Moral Development

marbles I am a research psychologist by profession; I study adolescent moral development. In research, theories guide our questions and our methods. They are kind of like churches – they all have basic assumptions and ‘truths’ that you have to buy in to in order for the theory to work for you.

The theoretical perspective I use is called social domain theory. This theory proposes that there are different kinds of social knowledge that that individuals construct based on their social interactions:

  1. Personal/Psychological – This is our understanding of self and others, including motivations, emotions, perspectives, and preferences.
  2. Conventional – These are the social norms and expectations that guide our social interactions. They are generally arbitrary and can vary from culture to culture.
  3. Moral – These are issues that involve consequences for others; concepts of rights, justice, welfare, and harm (both physical and psychological), fall in this domain

What we’ve found over hundreds of studies over the last 30-ish years is that kids apply different methods of reasoning to these different types of issues. From a very young age, children judge moral rule violations as more bad and deserving of punishment; moral rules are seen as unalterable, generalizable, and universal. Conventions are seen as dependent on context and the dictates of authority, and do not apply equally to everyone. Conventional rule violations are not as big of a deal. For example, hitting (a moral issue) is wrong no matter what because it is intrinsically harmful, and if you hit someone, you should be punished for it. On the other hand, calling your teacher by her first name (a social convention) is only wrong if there is a rule that says not to. If there was no rule, or if she said it was ok, it would be fine.

So what does this have to do with the Church?

As President Uchtdorf said: “Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made agenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of ‘good ideas.’”

It seems that quite often our conventions or cultural norms become so ingrained in us that we begin to treat them as doctrine. We ‘moralize’ conventional issues. Trying to untangle doctrine from tradition, morality from convention, can be tricky. Unfortunately, so much of what is cultural becomes so much a part of practice that it can be difficult to know how to separate the ‘folk doctrine’ from actual doctrine. (This seems to be especially true when it comes to issues of gender.) Trying to untangle the two can be disorienting and uncomfortable. We become comfortable in the familiar, even if that familiar is flawed. The cognitive dissonance that comes with asking hard questions is anxiety provoking to say the least.

Having said that, conventions serve a purpose. They provide social order, help us identify members of our social group, and build unity and cohesion.

I suppose part of our ‘moral development’ on earth is to a) figure out what is moral versus conventional b) decide what social conventions matter and c) figure out how we can adapt the conventional domain to create a better functioning church, and how we can enact the moral domain in ways that are fulfilling and appropriate.

Perhaps the answer is to think like children. As we mature, and our understanding gets increasingly nuanced, we may begin to over complicate things. It could be healthy to reassess what we count as conventional and what we count as moral. I believe this would make our worship more meaningful, and our fellowship more genuine.


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4 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    I like this way of thinking about the problem of doctrine versus culture in the Church. Separating the conventional from the moral is something I care about and think about a lot. But I do this because of the cultural elements that bother me. I wonder what conventional things I haven’t noticed because they don’t bother me. It’s good to increase our awareness of these things.

  2. Ziff says:

    Great post, Jess R! I think you’re spot on about the conventional vs. moral labeling. It seems like in the Church, the typical approach is to collapse the conventional completely into the moral. You express dislike for something we do, no matter how minor? You are going against God’s very will!

  3. spunky says:

    I love this and I love the quote by PresidentUchtdorf. I agree, there is so much that we are “supposed” to do and be in the church that it becomes a muddled mess at times– seems to me to happen when I am in larger wards and stakes. The “busier” people are with intricate primary activities and so on, the more dedicated they “appear to be” doing the calling, even at the cost of neglecting one’s family, for example. But that is not true.

    It reminds me of that awful “You Never Know” Mormon channel message that made rounds about a year ago (– and how self sacrifice is expected as a mode of doctrine more than is really healthy, righteous or productive.

    Thank you for this post!

  4. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    Great post! I’ll be using it to enhance this Sunday’s RS lesson on Marriage and the Family. We need to focus on family, however and withwhomever it is formed, as means of mutual benefit. A stereotypical image of family is needlessly narrow. It is moral to love, cherish, and nurture without boundaries.

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