The Development of Language and Morality as Forms of Social Action
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Language and morality are two of the most striking manifestations of human social cognition. Each has been investigated in depth individually, but relatively little research has examined how they are related. To help address this gap, the present dissertation outlines key ways in which language and morality co-evolved during human evolution and co-develop during human ontogeny.To begin, Chapter 2 provides a theoretical framework for viewing language and morality as interrelated forms of cooperative social action. Both evolved as adaptations for contexts in which collaboration was necessary for survival, and both stem from the more general social cognitive capacity to engage in shared intentionality (i.e., to align, exchange, and interact with others’ mental states). Furthermore, language is used for many moral functions (e.g., to initiate, preserve, revise, and act on aspects of morality), which are operative even in young children. Building on the theoretical foundations established in Chapter 2, the next two chapters describe novel empirical studies into specific moral functions of language. Highlighting the function of language as a means of signaling normativity, Chapter 3 reports that young children conform more to the choices of another person when those choices are framed as socially normative. In this study, 3.5-year-old children helped set up items for a tea party. A confederate, who was either an adult female or a 6-year-old girl, endorsed various items in terms of either conventional norms (e.g., “For tea parties at Duke, we always use this kind of plate”) or personal preferences (e.g., “For my tea party today, I feel like using this cup”). Children conformed more to the model’s choices when the choices were framed as norms, as opposed to preferences. Highlighting the influence of linguistically mediated social interactions on children’s moral development, Chapter 4 identifies features of social experiences that are conducive to development. In this study, children from 4 to 5.5 years of age discussed simple moral decisions (how to allocate things between different recipients) with a puppet interlocutor. The puppet (i) either agreed or disagreed with the child’s ideas and (ii) either asked the child to justify themselves or not. Experiences of being disagreed with and experiences of being asked for justification both encouraged children to make fair decisions. Overall, the chapters illustrate the interconnectedness of language and morality in human development. This work may serve as a helpful basis for further research into how language and morality shape each other.
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