In an experimental critique of the moral/conventional (M/C) distinction, Kelly et al. (2007) present new experimental data about responses to transgressions involving harm, where the novelty is that transgressors are grown-ups, rather than children. Their data do not support the moral/conventional distinction. The contrast between grown-up and schoolyard transgressions does not seem, however, to explain their results: they also use two schoolyard transgressions with similar negative results for the M/C distinction.I here attempt to explain away their results by calling attention to two mistakes in their experimental design. One refers to the use of questionnaire-items of the type that Turiel and collaborators have called mixed-domain situations, which extend over both a moral and a conventional domain. Participants respond to these cases differently than to prototypical moral situations, because some allow the authority rule to override the moral rule. The second mistake emerges in the grown-up transgressions labeled as Whipping/temporal, Whipping/Authority, Spanking/Authority, Prisoner abuse/Authority. These are not the typical transgressions unambiguously “involving a victim who has been harmed, whose rights have been violated, or who has been subject to an injustice”. The victims are also transgressors and harm is inflicted on them as punishment. Plausibly, rules about corporal punishment depend on authority in a way that rules about harming the innocent do not.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


Kelly, D., Stich, S., Haley, K. J., Eng, S. J. & Fessler, D. 2007. 'Harm, Affect, and the Moral/Conventional Distinction'. Mind & Language 22, no. 2: 117–131.

Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Nucci, L. P. 1985. 'Children's conceptions of morality, societal convention, and religious prescription'. In C. Harding (ed.) 'Moral dilemmas: Philosophical and psychological issues in the development of moral reasoning', 115–36. Chicago: Precedent Press.

Nucci, L. P. 2001. Education in the Moral Domain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nucci, L. P. & Turiel, E. 1993. 'God's word, religious rules, and their relation to Christian and Jewish children's concepts of morality'. Child Development 64: 1475–91.

Turiel, E. 1983. The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turiel, E. 1998. ‘The development of morality’. In W. Damon (ed.), Handbook of child psychology, 5th Edition, Volume 3: N. Eisenberg (ed.), Social, emotional, and personality development (pp. 863–932). New York: Wiley.

Turiel, E. & Smetana, J. 1984. ‘Social knowledge and social action. The coordination of domains’. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (eds.) ‘Morality, moral behavior, and moral development: Basic issues in theory and research’, 261–282. New York: Wiley.