Heteronomous morality theorizes, in terms of child psychology, the first stages of human moral development. According to Piaget, children go through two distinct stages of moral development starting with heteronomous mortality. This stage stretches an approximate three or four year span from around four years of age to seven.

Children thinking in terms of heteronomous morality see the world as an unchangeable collection of rules and laws that are not under the control of any people. This thinker thinks only of consequences of an action or behavior. The intentions of the person are irrelevant.

An example presented by some psychologists is a child trying to steal a cookie. Consider which is worse: if the child accidentally breaks twelve glasses in the process or if the child intentionally breaks one glass in the process. A child using heteronomous morality would conceive that breaking the twelve glasses accidentally would be the less moral act due to the consequences of the action. The same would be true if someone would suggest to a child of that thinking to change the rules of a game. They would try to argue that rules simply couldn’t be changed.

The heteronomous moralist also fiercely believes in the idea of imminent justice. They believe in one moral truth: breaking a rule results in immediate punishment. Even when completely alone, a child who breaks a rule will look around waiting for the punishment. The absence of people is not important. The heteronomous thinker expects immediate punishment for their transgression.

Resources include: Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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