Even young children can distinguish between different kinds of moral beliefs

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Children and adults have similar beliefs about the objectivity of widely shared moral beliefs, according to research published in the journal Cognition.

The research consisted of three studies examining preschoolers’ and adults’ perceptions of widely shared moral beliefs and controversial moral beliefs.

Widely shared moral beliefs consisted of positive behaviors pitted against negative behaviors, while controversial beliefs consisted of moral dilemmas that pitted two positive or two negative behaviors against each other.

The researchers found that widely shared moral beliefs were more likely to be viewed as objective or fact-like than controversial moral beliefs among both the children and the adults. In other words, the preschoolers and the adults believed the widely shared moral beliefs had only one right answer but didn’t believe the controversial moral beliefs had only one right answer.

PsyPost interviewed Larisa Heiphetz of Boston College about her study. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Heiphetz: I came at this project from two angles. First, I had previously done a different study using a similar method to look at how people think about religious disagreements. Like this current research, the past work showed that children and adults were most likely to say that only one person could be right if two characters were disagreeing about a factual belief and least likely to say that only one person could be right if two characters were disagreeing about a preference. Religious beliefs fell between these two extremes. Because religion and morality tend to be linked in many people’s minds (e.g., many people in the U.S. think that religious people are especially moral), I wondered whether people might reason about moral beliefs the same way they think about religious beliefs.

Second, some work from other labs has suggested that people — especially children — might think that moral beliefs are akin to facts, i.e., that only one person could be right in a disagreement. However, this idea was largely tested using widely shared moral beliefs, such as beliefs about whether hitting or stealing are wrong. I wondered whether children and adults might reason differently about controversial moral beliefs — that is, beliefs that elicit disagreement across individuals, like whether or not it’s okay to tell someone a small lie to help that person feel better.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The main finding is that 4- to 6-year-olds and adults were more likely to say that only one person could be right in a disagreement about widely shared moral beliefs, like whether or not it’s okay to hit, than in a disagreement about controversial moral beliefs, like whether or not it’s okay to tell someone a small lie to help that person feel better. This shows that even young children think differently about different kinds of moral beliefs and that this distinction persists throughout adulthood.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are so many interesting questions to explore in this line of work! I’m interested in other differences that may emerge between widely shared and controversial moral beliefs. I’m also curious about the consequences of the perception that only one person can be right in a disagreement. Other work with adults has shown that thinking that only one person can be right leads to some positive outcomes, like donating more to charity and cheating less, and also some negative outcomes, like holding worse attitudes toward those who disagree with you. I’m curious about what kinds of consequences would emerge among children, and how best to teach children to think about disagreements in a way that maximizes positive outcomes while minimizing negative outcomes.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This was a fun project for me to work on because I got to test ideas that are relevant to several fields. Philosophers have spent a long time debating whether moral claims are more akin to factual claims or to idiosyncratic preferences, but until recently, not much data existed on how people who aren’t philosophers think about these questions. It was neat to be able to use methods from social and developmental psychology to speak to this topic.

In addition to Heiphetz, the study “Can only one person be right? The development of objectivism and social preferences regarding widely shared and controversial moral beliefs,” was co-authored by Liane L. Young.

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