Before looking at the interviews, it will be helpful to examine the moral ‘inflection points’ of our two hypothetical scenarios. In the first, the moral decision that the actor (Kenny) must make is whether or not to return the wallet he finds: if he does, he will ‘do the right thing’, but also be unable to buy his mother the sort of present he wants to give her; if he does not, he will be able to give his mother the desired present, but he will not ‘do the right thing’. In the second, more complex scenario, one friend observes another shoplifting, and is later questioned by the male security officer of the store. He threatens her by insisting that she can get into a ‘serious trouble’ if she does not name her friend, who left the store.
Each of these scenarios is interesting primarily in the sense that each tests what we might call ‘absolute honesty’. No one is likely to be seriously harmed if the key actor in the scenario acts out of self-interest—keeping the money in the first case, refusing to name the friend in the second. The second is more complex primarily in the sense that the security officer is bluffing. There is nothing bad that can happen to the second young woman if she fails to identify her friend.

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The first interview, with Caleb, shows that young children tend to see fewer options than adults do (Interview A). For him, the choice was likely whether to tell his parents or not. It did not occur to him that there was a middle option—keep the money, somehow return the wallet, and leave his parents in the dark. More important than this, however, was the moral terms in which Caleb framed the problem. He viewed keeping the wallet as stealing. This is not really correct. Stealing is taking something from someone, and that is not what Caleb did—or even what he would have done if he had decided to keep the money or wallet. But it shows that Caleb has not yet reached what we might call ‘moral maturity’. Caleb also thinks instinctively of how the owner of the wallet will respond. This shows that those who have maintained that self-interest governs all of our decisions instinctively have not been quite correct. Caleb’s appeal to God is something of an aberration, in the sense that it does not tell us anything about children as such—only about children (and granted there are many) who have been brainwashed.

Sara, the adult, explains that she would turn in her friend because she (Jill) should know better (Interview B). She also exhibits a slight naiveté in equating a refusal to identify her friend with lying. Withholding information is not the same, morally speaking, as lying. She notes that if she owed Jill for a big favor that would not change her view, since stealing is ‘straight up wrong’. Sara also reveals herself to be thinking in decision-theoretic terms: she loses nothing if she gives up her friend, but she might get in trouble if she does not. This sort of thinking is an advanced cognitive skill, not something that is available to most children. She also exhibits considerable simple-mindedness in proclaiming that ‘if you can’t afford something then you don’t need it’. One wonders whether she would argue that if starving people in an impoverished country cannot afford food to sustain their lives, then they do not need it. Finally, Sara shows that she does not understand that the security officer’s claim is a bluff: she apparently thinks that she would be breaking the law if she did not identify her friend. While there are legal contexts in which failure to divulge possessed information is a crime (obstruction of justice, for example), Sara’s situation is not one of these.

  • Interview A—Caleb, 11-year old male. Interview conducted on October 17, 2016.
  • Interview B—Sara, 22-year old female. Interview conducted on October 17, 2016.