Beginner’s Guide to Social Domain Theory

Morality has to do with how people should  interact with each other.  Moral development research aims to understand how people develop from infancy into adulthood in the way they think about and interact with others.  Since morality involves issues of right and wrong, it is proscriptive or prohibitive–that is, morality is about the ways we should or should not act.   But not all issues of right and wrong are moral.  For example, a mistake in long division may be wrong but it is not usually seen as immoral.  So we also add that moral development research examines issues of right and wrong in social settings, where actions affect other people. 

What is morality to most people?

Social domain theory uses a definition of morality that comes from philosophy, but we also find that most people use the same definition. The basis of morality is in trying not to harm other people. Harm includes many facets–including issues of welfare, justice and rights.  Social Domain Theory research finds that people consider things to be moral that have to do with avoiding harm to people (welfare), being fair (justice), and respecting each other’s rights (rights).  The core of morality is avoiding harm, but that also means trying not to treat people unfairly and respecting their rights (Turiel, 1983).

A basic respect for other people means that, most of the time, we all try not to hurt each other.  We can safely walk down the street without anyone purposefully trying to crash their car into us, even if it would get them where they’re going faster.  This is because people also usually do not like to cause others pain.  People are also generally willing to be helpful (especially when it is not difficult).  For example, when a man at a subway station in London fell into the gap between the platform and the train, people didn’t expect the conductor to just let his leg get ripped off.  Instead they all worked together to push the train a few inches away from the platform so he could get out. 

Not causing serious harm to others as they go about their day may seem like a very small thing to ask of others. We start to understand morality by looking at the obvious cases where there is a lot of agreement, like “don’t run people over” because it is actually notable that people generally try not to harm others.  

In addition, people usually only see actions as moral if they are intentional.  Harming someone accidentally (and without negligence) is not usually seen as immoral.   

Are there social rules about right and wrong that are not moral?

Yes. Not all social rules relate to the concepts of rights, justice and welfare. Some social rules like “don’t use swear words” or “only girls wear dresses” were not made to avoid hurting people or out of a concern with fairness or rights. These examples are not even rules in some places.  For example, not only girls wear dresses– think of a Catholic priest who wears a long gown called vestments during mass or a man graduating from college who wears a cap and gown. The rule about “dresses” doesn’t apply to those situations, but it does apply to other situations.  Rules like these that vary depending on the setting are called conventions. Sometimes they have a purpose (e.g. to make boys and girls look distinct) and sometimes they’re just something we do out of habit or convenience (e.g. eat pasta with a fork but pizza with your hands).  Sometimes the purpose of a conventional rule is important (e.g. we all drive on the right in the United States so there’s not chaos), but conventions can be changed.  For example, some countries drive on the right and some on the left.  Either way is fine as long as everybody follows the rule. 

If you don’t follow conventional rules, there can still be consequences, but they depend on the situation.  People might look at you funny if you dress unconventionally or you could even get in trouble and be punished for using swear words in some settings.  My son who liked to watch Minecraft videos when he was young learned the phrase “what the f*ck,”  without knowing that the f-word is a bad word.  When he said it on the playground at school, he got in trouble, even though behind his back, all the adults thought it was pretty funny. The adults weren’t worried about him hurting anyone by talking that way, but they still made sure he didn’t use that phrase again because it’s against the rules. So there are consequences to conventional rule violations, but they depend on the setting– they are not intrinsic to the action they way harm is.  For example, I’m guessing my son (who is now 15) uses the f-word around his friends sometimes, and I’m pretty sure there are no negative consequences from his friends for that language.  When there are consequences to conventional rule violations, they change with the context (conventions at school differ from conventions with friends).

Are moral rules and conventional rules different?

Yes.  The consequences are different for moral and conventional rule violations.  All of the consequences to conventional violations are constructed by people, and so the people can change the consequences.  The teacher who told my son not to swear enforced the rule about no swearing at school, but some families may let their kids swear. The rules about when men can wear a dress already do differ in different situations.  

But if you run over someone with your car on purpose, most people would say it was wrong regardless of the law in that place. In fact most people would say even if the law allowed it, it would still be wrong to run someone over for no good reason. That’s because the consequence to that person is so harmful.  And that harm occurs every time someone is run over.  We call that kind of consequence intrinsic to the act.  It happens every time. It is part of the definition of the action.  Moral violations all have intrinsic consequences related to harm or unfairness or a violation of basic human rights.  

You can think of examples of other basic moral violations– pushing someone off a swing, paying one person for their work but not paying another person for the same work.  These are intrinsically harmful or unfair.

In Social Domain Theory research, we used what we call Criterion Judgments to see if people distinguish moral from conventional issues in different realms. 

What are Criterion Judgments?

Criterion judgments are based on criteria that are used to judge social rule violations.  If people notice that moral but not conventional rules are based on intrinsic consequences, then they will think about moral rules differently.  The criteria tell us where we expect to see differences between moral and conventional reasoning.  If consequences are intrinsic to the act of harming others, then they would not depend on the situation or anything local about the situation.  People judge moral violations differently than conventional rule violations in several ways, including:

  • Justifications–People use different justifications when they explain their judgments about different types of rules: Moral justifications refer to welfare, justice or rights, while conventional justifications refer to tradition or authorities. 
  • Rule Contingency— People judge changes to rules differently depending on the domain: Moral rules always have consequences to welfare, justice or rights because the consequences are intrinsic and so changing the rules does not change the consequences. Therefore, moral rules tend to be judged wrong even when the rule is changed.  Conventional rules depend on the context, and if the rule is changed, there may not be a consequence anymore, so conventional violations may not be wrong in the absence of a rule.  We call this Rule Contingency.  
    • Example: Moral: If you ask kids whether they can hit others when the teacher says hitting is OK in their classroom, kids still say hitting is not OK. Evaluations of hitting do not depend on the rule.

Conventional: When you ask if they can wear PJs to school when the teacher says it is OK in their classroom, kids say wearing PJ is now OK.  Evaluations of appropriate clothing do depend on the rule.  

  • Generalizability–People will judge rules differently depending on changes to the setting.  Moral rules still have the same consequences no matter where the violation occurs.  Therefore moral rules are considered generalizable. Conventional rules can have different consequences in different settings–they are not generalizable. 
    • Example: Moral: If you ask kids whether they can shove others in another country where everyone shoves people, kids still say shoving others  is not OK.  Evaluations of shaving do not depend on the context.

Conventional: When you ask if eating with your hands is OK in a country where that’s how they do it, kids say wearing eating with your hands is now OK. Evaluations of how to eat depend on the context.

What is similar about moral and conventional rules?

  • Both moral and conventional rules affect social relationships and they tell people how to behave.  
  • People who break both moral and conventional rules can be punished.  
  • Both moral and conventional violations can both be more or less serious.  Moral violations tend to be more serious but not always.  For example, in some places, gender norms are strictly enforced and so would be seen as a serious violation.  

What about things not covered by moral and conventional rules?

Issues that are not covered by either moral or conventional rules and are left to the person to decide for themselves are called Personal (Nucci, 2001).  These are interesting because what is personal can differ in different cultures (Conry-Murray, Kim & Turiel, 2020), and even between teenagers and their parents.  Parents tend to think issues like whether a 17 year old should get a tattoo is  conventional, while the teenerager often thinks it should be a personal decision and they should be able to decide for themselves (Smetana & Rote, 2019).

Prudential issues have to do with harm to the self.

Why do people do immoral things if we all agree that harming others is unacceptable?

Social domain theory researchers have identified several ways that people come to different conclusions about social issues.

Multifaceted issues.  Sometimes issues are complicated and include multiple different conflicting priorities–including different moral priorities that could be in conflict.  For example, with gun control there are issues related to the rights of the gun owner, and perhaps the right to protect oneself, and the rights of those who could be hurt by the gun.  People may see all of these as moral issues involving rights or welfare but some may prioritize the rights of the gun owner over the welfare of potential victims, while others could prioritize the reverse. 

Other issues may include moral and conventional issues in conflict.  For example, a parent may forbid a son from going to a sewing club (Perko, et al, 2020) because they are concerned about following gender norms (conventional), but the son may be thinking about his right to make his own choices (moral). Moral issues are not automatically judged to be the priority.  

In addition, some issues may be seen as conventional to some and personal to others– like the parent-teenager conflict over tattoos described above.

Informational assumptions. Informational assumptions are understandings about the way the world works that impacts the issue (Wainryb, 1991). Sometimes facts (or beliefs about what is true) help people weigh the importance of different issues.  For example, using the issue of gun control from above, if you believe that gun deaths are very, very uncommon, it might affect whether you are concerned about potential victims compared to if you believe gun deaths are more frequent.  

Informational assumptions also impact whether you believe harm is involved at all.  For example, if a parent spanks a child to teach them not to run into the street, and it effectively teaches the child an important lesson, most people would say the spanking was acceptable.  But if spanking doesn’t work to teach the child a lesson, then it is just abuse, and it is usually judged to be not OK if that informational assumption is believed to be true.  

Second order effects.  Sometimes culture-specific rituals have meaning that can affect others.  It can be a sign of disrespect to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a wedding, and that disrespect can cause people psychological harm. The harm is not intrinsic in the same way that being punched in the gut is, but it is still causing harm.  The harm comes about because of the meaning of the convention. 

Do researchers studying morality judge others’ virtue?

Social domain theory (and most morality researchers) do not suggest that one view of a controversial issue is better or worse than another.  Instead we try to describe how people think about issues and behave in moral or social situations.  We try to find patterns in people’s thinking and behavior that will help us describe common types of moral thinking and behavior, and perhaps even predict future thinking and behavior.  But we do not tell people what the most moral thing to do is.

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