Society Doesn't Create Morality and Neither Do Individuals

Children instinctively distinguish between personal, social and moral domains

Posted Apr 04, 2012

Society has many rules about how to behave, but not all of the social expectations are in the realm of morality. We need an independent way of evaluating which conventions are ethical and which are not. Just as ethics is independent of religious rules, so it is independent of social convention.

The work of Larry Nucci, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is helpful in understanding the distinction between social convention and morality. In his book Education in the Moral Domain, Nucci posits that there are three areas that encompass social behavior: the personal domain, the domain of social conventions, and the moral domain. The first area is subjective in that individuals have preferences for one thing or another that has no objective standard of measurement. For example, there is nothing objectively better about liking sofas over armchairs. The second domain is arbitrary in that the rules could have been different and it wouldn't make any difference, such as driving on the left side of the road instead of the right. In the third domain, behaviors are intrinsically right or wrong.

Nucci finds that children instinctively distinguish between these three domains. Children identify morality with those actions that have an intrinsic effect on the welfare of others. They understand that harming another as being wrong and acting fairly as being right. No one needs to tell them this is the case; they know it as a matter of course. The inherent nature of morality (defined in this narrow sense) is underscored by the finding that children everywhere make these same distinctions and do so without rules telling that it is so. Nucci's conclusion is that morality is independent of social rules regarding proper behavior.

Drawing the difference between these two domains-the moral and the conventional-allows us to better understand the ways in which children comprehend the world and how they understand their own actions. At the same time, the distinction helps to reveal the underlying and universal nature of morality. Nucci's research indicates that concepts of human welfare, fairness, and rights are inherent, not socially conditioned or constructed. In both domains, some behaviors are deemed "right" and others "wrong."

Nucci gives this example, taken from an interview with a four-year-old girl. In the first interview, the girl is operating in the area of social conventions. Something is wrong because there is a rule that says it is wrong. Without the rule, it would no longer be wrong.

"Did you see what just happened?"

"Yes. They were noisy." 

"Is that something you are supposed to do or not supposed to do?"

"Not do." 

"Is there a rule about that?"

"Yes. We have to be quiet."

 "What if there were no rules, would it be all right to do then?"

"Yes." 

"Why?"

"Because there is no rule."

Contrast the interview, which is an illustration of thinking in the social domain, with the one that follows.

"Did you see what happened?"

"Yes. They were playing and John hit him too hard."

"Is that something you are supposed to do or not supposed to do?"

"Not so hard to hurt." 

"Is there a rule about that?"

"Yes." 

"What is the rule?"

"You're not to hit hard."

 "What if there were no rules about hitting hard, would it be all right to do then?"

"No."

 "Why not?"

"Because he could get hurt and start to cry."

Here the girl is operating in the moral domain. There is no rule that told her it is wrong to hit hard. It is wrong because hurting others is wrong in and of itself. Without a rule, it would still be wrong.

Not all schools require the same degree of quiet from their pupils. In some schools, quiet is a sign of respect. In other schools, it is taken as a sign of a lack of creativity. There are also some families that are vocal, boisterous, and demonstrative, while others are verbally restrained, orderly, and proper. In both cases, acceptable behavior is governed by rules and expectations

On the other hand, hitting hard is not acceptable whether or not there are rules governing the action. There are an infinite number of ways that people can determine how to make a social system function; this explains the cultural differences that we see. But since we are all human, there are harms and benefits that are universal. Being punched hurts wherever you live, whereas a child calling an adult by his or her first name offends only some people. Being treated unfairly causes resentment everywhere, whereas belching when eating is socially acceptable only in some cultures.

Children distinguish between rules that are in the moral domain and those that are social conventions. They identify moral issues as those having to do with welfare and physical harm (pushing, shoving, hitting, killing), psychological harm (hurting others' feelings, ridiculing, name calling), fairness and rights (stealing, breaking promises, not sharing, destroying others' property), and positive behaviors (helping another in need, sharing, donating to a charity).

In justifying moral behavior, the criteria refer to the benefit or harm or the fairness or unfairness that the action would cause. For conventional issues, they turn to the norms and expectations of authority. What emerges from the work of cognitive psychologists is that, at young ages, children know the difference between social convention and morality, and they know it without being taught. You might say that they understand very well the point made by Socrates in his conversation with Euthyphro: Social conventions don't make for morality. It is morality that judges social conventions.

Religious commandments, social conventions, and codes of conduct can assist you in making moral decisions, but they are no substitute for ethical judgments. They do not pre-empt the need to make ethical decisions that have no obvious answers or present conflicts in ethical values. Codes, laws and ethical regulations can only suggest a course of action, not mandate a good, moral, and just one.