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A Critique of the Moral / Conventional Distinction

Daniel Kelly

Thursday, October 20, 2005, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Rutgers University, Dept. of Philosophy

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The moral / conventional task has been widely used to study the emergence
of moral understanding in children and to explore the deficits in moral
understanding in clinical populations.  Previous studies have indicated
that moral transgressions, particularly those in which a victim is harmed,
evoke a signature pattern of responses in the moral / conventional task:
they are judged to be serious, generalizable and not authority dependent.
Moreover, this signature pattern is held to be pan-cultural and to emerge
early in development.  However, almost all the evidence for these claims
comes from studies using harmful transgressions of the sort that primary
school children might commit in the schoolyard.  In a study conducted on
the internet, my colleagues and I used a much wider range of harm
transgressions, and found that they do not evoke the signature pattern of
responses found in studies using only schoolyard transgressions.  Along
with studies conducted previously by others, our study provides grounds
for skepticism about many conclusions drawn from earlier work using the
moral / conventional task.


Daniel Kelly