Monday, April 06, 2009

On Encouraging Children to Reflect about Morality

Consider these two views of moral education:

(1.) The "liberal", inward-out model: Moral education should stress moral reflection, with rules and punishment playing a secondary role. If six-year-old Sally hits her friend Hank, you have to enforce the rules and punish her (probably), but what's really going to help her improve morally is encouraging her to think about things like: Hank's perspective on the situation, how she feels about having hurt Hank, and the best overall norms for behavior. Adults, likewise, make moral progress by thinking carefully about their own standards of right and wrong and whether their behavior lives up to those standards. Thus, mature morality grows from within: It's a natural development of the values people, upon reflection, discover to be already nascent in themselves.

(2.) The "conservative", outward-in model: Moral education should stress rules and punishment, with moral reflection playing a secondary role. You can't understand and apply the rules, of course, without some sort of reflection on them, but reflection should be in the context of received norms. Otherwise, it's likely just to become rationalization of self-serving impulses. Until people are morally well developed, the values that emerge from their independent and free reflection will almost inevitably be inferior to time-tested traditional cultural values. Thus, mature morality is imposed from without: People are forced to obey certain norms until obedience to those norms becomes habitual. Perhaps eventually those norms will be understood and embraced, but that's near the end of the developmental trajectory, not the beginning.

Now academically affiliated researchers on moral development almost universally prefer the first model to the second (examples include rationalists like Piaget and Kohlberg, most their opponents who stress the importance of sympathy and perspective-taking, as well as people like Damon who endorse a hybrid view). The common idea is that children (and the morally undeveloped in general) improve morally when they are encouraged to think for themselves and given space to discover their own reactions and values.

Now I'm sympathetic to this idea, but here's my thought: Suppose Sally hits Hank and a liberally-minded teacher comes up and asks her how it made her feel to hurt Hank. What child, realistically, would say, "Well, I know he didn't deserve it, but it just felt good pounding him to a pulp!"? The reality is that the child is being asked to reflect in a situation where she knows that the teacher will approve of one answer and condemn another. This isn't free reflection; and the answer the child gives may not reflect her real feelings and values. Instead, it seems, it is a kind of imposition -- and one perhaps all the more effective if the child mistakes the resulting judgment for one that is genuinely her own.

Therefore, maybe, a liberal-seeming style of moral education is effective not because we have in us all an inclination toward the good that only needs encouragement to flower, but rather because reflection in teacher-child, parent-child, and similar social contexts is really an insidious form of imposition -- and thus, perhaps, the conservative's best secret tool.


Badda Being said...

I like this -- liberalism as closet fascism. Zizek expresses the same idea in this annoying video:

Sean said...

I think the real benefit of the liberal method over the conservative one, here, is that the liberal one encourages active thought processes, whereas the conservative one is more passive neurologically - more of a rote association and memorization process. The liberal approach teaches the internalization of the standard, whereas the conservative approach teaches rules-based punishment.

Hmmm.... not a huge fan of postmodern thought, but maybe Foucault had a point with "Discipline and Punish" - the liberal method as the internalization of the punishment process?

Perhaps a less coercive way of thinking of the liberal method is that it encourages the development of empathetic parts of consciousness (albeit through manipulating a situation/imposing a reflective process).

Mariana Soffer said...

There is a growing evidence that a sense of morality has a genetic element. "There is more in the moral faculty than just internalised lessons", this moral lessons can be thought and therefore encourage moral values in children.

Although "We know some people seem to lack a moral sense almost in the same way that color-blind people lack a photo-pigment. They seem to be chillingly devoid of this moral faculty, but not stupid, not socially inept and often ingenious in their ability to manipulate emotions." which also means, that the lessons are not necessarily always useful. But I am sure they help most of the times they are given.

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

It's not exactly related, but the post reminded me of this that I read recently, which might interest you:

Manuel Vargas said...

I object to the "insidiousness" of the label.

I think it is just this feature you label "insidious" that is the greatest virtue of the liberal-seeming approach: it encourages highly norm-structured reflection where dissent is possible but anti-social dissent requires considerable ingenuity to pull off. Of course, when local norms are anti-social in some or another way, it can be hard to move away from them, because the liberal-seeming model is working with the norms already in play. However, the liberal part of the liberal-seeming approach at least provides an opportunity to launch the critique internal to the norms of liberal practice, which is much harder to do on a conservative model.

Three cheers for the liberal-seeming model. And yay for effective insidiousness that permits principled resistance.

Brad C said...

Nice devilish post!

Maybe you should have two versions of liberal moral education: the neo-kantian one and the neo-humean. The former focuses more on the autonomous adoption of principles and values, while the later focuses on the development of empathy. Both contrast with the conservative approach which focuses on heteronomous imposition of norms.

Then your argument can be taken as an argument that the kantian autonomous liberal approach is really just a smoke screen insofar as it is encourages heteronomy and self-deception about this fact.

By extension, it suggests that the real contrast is between the kantians and conservatives and the humeans. The Humeans also try to inculcate virtue - in part by modeling responses - but they, unlike the Kantians and conservatives, think that empathy is the key to moral motivation, action, and education - not principles or reasoning (whether adopted autonomously or heteronomously).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

Badda and Sean: Zizek and Foucault? Ah, maybe I'm going Continental here. I've got to dash to get ready for Toronto, but I'll try to catch the video soon. Foucault I like, when he's relatively less theoretical, and with several pounds of salt.

Mariana: I'm not sure which evidence you're talking about, but in my experience evidence on such matters is almost always overinterpreted -- first by the scientists and then worse by the popular media.

Jonathan: Thanks for the link, that's pretty cool! I'll have to go check out the original research on that one.

Manuel: Well spun. And yet, I think "insidious" is not entirely inapt. There's typically some sort of sham or pretense (though maybe not conscious) that the child is freely reflecting and discovering her own feelings.

Brad C.: Thanks for the kind words (if "devilish" is kind!). I agree that the three models you suggest present a nice contrast; but I'm also inclined to think that the Humean as well as the Kantian lends itself to this smokescreen (when children are asked to "discover" their empathic feelings). But maybe Hume take more of Manuel's attitude about it than would Kant.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

And possible gender differences diferentially exploited by those models-liberal Vs. conservative-

It is a prevalent thought that girls´ approach to moral dillemas differs to that of boys. Girls seek care, others´ point of view, and boys principle reasoning and rules in the aplication of justice.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, there's probably something to that... Gillian's famous critique of Kohlberg. But Gilligan may be overstating things herself.

BR said...

Wouldn't the "insidious" part of the conservative model be that it teaches the child that if no authority figures are looking, then it's okay to be a jerk? Externally enforced coercion of social norms can collapse when the mechanisms of coercion aren't present.

Just as you threw in the snide "probably" in the liberal punishment scenario, I would suggest that there's a "probably" you left out of the conservative version: "you enforce the rules and (probably) encourage her to morally reflect about her action." Which can and often does lead the child to the "if I can get away with it, it's okay" morality. Is that superior?

This is not to say that I disagree with most of what you're saying; as a child of the seventies, I saw progressive attempts at the "moral growth" of children lead to utter nonsense. You could see kids learning to weasel. Then again, I saw a lot of the old-style kind of "moral growth" applied that were farcial -- "do it because I said so," with a veneer of moralism stapled to the shell.

To be honest, in practical childrearing terms, this sounds like a false choice. Any parent with half a damn brain knows that you have to enforce consequences and punishment as well as provide moral instruction that encourages self-reflection and learning. Ignoring one to favor the other is foolishness.

RichardE said...

Perhaps do as you would be done by is a relevant idea here. I prefer such discussions in the traditional terms of character development, which I would think are superior to the terms which you use, which can appear muddled to the reader. Whilst your terms make the focus the child, the traditional terms allow questions to be raised as to the quality of the course of character development and the outcome. I was brought up to be an English speaking adult. Translation of this to a different language might not be truth invariant. Perhaps other languages use a different word for a character on the stage or in a novel and the character of a real person.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But BR, the clever part of the "insidious" conservative move is to lure the child into thinking it's her own independent judgment, and thereby perhaps *make* it her judgment, so that it's not just a matter of following the rules when an authority is looking. As for the choice, I don't think it's a false one. Clearly one wants both rules and reflection; the issue is the relative emphasis and important of each. (A moderate view is of course an option.)

RichardE: That's a nice point about the power of role models, which I agree isn't an aspect of the space of alternative I mapped out.