An Interview with Dr. Judith Smetana
-Hi My name is Michael Burroughs And I’m Assistant Director at the Rock Ethics Institute and senior lecturer of philosophy I’m here with Dr. Judy Smetana from the University of Rochester And Judy, I’ll let you introduce yourself -OK I’m Judy Smetana I’m, as Michael said, from the University of Rochester Department of Clinical and Social Sciences– Sciences in Psychology I’m a researcher who focuses on young children’s social and moral reasoning and behavior So I’m here to give the Waterbury Lecture Thank you for inviting me -You’re very welcome We’re very happy to have you -Thanks -To start, could you talk a bit about what sparked your interest in doing research and work in early childhood moral development? -My initial interest came from a broader theoretical basis, which was I was a graduate student And I actually began graduate school in social psychology And at the time I was in graduate school, social psychology was going through a sort of period people were saying, we don’t have any theory This isn’t very– it’s all situational There’s nothing very constant about human behavior I had the opportunity to take a graduate course in moral development, where we read grand thinkers So we read about Freud and Durkheim and Piaget and Kohlberg And I said, this is for me This is so interesting So I began being interested in moral development And I became interested in young children’s moral development, because, in terms of the theoretical framework that I was working with, which was very new at the time, no one had looked at young children Claims were being made about children’s social knowledge and the development of different types of social knowledge and trajectories of social knowledge And it seemed to me that if one wanted to make that claim, one had to study in children– that you really had to look at the roots of morality to understand what was distinct about children’s moral thinking And so that’s how I began And it’s kept me going for a long time -Can you say a bit about social domain theory’s relationship, maybe both in terms of points where it comes together with and departs from, some other traditional theories of moral development -It’s most similar to other cognitive developmental approaches to moral development So it departs from work by Larry Kohlberg, who argued that more development develops through a sequence of six stages But what was important about his work was that he was looking at changes in the organization of thinking It’s a critique of Kohlberg in that we do not agree with the sequence that he describes, and believe that moral development is more complex So it’s not teleological in the sense of a specific end point, but rather how people coordinate different kinds of social knowledge But it’s a cognitive constructivist approach to moral development It differs from socialization approaches, social learning theory, that see morality as coming from outside, being shaped, modeled, reinforced, and so on Yeah, did you have other– -So I’m wondering, what kind of– given that it’s not specifically teleological in nature, and it’s not about socialization– so kind of like a Durkheim conception of moral development or something like that– how does morality develop from within? What are the kinds of interactions that are leading to that or maturity? How is that conceptualized in your work? -So we think of morality as developing out of social interaction So I wouldn’t say it’s just within It’s in interaction with the environment So children have different kinds of social experiences in different kinds of relationships with parents and with peers And for instance, their experiences of harm, injury, welfare, justice, rights lead them– so for instance, being hit or hitting others– lead them to focus on the victim’s reaction, how others are feeling, and so on
And over time, they begin to construct notions of morality, of fairness, welfare, and rights -And so what part do you think that education plays in constructing those ideas of fairness and rights, if any? So part of the reason I ask is that it seems like if you didn’t already have some construct in place, say, about fairness or rights, then you could just continually be repeating, say, an unfair action and never really be able to have a frame of reference to recognize, oh, this is something I need to think about in terms of fairness It seems like there needs to be some concept in place already in order to start grouping like acts of fairness or unfairness together, if you know what I mean I’m wondering how– it’s maybe a chicken and an egg problem a little bit -Yeah I think it is a bit I mean, children have these experiences very early So young children have so many experiences of harm and fairness– just little everyday instances And they begin to make inferences, infer from them People call their attention to them There’s a victim responding And so you’re saying, why did they– -I’m wondering how young children start to recognize something as, say, in terms of fairness or unfairness if it’s not something that’s coming from, say, a teacher or a parent saying hey, that’s unfair -Yeah, because actions have intrinsic consequences So you hit someone, it hurts You’re hit, and you see that it hurts They cry They react You might have parental reactions saying, that’s wrong Don’t hit Think about how you’d feel in that circumstance So we’re surrounded with these experiences where we’re seeing what happens in response to moral violations And children begin to make inferences, both from the reaction of the victim, the cognitive messages, their own experiences of I didn’t like it He hit me, and it was wrong And so they begin to form more systematic notions of right and wrong -OK And so within social domain theory, I know you’re positing at least three distinct domains of social knowledge that children have and develop -Yes -The moral, the social, and the psychological or personal -Yeah, the societal, actually -OK, societal -I think that’s clearer -Societal In your work with children, how exactly are you– especially with young children, say, three- or four-year-olds– what are some of the ways in which you’re able to parse out and understand and see that there actually are these different domains? And related to that, do you find cases where one domain develops at a much faster rate than another? -So those are really good questions My methods for looking at children’s social knowledge and distinctions, in particular, between morality and social convention are that I’ve developed an interview where we present children with prototypical, sort of clear cut examples of moral and conventional transgressions So moral transgressions can pertain to harm to others, things like hitting or kicking or hurting another person Conventional– we try to find familiar conventions So that could be eating ice cream with a fork, or observing preschool conventions about where you put your backpack or where you sit or when you’re allowed to line up So we give prototypical examples, usually descriptions along with pictures And we ask a series of judgment questions And the questions are derived from the criteria that we believe define each domain So part of the definition of morality is that actions are transgressions that are generalizably wrong They’re not wrong just in one context It’s wrong to hit at home It’s wrong to hit at school It’s wrong to hit on the bus, whereas social conventions usually pertain to a particular context So maybe we have one rule at home about whether you can wear your shoes inside But there might be other rules in other places So we ask whether actions are wrong in different contexts versus particular to a context We ask about whether the wrongness is based on the rule
or whether the rule is based on the wrongness And we found ways of asking children– that’s a pretty difficult– -It’s like the Euthyphro problem from Plato -Right It’s complex But we found ways of asking young children this question So would it be wrong if there wasn’t a rule in your school– so would it be wrong to hit even if there was no rule? Would it be wrong to leave your backpack on the floor if there wasn’t a rule about it in your school? Or would it be wrong if your teacher didn’t see it, didn’t tell you that it’s wrong? Those are pretty sophisticated notions, but kids get that So we use criteria like that to see whether they’re making distinctions between different types of social acts We also asked them to rate how serious different kinds of transgressions are, how deserving they are of punishment Now, those are ratings that I think are correlated with domain distinctions, but they don’t define domain So moral transgressions tend to be more serious than conventional transgressions, but they don’t have to be to make it moral So there was a really clever study about asking kids about– I think it was stealing an eraser versus– I can’t remember what the– oh, maybe it was wearing pajamas to preschool, something that was a much larger conventional transgression than the moral transgression And kids still treated the moral transgression, even though it was minor and they rated it as less serious, but they applied the same criteria– that it was generalizably wrong, that it was wrong whether or not there was a rule, whether the authority forbade it, and so on So we look at ratings, because they’re informative– like of seriousness and deserve punishment But they’re not criteria that define the domain -OK And do you see instances, as you look at a developmental trajectory, where the moral domain or the societal domain is much more developed than another? -Yeah So part of what we hypothesize is– the early work focused on distinctions between domains, which is what I’ve just described Another part of the theory is that children’s concepts develop And that’s what you’re asking about in this question There’s been a little bit of work describing the developmental sequence of children’s conventional concepts That was work that was done quite a long time ago by Elliot Turiel That work hasn’t really been replicated or widely disseminated We have some ideas about what develops within the moral domain But we don’t have benchmarks a la Kohlbergian stages So it’s a little hard to address the question Really where the research has gone on is more along the notion of identifying distinctions in that people have looked at how children reason about more complex examples– instead of prototypical events, looking at events that potentially involve overlapping concerns from different domains So a lot of social actions are complex and aren’t straight moral, straight conventional And so part of what we’ve used domain theory to do is to look at how children identify different components, whether they coordinate them in their reasoning, and so on -OK So I’m wondering– I think one of the aspects of your work and Turiel’s work that’s been very important for people like me and some of my colleagues has been kind of rethinking children as moral agents, as opposed to pre-moral beings And I think that resonates with many of us who work with children as true, as very true, in what we’ve encountered, and an important aspect of treating children with the proper respect, really, as beings that do have moral concerns, as opposed to beings who are just indoctrinated into having moral concerns -Right -But I’m wondering what that might mean for considerations of moral responsibility If we think of children as moral agents, or as having moral concerns, as being capable of making moral judgments, then what does that mean in terms of our descriptions of moral responsibility in children about their actions? -Well, I think we have to be careful when we say that children make moral judgments They have a rudimentary moral sense It’s not fully developed So do we want to ascribe moral responsibility as we would to adults to a child? No, I don’t think so We know that they have some rudimentary sense of why moral actions are wrong, as distinct from conventions
or other types of acts– prudential acts, for instance, or pragmatic It doesn’t mean that they’re able to flexibly apply moral concepts in diverse situations and in abstract situations So there’s a lot of development that has to occur -Sure So it’s not one and the same in terms of– -Right I mean, yes, they’re making moral judgments But moral judgments develop and become more complex, more generalizable, more abstract, and so on So we’re at the beginning of a developmental process And I think what we’ve learned is children are much more morally sophisticated than we give gave credit for, or that certain theoretical frameworks gave them credit for But it doesn’t mean– but we are at the beginning of a developmental process -So given that, and that we wouldn’t want to just wholesale say– obviously, children are not the same as adults– depending on how we make the child-adult distinction, which can be fluid and flexible, but nonetheless, we can say at the extremes of the continuum, there obviously is important developmental differences between children and adults But that being granted, do you think there are practical implications for how we think about responsibility in children, given your work? -Well, I guess I’d have to ask you what you mean exactly by moral responsibility? -Well, I guess, here’s what I mean I mean, what I find is that we’re much more willing, as a society, to offer moral praise to children about actions So that is a brave child What a brave action that that child made, that that child performed And that can be something small, like standing up for a friend Or it could be something that we find to be– desegregating a school, for instance, right? -Mhm -And many of us, including researchers and people who work with children, want to extend moral praise But I find that we’re much less likely to extend moral blame and say that a child is blameworthy, morally, for being discriminatory or pushing someone down And we would say, oh, well, it’s a child She is still developing And it seems to me that agency goes both ways And so I’m wondering– that’s kind of how I’m thinking about it as it emerges as a bit of a problem -So I would say, we wouldn’t want to say it’s a bad kid But it might be that the action isn’t good The act is bad And there’s a rubric in the parenting literature So talk about the act, not the child And I think that applies here, that it’s wrong to hit It doesn’t mean that the child is– so if you want to apply is the child blameworthy? Well, they should– it was a good decision to hit It was wrong to hit It doesn’t mean that the child– it’s sort of character versus the act -Yeah Yeah And that could be a point that we might make to be a broader point even about adult actions in character -I absolutely– yeah, I mean, we know that people are inconsistent -Yeah -And there are some ways in which character notions are very powerful But in general, I think we know that so much behavior is situational And for me, it’s not the most productive way to think about morality -Yeah -So I think we can definitely– I think we’re quite willing to say that it was wrong to hit We might want to know more about why they thought it was acceptable, or if they thought it was acceptable I think sometimes, there are issues of self-control for young children, as well as moral judgments But I don’t think we should have a problem saying it’s wrong to do that, you’re hurting somebody else -Mhm So I’m wondering if you see, or how much of a connection there is between social domain theory, people who work in social domain theory, such as yourself, your conception of ethics and morality, and some philosophical theories of ethics or morality? What areas of philosophical ethics and morality are influential for your and others’ work in your area? -Well, clearly, it draws on deontological theories, philosophical theories So [INAUDIBLE], Rawls– and I know that there is contention in terms of their standing in the philosophic literature But I think some of their work really does inform our basic notions -OK -Martha Nussbaum -Martha Nussbaum Yeah, I think her work is great -Yeah, I do too, actually That’s pretty much what I had in mind Are there other aspects of your work that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to talk about?
-Well, just to say that I think we’ve made a lot of progress in understanding some of young children’s capabilities But I think we still have a lot of work to do And I’m excited to continue with this work and bring in– I’ve been bringing in things like theory of mind, empathy, and hoping to move away from studying prototypical transgressions with young children to more complex situations And I think it will help us better understand both young children’s competencies, but also the limitations in their thinking, which I think would be very fruitful -Thanks very much, and thanks for talking with me today -Thanks