Moral conventionalism may be described as a theory of moral conduct, according to which the criteria for right and wrong (or good and bad) conduct are based on general agreement or social convention. It judges the rightness or wrongness of actions by their degree of compliance with social norms or conventional standards of morality.
Moral conventionalism may vary in the strictness and consistency with which it demands adherence to social norms or conventional standards of morality. In some cases, it may be susceptible to criticism for its lack of strictness and lack of consistency.
It may be viewed as a deontological (rather than teleological or consequentialist) theory, insofar as it may judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by their degree of conformity to duty (defined, in this case, as merely the duty to conform to conventional moral standards), rather than by their results or consequences. It may be complete (consistent, and unmitigated by other deontological and teleological considerations) or incomplete (inconsistent, and mitigated by other considerations) depending on whether, and to what extent, it demands that all or only some actions comply with social norms or conventional moral standards.
It may also be regarded as a deontological theory insofar as in its most extreme form, it may hold that the best action to perform in a given situation is always the most conventional action, regardless of the consequences of that action. The conventionality of moral behavior may in this case be taken as the sole criterion of the appropriateness of that behavior.
However, moral conventionalism as effect may need to be distinguished from moral conventionalism as motivation. Many different forms of morality may have the effect of leading to behaviors that are considered to be conventional by those who adhere to those particular forms of morality. However, moral conventionalism may also motivate moral agents to choose particular actions to perform in given situations, based on the theory that the best actions to perform are always the most conventional actions. Moral conventionalism may be seen as not only a result of adherence to moral standards, but also a moral standard in itself.
An advantage of moral conventionalism is that it may lead to some regularity and predictability of response by moral agents. If the conventional response to a given situation is always the most preferred response, then some regularity and predictability of response may reasonably be expected.
Another advantage of moral conventionalism is that moral agents will know when they comply with a conventional moral standard that their behavior will generally be approved and not be criticized. They will know how to choose those actions that are most likely to be approved by most members of society.
A basic defect of moral conventionalism, however, is that it may rationalize or encourage a less than ideal mode of moral conduct. An individual may view the conventional moral response to a given situation as the most preferred response, even if she could just as readily choose a better moral response to that situation. By allowing an individual to fall back on the conventional response to a given situation when a better response to that situation may be available, moral conventionalism may encourage moral weakness, lethargy, timidity, and cowardice. Clearly, there may always be some unforeseen situations in which conventional moral responses are inadequate, and in those kinds of situations the conventionalist has no other guide than convention as to what kind(s) of moral response(s) she should make. Moral conventionalism may not allow for the kinds of positive contributions that moral insight and imagination can make to moral judgment and conduct.
Another basic defect of moral conventionalism is that it may rationalize, legitimize, or encourage adherence to conventional moral standards without any evaluation of the adequacy and validity of those standards. The moral standards that are accepted by convention may in some cases simply be the most convenient or expedient ones to accept. In those cases where conventional moral standards are inadequate or misguided, the conventionalist may nevertheless adhere to those inadequate or misguided moral standards. Thus is provided the supposed rationale for the excuse that "I was only following orders," or "I was only doing what I was told to do," in cases where adherence to conventional standards of duty is subsequently shown to be blameworthy and irresponsible.
According to moral conventionalism, the moral value of an action may be determined by how closely the action conforms to conventional moral standards, rather than by the praiseworthiness of the desires, thoughts, feelings, and emotions that motivated the action. Thus, the motives for adherence to conventional moral standards may be morally superficial or shallow and yet satisfy the requirements of moral conventionalism. Moral hypocrites may strictly adhere to conventional standards of morality and yet have very objectionable and blameworthy motives for their adherence to those standards.
Moral conventionalism may be opposed to (or may be an alternative to) moral rationalism, insofar as it may hold that moral norms are determined (for the most part) by social convention and not (for the most part) by reason. It may be compatible with (or may be a form of) moral positivism, insofar as it may hold that the only way to discover moral truths is to examine the evidence of ordinary experience and not speculate about possible metaphysical or religious explanations.
It may also be compatible with moral subjectivism or non-objectivism, insofar as it may hold that moral truths cannot be established objectively and that they are merely determined by public opinion. However, it may also, to some extent, be compatible with moral objectivism, if it holds that there are objective moral truths or facts about which there can be general agreement, and that the moral conduct that is governed by those truths or facts, rather than the truths or facts themselves, is the aspect of morality that is determined by social convention.
Moral conventionalism may also be compatible with moral relativism, insofar as it may hold that there are no absolute moral truths and that all moral truths are relative to the viewpoint of a particular individual, group, culture, or society.
What can make one form of moral conventionalism better than another? Presumably, a form of moral conventionalism that encourages adherence to praiseworthy conventions of moral reasoning, judgment, and conduct will be better than a form that merely encourages blind or shallow adherence to conventional standards of conduct. A form that offers a more sophisticated and comprehensive form of encouragement to the development of moral virtues in an individual, group, or society will presumably be better than a form that merely promotes an unreflective and mechanical compliance with social norms.
Moral conventionalism may be a conventionalism not only of moral conduct, but also of moral thought, expression, and language. Linguistic conventions may govern such things as the syntax, semantics, pragmatics, rhetoric, and stylistics of moral behavior. Moral conventionalism may also serve as a foundation for other kinds of conventionalism (aesthetic, religious, social, and cultural).
Moral conventionalism may govern not only the kinds of conduct that are considered to be morally acceptable, desirable, or necessary within a particular sociocultural setting, but also the rewards and sanctions that are administered for compliance or noncompliance with conventional standards of whatever is considered morally acceptable, desirable, or necessary. Thus, moral approval (or disapproval) of compliance (or noncompliance) with conventional moral standards must itself adhere to conventional moral standards. Similarly, the distribution of rewards and sanctions to moral agents for their compliance (or noncompliance) with conventional moral standards must itself comply with conventional moral standards.
Despite the potential shortcomings of moral conventionalism, moral non-conventionalism may in some cases be a rejection of all conventional moral standards and may therefore become a form of extreme moral skepticism. Moral non-conventionalism may also in some cases have difficulty defining any moral standards of its own that are more generally applicable and practical than conventional moral standards.