Moral Domain Theory

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Moral Domain Theory


Moral domain theory has proposed that individuals acquire moral concepts about fairness, others welfare, and rights (the moral domain) beginning in early childhood, and that this knowledge develops during childhood and adolescence. In contrast to global stage theories outlined by Lawrence Kohlberg, in which morality is viewed as a series of hierarchical stages, moral domain theory proposes that moral reasoning is distinct from other forms of social knowledge, such as societal and psychological knowledge. In his book The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention (1983), Elliot Turiel outlined three domains of knowledge: the moral (principles of how individuals ought to treat one another), the societal (regulations designed to promote the smooth functioning of social groups and institutions), and the psychological (an understanding of self, others, and beliefs about autonomy and individuality). Beginning in early childhood, children construct moral, societal, and psychological concepts in parallel, rather than in succession, as is proposed by global stage theory (in which children are first selfish, then oriented to familial and societal regulation, and then formulating principled morality in adolescence). According to moral domain theory, the morality includes concepts of physical harm, psychological harm, the distribution of resources, freedoms, and rights.

Since the 1980s extensive empirical research has demonstrated the multiple ways in which children, adolescents, and adults evaluate social events using these categories of knowledge. Researchers have identified social knowledge domains using a set of criteria that define each domain and justifications that reveal the underlying reasoning about issues within the domain. For the moral domain, for example, for the issue of physical harm, an interviewer could ask a child whether it would be okay to hit if a teacher did not have a rule against hitting (authority jurisdiction), whether the rule could be changed (alterability), whether the rule applies in other settings (generalizability), whether it is wrong to hit someone if there is no punishment (punishment avoidance), and whether the act was wrong if there was no rule about it (rule contingency). Children as young as three and a half years of age use these criteria to evaluate moral transgressions. In addition, moral domain methodology involves analyzing the types of reasons individuals give for their evaluations of acts and transgressions. Extensive empirical observations have been conducted to examine the types of responses children, peers, and adults use in response to transgressions.

Studies have demonstrated how individuals apply the moral domain to complex issues, such as those involving cultural expectations, rights, exclusion, parent-adolescent conflict, autonomy, environmental issues, bullying, and emotions. In straightforward situations, children and adolescents give priority to morality; in complex situations, individuals weigh a number of considerations that take different priority depending on the salience and associated informational assumptions.

In her review chapter in the Handbook of Moral Development in 2006, Judith Smetana reports the types of age-related changes within the moral domain that researchers have documented. Very young children understand that hitting is wrong because this act involves negative intrinsic consequences to others. This is a concrete, observable concept that children acquire through a process of experience, abstraction, and evaluation. By the preschool years, children understand why it is important to share objects (toys), referred to as the fair distribution of resources. Distribution of resources is more complex than issues about physical harm because there are a number of factors to weigh, such as legitimate claims, ownership, and methods of distribution. During middle childhood, children understand the wrongfulness of teasing and exclusion. By early adolescence, exclusion, fairness, and rights take on a more elaborated form, in which issues surrounding the intergroup context as well as governmental and societal laws become quite salient.

Culture is influential in how individuals acquire moral concepts and the types of experiences that lead them to make moral judgments. There is extensive research documenting that individuals in many cultures use the same criteria to identify moral issues (justice, others welfare, and rights), and that these concerns are distinct from conventional regulations and traditions. While cultural traditions and customs may embody moral codes (e.g., Do not harm others), moral principles are not defined by consensus or agreement but by reference to an independent set of maxims about how individuals ought to treat one another. Understanding cultural and moral norms is essential for children to achieve the goal of becoming full members of communities and societies.


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Melanie Killen

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Moral Domain Theory

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