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Whither the Preconventional Child? Toward a Life-Span Moral Development Theory


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ross A. Thompson, Department of Psychology, University of California, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616; e-mail:


A vigorous research literature focused on early childhood conscience, prosocial behavior, and empathy—and also theory of mind, emotion understanding, and social cognition—has important implications for moral development theory. It offers a new understanding of the early conceptual, affective, and relational foundations of moral development. In addition, it provides the opportunity to create a genuinely life-span theory of moral development when it is considered together with the research literatures on moral character, identity, and judgment at older ages. The purpose of this article is to summarize current research on the early foundations of moral development, highlighting how it compares with earlier formulations and describing its implications for constructing a life-span moral development theory to guide future research.