Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Moral Compass and the Liberal Ideal in Moral Education

Here are two very different approaches to moral education:

The outward-in approach. Inform the child what the rules are. Do not expect the child to like the rules or regard them as wise. Instead, enforce compliance through punishment and reward. Secondarily, explain the rules, with the hope that eventually the child will come to appreciate their wisdom, internalize them, and be willing to abide by them without threat of punishment.

The inward-out approach. When the child does something wrong, help the child see for herself what makes it wrong. Invite the child to reflect on what constitutes a good system of rules and what are good and bad ways to treat people, and collaborate in developing guidelines and ideals that make sense to the child. Trust that even young children can come to see the wisdom of moral guidelines and ideals. Punish only as a fallback when more collaborative approaches fail.

Though there need be no neat mapping, I conjecture that preference for the outward-in approach correlates with what we ordinarily regard as political conservativism and preference for the inward-out approach with what we ordinarily regard as political liberalism. The crucial difference between the two approaches is this: The outward-in approach trusts children's judgment less. On the outward-in approach, children should be taught to defer to established rules, even if those rules don't make sense to them. This resembles Burkean political conservativism among adults, which prioritizes respect for the functioning of our historically established traditions and institutions, mistrusting our current judgments about how to those institutions might be improved or replaced.

In contrast, the liberal ideal in moral education depends on the thought that most or all people -- including most or all children -- have something like an inner moral compass, which can be relied on as at least a partial, imperfect guide toward what's morally good. If you take four-year-old Pooja aside after she has punched Lauren (names randomly chosen) and patiently ask her to explain herself and to think about the ethics of punching, you will get something sensible in reply. For the liberal ideal to work, it must be true that Pooja can be brought to understand the importance of treating others kindly and fairly. It must be true that after reflection, she will usually find that she wants to be kind and fair to others, even without outer reward.

This is a lot to expect from children. And yet I do think that most children, when approached patiently, can find their moral compass. In my experience watching parents and educators, it strikes me that when they are at their best -- not overloaded with stress or too many students -- they can successfully use the inward-out approach. Empirical psychology also suggests that the (imperfect, undeveloped) seeds of morality are present early in development and shared among primates.

It is I think foundational to the liberal conception of the human condition -- "liberal" in rejecting the top-down imposition of values and celebrating instead people's discovery of their own values -- that when they are given a chance to reflect, in conditions of peace, with broad access to relevant information, people will tend to find themselves revolted by evil and attracted to good. Hatred and evil wither under thoughtful critical examination. So we liberals must believe. Despite complexities, bumps, regressions, and contrary forces, reflection and broad exposure to facts and arguments will bend us toward freedom, egalitarianism, and respect.

If this is so, here's something you can always do: Invite people to think alongside you. Share the knowledge you have. If there is light and insight in your thinking, people will slowly walk toward it.

Related essay: Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau (History of Philosophy Quarterly, 2007)

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howie said...

Good points:

To complicate matters, let's bring in that institutions like government and the media, are under Durkheim's system, and normal conditions,
meant to help people think collectively.
The past two or three decades, these institutions have been subverted to express the populace's strong feelings.
So, what do ordinary people, whether liberal or conservative do to react when these social systems distort reality?
Can we think independently under such circumstances?
People and government and the media become the playing field for social forces, and with negative outcomes.
Just thinking this matter through as are you.
Much to bite, chew and swallow

Phil H said...

The complication that I keep running into is that: Children (like adults) can indeed be brought to see that they should act well (kindly, politely, generously); and that they should conform when asked to (e.g. putting on seatbelts). However, this reflective knowledge is not necessarily enough to shape their behaviour. In practice, when we need them to put on the seatbelt/stop hitting their brother, stern intervention is required. And this shaping of their behaviour has a much bigger impact on their future behaviour than inviting them to reflect, I suggest - and this is something that you've written a lot about.

So (1) is the reflection really doing any good? Or is it just a form of rationalizing? (2) If there is at least an element of rationalization in our "reflection", then might it not be harmful?

Callan S. said...

Yeah, but she's standing on the desk and if she falls off and you haven't just told her to get down, you maybe breach duty of car laws. But if you just tell her to get down, it's not really sharing quiet wisdom.

Anonymous said...

In short, ethics and morality may be used by politics, but the frequent complexity involved in managing very large social groups appears to deny that those elements can be reliably used to conceptually categorise/stabilise complete political structures over the long term without turning them into faithful religions.

In an attempt to explain:-

Firstly Howie’s comment seems to be based upon an assumption that social forces have generally remained largely separated from ordinarily being affected by single individuals or smaller groups and in doing so, although partially acknowledging, fails to cogently recognize the impacts of the simplification of manipulation coupled with what may be perceived as wider and deeper cross cultural contaminants made available through modern technology causing a reflex defensive reaction.
Available time. which must have long been recognized as a factor on the playing field, does reduce individuals and peoples abilities to inform themselves. A contemporary aspect of that would be the constant calls for security and the greater demands upon peoples time during this era, increasingly creating an individually unchosen focus, and generally producing socially narrowing outcomes.

"with broad access to relevant information, people will tend to find themselves revolted by evil and attracted to good."

Accepting that sharing knowledge will move things forwards, is it not equally correct that identifying which social forces are genuinely arising naturally from many individual voices and those which are artificially induced with the intention of influencing becomes a fundamental skill for every member of any free society of the future, simply because focused moral goods benefiting individuals or smaller groups will divert from what may be morally good for all.

If each individuals social compass is affected by available knowledge it seems logical that empathy, understanding and "thoughtful critical examination" become necessary requisites for the ongoing development and progress of knowledge because broad knowledge may be compromised by the pressures arising out of narrowing perspectives of whatever persuasion; As the concept of political viewpoints rather than individual philosophies supporting particular moral approaches to life does not always appear to be a reliable rule. An example would be the recently demised Castro, implementing a regime with many praiseworthy social elements, but supported by brutal aspects which clearly deny any liberal philosophy. An easy thing would be to blame the regimes brutality and the popular social elements on stringent demands for a faithful security apparatus but following such singular strands deny much complexity.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Howie and Ian: I definitely agree that this is not independent of the social structures that transmit knowledge and encourage or discourage particular points of view. I hope that it is a persistent force that puts pressure against horrible regimes and distorted media in the long run.

Phil and Callan: Right! In emergency, there might be no time for patient gentle reasoning and too much risk to be tolerant of independent judgment.

And also Phil: I see how this might seem to be in some way contrary to the spirit of my work on rationalization and ethics professors. As I suggest at the end of the 2007 paper cited at the bottom of the post, I was partly drawn to work on those topics out of a sense that they present one of the more threatening challenges to the type of view expressed above. I do still hope that that challenge can be met. But it's important to me to face the challenge seriously, not dismiss it too easily, and be ready for the possibility that the empirical case for liberal optimism does not in the end survive scientific scrutiny.

Ian said...

Apologies for the late comment but there appears to be further value available:

“I hope that it is a persistent force that puts pressure against horrible regimes and distorted media in the long run. “

“But it's important to me to face the challenge seriously, not dismiss it too easily, and be ready for the possibility that the empirical case for liberal optimism does not in the end survive scientific scrutiny.”

The quote below illustrates a different aspect of the debate about that cultural divide, but both views seem to be more about the way individual thought processes become focused at any particular time. They do not deny each other, circumstances exist where both may become integrated resulting in a more singular problem.

"The Two Cultures, the division of knowledge systems into Arts and Science, was a splintering of the processes by which knowledge and language move and grow. There are no Two Cultures, and there never were. The debate between Science and Arts was based largely on prejudice, fear, and a kind of snobbery - a class war between disciplines, their teachers and their students." Morley, D. The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing; Cambridge University Press, 2007 p241. Available at:

In an ongoing struggle for understanding about this fairly generic issue a little reflection within a couple of verses occasionally being wrestled upon by myself, which although remaining of a very poor quality, seem worth including as an illustration.

Heart to Head

With unities fermenting
in the hearts of worlds breaking
succoured hearts present kindness by admitting
creative kind-heartedness defines loves limiting
politically amplified re-conceptualized phrasing.

With quantity growing
objects of information
battling time,
belittling understanding
light of love instructs heads
motion leaving
understanding an informed thought away;
and narrowing hearts
narrowing heads
reject love as it fades away

So love, love life, love the whole, rather than merely lifes anchorites;
creating kindheartedness in harmonies.


The background to the above is a TV news interview with an author where it was opinioned kindness is of greater value than love. To that author, in their circumstances, that rationalisation of kindness appeared to be a method of coherently living with sets of discordant values apparently frequently presented to them by others.

So as a response to your comment - Science may provide a particular focus and create/present issues, but people, to make sense of their value, interpret those in a variety of ways which may or may not then create moral/ethical/social/personal tensions. Does liberality die in the middle or does it retain a sufficiently wide liberality to fully appreciate/accept other views/value sets exist without narrowing such as to direct itself by them. I agree that as possibilities exist a truly open mind does help.