Almost anything that’s morally bad is pretty easily distinguishable from other sorts of badness. For some reason, I can tell the difference between the type of badness corresponding to burglary and the type of badness corresponding to eating green beans with my dirty feet. Of course there’s a nice classification system we use to differentiate: one’s a moral issue the other just a deviation from propriety. But, for some reason, we’re able to make a distinction. This is even more interesting among children.
A good number of moral psychologists–starting with Kohlberg, I believe–argue that children learn to be moral from their parents. Adults instruct kids in what is right and what is wrong and the tots pick up on it pretty darn well. Imagine Susie steals Paulie’s toy shovel. Dad will intervene and scold Susie telling her that taking someone else’s toy is bad and that she shouldn’t do it any longer. Susie parses the expression on Dad’s face–anger–and associates it with stealing. Taking another person’s property is wrong, she has now learned. Looking for something with which to occupy herself now that she’s shovel-less, Susie stuffs her face full of sand. Dad, as in the first incident, scolds Susie and tells her that eating sand is bad. She associates his angry face with eating sand and no longer eats sand. What’s interesting here is that the father’s instruction in both cases was identical. Yet the two cases are different in that one is an instance of moral badness while the other is just plain badness. More interesting is the fact that Susie–this has been shown by research–makes the distinction between moral badness in the first case and plain badness in the second even though her instruction was the same.
How the heck do people learn to differentiate between morally bad and just plain ol’ bad?