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:
- Personal/Psychological – This is our understanding of self and others, including motivations, emotions, perspectives, and preferences.
- Conventional – These are the social norms and expectations that guide our social interactions. They are generally arbitrary and can vary from culture to culture.
- 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.