Comprehensive moral instruction

| April 11, 2010 | 4 Replies

We’ve all seen many Internet lists offering suggestions for improving one’s life or state of happiness.   This list, by a young man named Henrick Edberg at The Positivity Blog, caught my attention today, perhaps because it includes some of my own favorite bits of productivity reminders and folk wisdom, including the “80/20 rule” and the advice to not beat yourself up for making mistakes.  His list also includes a nice twist to the golden rule: Give value to get value, not the other way around.  Another item on his list reminds us to  express gratitude to others in order to enrich our own lives, reminding us that expressing gratitude is socially contagious.

What also intrigued me was Edberg’s pre-list commentary:  He laments that the nuggets of advice in his list aren’t taught as part of the high school curriculum.

But I still think that taking a few hours from all those German language classes and use them for some personal development classes would have been a good idea. Perhaps for just an hour a week in high school. It would probably be useful for many students and on a larger scale quite helpful for society in general.

I think I know why there are no such classes in public schools.  Teaching advice on how to navigate through the complexities of life in a positive state of mind would too often trigger discussions regarding “morality,” which too often trigger discussions of specific religious teachings which, in turn, tend to anger at least some parents and students, which would then shut down the course (in public schools, anyway).   I suspect that this causal chain is a big reason that so many schools tread lightly on teaching students how to navigate through life, even though there is an immense amount of information that needs to be discussed.  Instead of vigorously teaching what the students need to know to be functional and virtuous, most schools ostensibly defer to families and churches (though they actually defer at least as much to pop culture, including magazines, “news” programs, television shows and movies) to fill that “moral” vacuum of students.

Image (creative commons)

Image (creative commons)

In America, however, even “serious” teachers of morality often insist that the way to best live one’s life is by obeying a standardized set of “moral” rules.  Is the advice to follow any set of rules really the best approach for instructing us how to get along with each other down here on planet Earth?  Is it even possible for any form of obedience to serve as the foundation for a high-functioning society?  I think not.

I’m going to digress at this point to quote from that great moral story, “Babe the Pig.”  Here’s the set-up:  A) The Farmer had clearly announced a rule:  “No animals other than dogs or cats were allowed in the house.”  B) Since the farm had no rooster, Ferdinand-the-Duck had assumed the duty of quacking to wake the farmer and his wife.   C) Ferdinand had recently felt threatened by the Farmer’s recent acquisition of a mechanical alarm clock–he has (misguidedly) assumed that the farmer would now cook him because the Farmer no longer needed a duck to wake him in the morning.  Here’s the dialogue:

Babe the Pig:  “[S]o I go through the kitchen, across the living room  . . . into the bedroom, get the mechanical rooster . . . and quietly bring it out to you.  (Pause)  I don’t think I can do it.  It’s against the rules. Only dogs and cats are allowed in the house.”

Ferdinand the Duck:  “I like that rule.  It’s a good rule.  But this is bigger than rules.  This is life and death!”

Babe: “It is?”

Ferdinand the Duck: “Aaaaaahhh!!!  Follow me!”

(Babe follows Ferdinand into the house)

["Babe: A Little Pig Goes a Long Way"; Universal City Studios, Inc. 1995].

Rules, rules. rules.  More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle ferociously attacked the idea that rules can form the basis for any moral system (and see here).   As Aristotle explained in detail, there are simply too many exceptions to even the most basic moral rules;  we often kill, steal and covet in ways that are socially applauded.   In order to actually apply any rule, we need to invoke (often subconsciously) a set of meta-rules for deciding when and how to apply that rule, and a meta-meta system of rules for knowing how to apply those meta rules, etc.  Written sets of rules are intrinsically incomplete; they are always subject to further elaboration and explanation.  The application of rules thus amounts to a fuzzy eternal regress, the end result of which is that we are actually self-legislating, though we project the rule onto our conduct as our infallible authority.  Nancy Sherman provides excellent commentary on this concern of Aristotle in her book, The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (1989):

While [Aristotle acknowledges . . . the necessary and legitimate place of rules, he nonetheless steadily cautions against their intrinsic defects and the dangers of over-rigorous applications . . . ["Law" is]an expression of ongoing and active reason.  What is final is not the deliverances of written law, but rather the best judgments of those who, guided by experience and the law, can improve upon it. . . Law is . . . inevitably general.  But it is limited as a result.  What it says in a general and relatively unqualified way is always subject to further stipulation . . . [Equity is a rectification of law in so far as the universality of law makes it deficient.  It thus reveals the spirit of the law, rather than its letter, and as such is an antidote to legal rigorism.

[pages 13-15].   For Aristotle, morality is mostly a matter of virtuous character.   In Aristotle’s own words, the road to a virtuous character ” is not to study and know each thing, but rather to act on that knowledge.  Hence it is not enough to know about virtue, but we must also try to possess and exercise it, or become good in any other way.  [Sherman, p. 8].

There is a modern tangible analogue to illustrate Aristotle’s concerns about the application of rules.  It’s the American legal system, which relies upon thousands of common law cases to enable the interpretation of even simple-seeming Constitutional concepts (e.g., “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech . . .”). The thousands of common law cases end up being the big tale wagging the little dog, so much so that no one can legitimately claim to understand the First Amendment without having studied hundreds of pages of case law.  In both moral dilemmas and the legal system, it’s often not a matter of simply “invoking” or “applying” a rule; rather, it’s about making sense of the rule in a particular situation after spending substantial energy to understand the rule, and then working hard to achieve an equitable result in the context of the written law.   Thoughtful people know that rules don’t make decisions.  In fact, mechanically applied laws are often dangerous.

Not all rules are equal.  Some laws are broadly drafted and inspirational.  For instance, there is a New Testament law to “love one another,” yet this is an incredibly nebulous concept filled with more historically sanctioned exceptions than one can count.  These exceptions and confusions are most often driven by ingroup-outgroup dynamics (and see here).   To make “love one another” meaningful, we would need to pair that bit of advice with this:  How should we decide who we categorize as as part of our ingroup?   Many Christians would dispute this suggestion that there is any need for any outgroup, claiming that we should love everyone, even one’s enemy.   This extremely broad construction goes against the grain of many people, of course.  It is difficult to think of anything more radical than placing the people we most despise into our ingroup (which is, in my mind the definition of what it means to “love”).  Consider, how many Americans would be willing to place Osama bin Laden into their ingroup?

To put someone into our ingroup would me that we share our precious resources with them as a matter of default.  It would mean that when they have something to say, we give them the benefit of the doubt.  This advice that we should “love our enemy” is so utterly radical that it surprising to here this rule invoked in these days of identity politics, cultural rifts, and serial wars against “them.”  High-minded though it is, “love your enemy” is nonetheless a rule, and most people I know don’t claim to apply it categorically in real life.  They construct additional rules on to guide their application, and these additional rules quite often conflict, from person to person.  The same problem exists with “The Golden Rule” (including this modern version) Because traditional moral rules, even the rule to “love one another,” find such little consensus, on what can we rely upon as the bedrock of morality?  How should one teach morality to students?

I prefer to think of the social functionality more a matter of “ecology” rather than “morality,” and I tend to rely on eclectic “tool kit” of traditional moral rule and folk wisdom, guided by (and I know that this won’t go down well for many people) cognitive science.  Some would accuse me of “moral relativism, but that wouldn’t be fair, because some moral rules are burned into my psyche (e.g., the golden rule).  Perhaps I’m trying to mitigate the problem of following a few simple traditional rules.   In the context of the legal, economic and causal complexity of modern American life,  it seems to me that difficult to trace the damage that we cause others by our “simple” acts.  In fact, good things too often have long term bad results, and vice versa. That is why we need to rely upon a wide variety of advice in order to understand how to functionally interact with others.

I’m not claiming to offer any specific answers to these age-old questions, but I would suggest that the types of lists such as the one published by the Positivity Blog bring something significant to the table that is lacking regarding most “serious” discussion of morality.  If I were teaching a “morality” class (which I would call “How to Navigate Life”), I would also stir in compelling  research from the field of positive psychological (including findings of Daniel Kahneman, Martin Seligman, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). After all, much of the advice given by the moral psychologists is that one’s own happiness requires one to be a social and kind-hearted individual.  To be happy, be decent to others–be virtuous (as Aristotle suggested) and work hard to develop good moral character, because it takes practice.

In my opinion, “How to Navigate Life” is a course that should not shy away from religion; rather, it should teach the moral wisdom of many religions (many fundamentalist believers consider this sacrilegious), as well as studying  secular moral traditions.   I would even teach lessons that we’ve learned from studying the functional societies of other species (e.g., the need to regulate to be functional, in in order to illustrate that free market fundamentalism is not a prescription for moral virtue).   I would teach that we are human animals, and that our behaviors are often not what they seem to be (e.g., laughing, and consider how our decision-making is affected by our necessary over-reliance on heuristics).  My version of a morals course would warn students that we need to be especially careful of our conclusions when we are certain. I would spend significant time on the “banality of evil,” based on the fact that most of the greatest evils result from failure to think rather resulting from intentionally hurtful actions.  I would teach the students extensively about the Milgram experiments (and the modern version), so that they could better understand the limits of obedience as a moral strategy.  I would teach them about Jonathan Haidt’s description of disgust as the basis for moral judgment (and see here and here).  I would encourage them to think about sustainable living as a moral issue, even though most of the victims haven’t yet been born.  Speaking of sustainable living, morality starts with what we put into our mouth, which is being powerful demonstrated by Jamie Oliver.  Many of the most important moral lessons aren’t taught by staid professional moralists; many of them are taught by serious clowns like Reverend Billy who rail on the depravity of mass-consumerism. And speaking of consumerism, there are dozens of moral lessons to be learned by Geoffrey Miller, who offers a framework for understanding why we are the conspicuous consumers we are.  And we need to teach our children that just because they are fighting a war doesn’t guarantee that they are on the right side.  And most important, that true morality always involves a dance between humility and disciplined self-critical study. Morality permeates every corner of what we do.  It is reflected in the defaults we set up mundane-seeming administrative procedures (such as requiring opting out regarding organ donation); it dramatically infuses issues of public health (e.g, encouraging colonoscopies would save tens of thousands of lives every year).

Wherever people are suffering or dying, huge moral issues lurk.  Wherever people are struggling to have access to necessary resources, there is no morally neutral oasis.  Struggling with resource allocation is the heart and soul of moral conflict.  Contrary to what many people would like to believe, there is no moral holiday.  Traditional rules and commandments only touch the tip of the iceberg.  The ubiquity of moral issues persuades me to characterize human struggles as a matter of ecology rather than “morality,” especially given the severely limited scope of what has traditionally passed for “morality” studies.

Very few of the topics listed in the above two paragraphs are the kinds of things people have in mind when they think of “teaching morality.”   Rule-following is what most people have in mind when discussing “what the children need.”   In my opinion, it’s time to expand the curriculum in order to teach real morality, and this would require teaching much more than rule-following.  We don’t need more rule followers. In fact, we need to teach students how to create and break rules and to learn to guard against mechanical application of rules.  We should be teaching them about the destructive power of semi-consciously or subconsciously categorizing other human beings as members of their outgroup.  We need to warn them about the destruction that often following the delusion of feeling moral certain.   We need to encourage them to question the genesis of moral “rules,” were they designed to tip the playing field, as so eloquently articulated by Anatole France:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

In short, it’s time to consider the need to teach “morality” as part of all courses (not simply courses titled “moral philosophy”). And when it is taught, it is way past time to teach moral theories that go way beyond the topics considered in traditional religious sermons and traditional moral philosophy courses.  Morality permeates everything we do; it is important that we recognize this in everything we do and study.


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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Human animals, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Quality of Life, Religion, Social justice, Sustainable Living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    It seems like most modern lists on "How to be Happy" stress that one's one happiness is contingent to some extent on the happiness of others.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, you little de-ontological act utilitarian, you!

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