[Excerpt] The Moral/Conventional Distinction

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Excerpt From: Kelly et al (2007). Harm, affect, and the moral/conventional distinction.
Content Summary: 800 words, 8 min read.

Commonsense intuition seems to recognize a distinction between two quite different sorts of rules governing behavior, namely moral rules and conventional rules. Prototypical examples of moral rules include those prohibiting killing or injuring other people, stealing their property, or breaking promises. Prototypical examples of conventional rules include those prohibiting wearing gender-inappropriate clothing (e.g., men wearing dresses), licking one’s plate at the dinner table, and talking in a classroom when one has not been called on by the teacher.

Starting in the mid-1970s, a number of psychologists, following the lead of Elliott Turiel, have argued that the moral/conventional distinction is both psychologically real and psychologically important. 

Though the details have varied from one author to another, the core ideas about moral rules are as follows:

  • Moral rules have objective, prescriptive force; they are not dependent on the authority of any individual or institution.
  • Moral rules hold generally, not just locally; they not only proscribe behavior here and now, they also proscribe behavior in other countries and at other times in history.
  • Violations of moral rules typically involve a victim who has been harmed, whose rights have been violated, or who has been subject to an injustice
  • Violations of moral rules are typically more serious than violations of conventional rules. 

By contrast, the following are offered as the core features of conventional rules:

  • Conventional rules are arbitrary, situation-dependent rules that facilitate social coordination and organization; they do not have an objective, prescriptive force, and they can be suspended or changed by an appropriate authoritative individual or institution. 
  • Conventional rules are often local; the conventional rules are applicable in one community often will not apply in other communities or at other times in history.
  • Violations of conventional rules do not involve a victim who has been harmed, whose rights have been violated, or who has been subject to an injustice
  • Violations of conventional rules are typically less serious than violations of moral rules. 

To make the case that the moral/conventional distinction is both psychologically real and important, Turiel and his associates developed an experimental paradigm in which subjects are presented with prototypical examples of moral and conventional rule transgressions and asked a series of questions aimed at eliciting their judgment of such actions. 

Early findings using this paradigm indicated that subjects’ responses to prototypical moral and conventional transgressions do indeed differ systematically. Transgressions of prototypical moral rules were judged to be more serious, the wrongness of the transgression was not ‘authority dependent’, the violated rule was judged to be general in scope, and the judgments were justified by appeal to harm, justice or rights. Transgressions of prototypical conventional rules, by contrast, were judged to be less serious, the rules themselves were authority dependent and not general in scope, and the judgments were not justified by appeal to harm, justice, and rights. 

During the last 25 years, much the same pattern has been found in an impressively diverse set of subjects ranging in age from toddlers (as young as 3.5yo) to adults, with a substantial array of different nationalities and religions. The pattern has also been found in children with a variety of cognitive and developmental abnormalities, including autism. Much has been made of the intriguing fact that the pattern is not found in psychopaths or in children exhibiting psychopathic tendencies. 

What conclusions have been drawn from this impressive array of findings? The clear majority of investigators in this research tradition would likely endorse something like the following collection of conclusions:

  1. In moral/conventional task experiments, subjects typically exhibit one of two signature response patterns. Moreover, these patterns are what philosophers of science call nomological clusters – there is a strong (‘lawlike’) tendency for the members of the cluster to occur together. 
  2. Transgressions involving harm, justice of rights evoke the signature moral pattern. Transgressions that do not invoke these things evoke the signature conventional pattern.
  3. The regularities described here are pan-cultural, and emerge quite early in development.

Kevin’s Addendum

The paper goes on to criticize the moral-conventional distinction as not well supported by the data. The above introduction is thus notable in its clarity of steel-manning. Their two biggest complaints are,

  1. Experiments designed to measure the distinction are based on “schoolyard dilemmas”; those with more real-to-life moral scenarios manifest the effect less robustly.
  2. The theory is highly predicated on the progressive conceit that care/harm is the only moral dimension that matters; but cross-cultural analyses have revealed many moral taste buds.

My personal betting money is that the research tradition will survive these objections, as it responds and re-engineers itself in the coming decades.


One thought on “[Excerpt] The Moral/Conventional Distinction

  1. I agree with your bet. The social recognition of a separate moral domain is so ubiquitous that I would be deeply surprised if it was a purely contingent species-wide construct rather than a feature of our shared psychology. It is not surprising that the effect can be more or less robust with different scenarios, and something like Haidt’s moral dimensions is probably more accurate than just the care\harm distinction. This just tells me that the distinction is more like a bimodal distribution than a line in the sand, and that our psychological research needs to be aware of the need to go beyond the WEIRDs.

    Liked by 1 person

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