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Morality and Social Convention

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Children in any society are expected to learn to conform to a number of social rules and expectations if they are to become participants in the culture. This is a point frequently made by traditional educators (Ryan, 1989; Wynne & Ryan, 1993) and something we will return to at various points in this book. Among the rules that children in our society are expected to learn are that certain classes of adults (such as teachers and doctors) are addressed by titles, that males and females use separate restroom facilities, and that women but not men wear dresses. These are examples of social conventions. In the absence of such a shared norm, the acts are neither right nor wrong. For this reason, conventions may be said to be arbitrary. For example, we could just as easily have students address teachers by first names as have them call teachers by their last names and formal titles of Mr. or Ms.

Conventions, however, serve an important function by providing predictability and order to social life. Without social conventions it would be impossible to organize social institutions such as schools, and societies as organized systems could not exist. The arbitrariness of conventions makes their importance difficult for children to figure out. It is not until some time in adolescence that children come to fully understand the function that these arbitrary conventions serve to provide predictability and order to our social interactions.

In contrast with issues of convention are matters of morality. Morality refers to issues of human welfare, justice, and rights that are a function of the inherent features of interpersonal relations (Turiel, 2002). Because of this, the right and wrong of moral actions are not simply determined by social consensus or the views of authority. For example, it is not possible to hit another person with force and not hurt the other person. Similarly, it is not possible to steal something valuable from someone else and not cause the person to experience the sense of loss. A moral judgment about unprovoked harm (“It is wrong to hit”) would not be dependent on the existence of a socially agreed upon rule or standard but could be generated solely from the intrinsic effects of the act (i.e., hitting hurts). Similar analyses could be done regarding a broader range of issues that would extend beyond direct harm to concerns for what it means to be just, compassionate, and considerate of the rights of others.

These two forms of social regulation, morality and convention, are both part of the social order. Every major cultural and religious group is governed by a code that contains both conventional and moral rules. Morality and convention are not, however, reducible to each other. Instead, our concepts of morality and social convention form discrete frameworks or domains. This distinction between morality and convention is nicely illustrated by the following example. The excerpt is from an interview conducted in the U.S. Virgin Islands by one of my former students, Gloria Encarnacion-Gawrych (Nucci, Turiel, & Encarnacion-Gawrych, 1983), with a 4-year-old girl talking about her perceptions of spontaneously occurring transgressions at her preschool.

Moral Issue

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 rule about hitting hard, would it be all right to do then?

No.

Why not?

Because he could get hurt and start to cry.

Conventional Issue

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 rule, would it be all right to do then?

Yes.

Why?

Because there is no rule.

As this interview excerpt illustrates, very young children reason differently about moral actions that affect the welfare of others, and matters of convention in which the status of actions is a function of agreed upon social norms or the dictates of authority (Turiel, 1983). This kind of distinction has not been generally made in moral or character education until very recently (see Nucci, 2001, and Schwartz, 2007 for notable exceptions). Traditional character educators hold that moral values are established by society. They maintain that the role of character education is to inculcate children into the norms and values of the culture to produce virtuous citizens. The kind of distinction drawn here is also at odds with the accounts of moral development offered by Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1984) that have had an impact on progressive moral education. For both theorists, moral development involves a differentiation of morality (fairness) out of earlier stages in which morality is defined by social norms and authority. Only at the more advanced stages of moral autonomy (Piaget, 1932) or postconventional thinking (Kohlberg, 1984) does morality supersede and operate independently of convention, according to these earlier theories. Over the past 30 years, however, more than 60 published articles have reported research demonstrating that morality and convention are differentiated at very early ages and form distinct conceptual and developmental domains (Smetana, 2006).

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