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Children’s Metaethics: Who’s right when two people argue about moral issues?

When two people have a moral disagreement – for instance, about whether it is okay to pull someone’s hair – one person may think that it is right to perform the action in question whereas the other person may think that it is wrong to perform the action. When we ourselves think about the “truth” of the persons’ moral judgments, we engage in metaethical thinking. The two most prominent types of metaethical judgment are an objectivist attitude (e.g., only one person can be right) and a relativist attitude (e.g., both persons can be right).

In a study recently accepted for publication at Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, we investigated children’s developing metaethical judgment in the context of moral disagreement between two puppets who expressed conflicting moral judgments. One puppet was always an ingroup member who expressed a typical moral judgment (e.g., that it is wrong to pull someone’s hair) while the other puppet was either another ingroup member or an extraterrestrial agent (with different preferences and background) who expressed an atypical moral judgment (e.g., that it is okay to pull someone’s hair). We found that 9-year-olds, but not younger children, were more likely to judge that two persons could be right (a relativist attitude) when an ingroup member disagreed with an extraterrestrial agent than when the second person was another ingroup individual. This context-relative enhanced moral relativism was not found in a comparison case in which agents disagreed about the possibility of different physical laws. The findings of this study suggest that although children typically express moral objectivism, by early school-age they begin to temper their objectivism with culturally relative metaethical judgments.

Schmidt, M. F. H., González-Cabrera, I., & Tomasello, M. (2017). Children’s developing metaethical judgments. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 164, 163-177.