The Development and Consequences of Moral Essentialism

Heiphetz, Larisa A.

Children report that many natural kinds, social groups, and psychological characteristics arise from an innate, internal “essence” that is rooted in biology and remains stable over time. These perceptions persist into adulthood, albeit often in weakened form. This paper argues that in addition to the domains previously examined in the essentialism literature, children—and to some extent adults—also view moral characteristics in essentialist terms. This form of essentialism has important social consequences, including in the area of pro-social behavior and in the legal domain. The body of evidence reviewed here suggests that children’s and adults’ moral judgments depend not just on what people do but also on perceptions of who those people are, i.e., whether they are people of good or bad moral character.


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Advances in Child Development and Behavior

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June 29, 2020


Keywords: child development, essentialism, law, morality, moral cognition, moral development, pro-social behavior, social cognition, social cognitive development