Empirical work

ORCID: 0000-0002-6523-5471

Moral disagreement in children

Children during testing phase of the study.

To address this question, in one of our studies, carried out in collaboration with Professor Michael Tomasello (Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University) and Professor Marco Schmidt (Department of Psychology, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), we adapted these paradigms by using child-friendly experimental scenarios with puppets (1). Children (and adults) have been found to be moral objectivists who accept only one ‘truth’ in cases of moral disagreement among two parties who share a socio-cultural background. But people who disagree about moral matters may differ significantly as to their values and socio-cultural history. This is a key factor for testing folk metaethical relativism since according to this view people would assess others’ moral claims relative to their values and socio-cultural background. For this reason, in one of our studies, 4-, 6-, and 9-year-old children (N = 136) witnessed two parties who disagreed about moral matters: a normative judge (e.g., judging that it is wrong to harm someone) and an antinormative judge (e.g., judging that it is okay to harm someone). We assessed children’s metaethical judgment, i.e., whether they judged that only one party (objectivism) or both parties (relativism) can be right. We found that 9-year-olds, but not younger children, showed enhanced relativism when the parties of the moral disagreement were deeply dissimilar; they were more likely to judge that both parties could be right when a normative ingroup judge disagreed with an antinormative extraterrestrial judge (with different preferences and background) than when the antinormative judge was another ingroup individual. This effect was not found in a comparison case in which parties disagreed about the possibility of different physical laws. These findings suggest that although children are moral objectivists, they develop the ability to show flexible, context-relative enhanced moral relativism in early school-age.

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Moral disagreement and political orientation

Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Flikr user Darron Birgenheier used under a Creative Commons License.

I am also interested in the interaction between people’s folk understanding of moral disagreement and other domains of social cognition such as people’s political attitudes. For this reason, in another study, Professor Marco Schmidt (Department of Psychology, University of Bremen), Dr. Anja Kaßecker (Department of Psychology, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), and I looked at the interaction between folk understanding of moral disagreement in adult individuals and their political attitudes. Sarkissian et al. (2) have found that people exhibit some moral relativism, at least when comparing moral disagreement between same-culture and other-culture judges. Given both its theoretical and practical implications, an important open question is whether such a relativistic stance is related to people’s political attitudes. To answer this question we measured the political attitudes in social and economic matters of 120 adult subjects from different socioeconomic backgrounds and asked them whether they might actually think that situations of moral disagreement are a matter of preferences and opinion rather than a matter of truth or facts across three different conditions (same-culture, other-culture, and extraterrestrial). We have preliminarily found that left/progressive political attitudes are correlated with more relativist responses, while right/conservative political attitudes are correlated with more objectivist responses. Moreover, we found that subjects’ objectivist metaethical intuitions are sensible to social distance, with subjects receiving the extraterrestrial condition being the more relativist and subjects receiving the same-culture condition being the more objectivist.

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1. M. F. H. Schmidt, M. Svetlova, J. Johe, M. Tomasello, Children’s developing understanding of legitimate reasons for allocating resources unequally. Cogn. Dev. 37, 42–52 (2016). 2. H. Sarkissian, J. Park, D. Tien, J. C. Wright, J. Knobe, Folk Moral Relativism. Mind Lang. 26, 482–505 (2011).