be referred to by simpler terms. Heteronomous morality is also known as moral realism. Autonomous morality is also known as moral relativism.

Moral Realism

Let’s look at heteronomous morality first. This is a morality that is given to the children from an outside source. In other words, children think morality comes from listening to what the people in authority have to say. This stage of morality comes to fruition around the ages of 6-10 years.

A child going through moral realism will accept the rules created by the authority figure and will realize that if they break the rules, they get punished. This is known as immanent justice. If someone breaks the rules, they will be punished, and how severe the punishment is can be related to how severe the broken rule was. This is known as expiatory punishment.

Few children question the rules and instead think they are absolute. They don’t realize the societal rules can evolve with the passage of time. They believe that these rules are almost divine and given by God Himself, and they’ve been like that since the dawn of time.

Meanwhile, bad behavior is viewed as 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.

It’s not a deep way to look at the world, but as a child grows, they see beyond the veil and change their morality.

Moral Relativism

Now, let’s look at autonomous morality or moral relativism. This is a morality that is based on the rules of one’s self. A child will realize that there is no such thing as an action being right or wrong. Sometimes, some motivations and intentions make the action more or less justifiable.

Moral relativism seems to develop around the ages of 9-10 when a child’s understanding continues to grow. This is because the child has gained the ability to see other moral views of other people. For example, a child will learn how to look at the circumstances surrounding one’s actions and determine whether or not an action was justifiable based on their beliefs. This is the beginning of a child learning how to think like an adult more.

Adults follow the rules of society to the best of their abilities, but they have their 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.

This comes after a child realizes that rules aren’t infallible. Rules can change, they can be implemented fairly or unfairly, and some rules are needed to prevent chaos. Sometimes, they’ll 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.


A child will consider someone’s motives in addition to their actions. For example, a child deliberately breaking all the dishes because they are mad is different than a child trying to make some food and accidentally breaking a few dishes along the way. Sometimes, good intentions mean lesser punishment or no punishment at all.

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

Their perception of even some actions that are seen as immoral may 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 pretty when you don’t think they’re pretty because you don’t want to upsetthem. In that situation, maybe lying is better.

With lying, the intent is also analyzed. Before, if someone tells you something untrue, you may think they are a liar. However, the other person may not be trying to lie, but isjustmisinformed, or hasa different opinion. Lying becomes bad when it betrays someone’s trust, not because of some divine rule.

Then, the idea of punishment becomes scrutinized too. At first, a child sees 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 are going to be punished. Sometimes, the blame can get shifted on an innocent person who has to carry the punishment.

The idea of collective punishment is scrutinized as well. Collective punishment is when a group of people is punished for the actions of one person. For example, a child in class talks and the entire class has to write sentences as a punishment. The idea of punishing everyone for the actions of one is seen as ridiculous to many children.

Understanding Morality With BetterHelp

If you are having trouble trying to figure out your moral compass, talk to a counselor for help. Sometimes, we are faced with a moral dilemma that makes it hard to figure out what is wrong and what is right. On the other hand, sometimes our morality starts to change, and we don’t know why.

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 that it can create significant improvements. These findings are in line with similar research concluding that online therapy is an accessible 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.

Find Healthy Ways Through Moral Dilemmas Affecting Your Life

As mentioned above, online therapy is there for you if you have questions about morality that may be affecting your day-to-day life. Unlike with 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. The qualified mental health professionals at BetterHelp have guided thousands on their mental health journey. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have sought help in the past.

Counselor Reviews

“Stephen is an incredible helper, and has guided me through a lot of life recently. I would highly recommend Stephen as someone who is a strong moral compass and a great listener.”

“Jenn has been a lifesaver this past year of working with her. Throughout this year of working with Jenn, I have learned to have more self-compassion for myself, to trust my gut more, and to communicate more effectively in relationships. I can always count on Jenn to write back to me in a timely manner, on the same day, ask me thought provoking questions to shift my mindset a little bit, and for her to speak up if I am not in line with my values, or morals. Jenn has a wide variety of experience in a bunch of different fields, so having this experience has allowed her to dive deeper into all the different issues that have arose in my life this past year, and trust that she knows exactly what I'm saying and going through. Thanks Jenn for being my confidant this past year - I have gained so much out of our time together each week.”


In the end, Piaget observed something that is quite well-known today. A young child doesn’t have very strong powers of observation, and can sometimes see the world in black and white. As a child grows older, so does their brain, 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 their moral code and principles, and that’s the sign that a child is beginning their transition to a full-fledged adult.A counselor can help you figure out your moral code and principles. They won’t impose their morality, but instead, make you realize yours.

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