Moral philosophy is dead. Whither moral education?

Wednesday, 8 April 2009 08:48 by Eli Savit
Is moral reasoning dead?  In a column hyperbolically titled The End of Philosophy, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that cognitive scientists, psychologists, and philosphers are moving away from the millenia-old view that morality is a funciton of human logic and reason.  When faced with a moral quandry, Brooks writes, we don't actually think through that quandry.  We don't logically apply a grand, overarching ethical theory to our specific moral problem.  In the real world, we just make snap judgments about whether something is right or wrong. Brooks writes:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain.

Brooks does not suggest that all morality is intuitive--he readily concedes that reason can, at times, override our moral intuitions.  But let's assume that the crux of Brooks's column is right and that an "epochal change" in thinking about morality is really ascendant.  Must this change also revolutionize the importance we place on moral education? 

One argument would be that, if morality is evolved and instinctual,  parents, educators, citizens and philanthropists should stop trying to significantly affect childrens' moral development.  In schools, class time would be better spent on reading and writing than on having kids learn the value of sharing, of playing nice with others, or of reasoning through and talking out their problems.  Given that cooperation is apparently engrained in human evolution, little Johnny is hardly going to turn into a sociopath if he misses a few lessons on playing well with others.  Let's give up the preaching and the lessons in moral reasoning, this argument might go, and let nature take its course.

But even if these cognitive scientists are right about moral impulses being instinctive, merely following our instincts will not make us moral citizens.  First of all, our basic impulses need to be contextualized, and the way in which we contextualize our moral impulses depends on our education and how we were raised.  In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Huck believes that he is morally wrong for helping Jim escape from slavery.  Huck's belief is understandable: in the antebellum South, Huck was taught to see Jim as the Widow Douglas's property, and so Huck viscerally believed he was going to hell for helping to rob her of her properety.  Today, most of us would share Huck's base impulse--that stealing property is wrong--but, because we contextualize Jim's status differently, few of us would argue that helping a slave attain his freedom is morally wrong.  As a society, then, we thus have the responsibility of teaching children to properly contextualize their moral impulses.

Second--and relatedly--our "moral impulses" don't do much for us when they conflict with one another, and the real quandries inevitably involve more than one such impulse.   Should Huck help his friend by stealing property?  Is it OK to steal to feed one's family?  Should we torture suspected terrorists who know about ticking time bombs?  Is war OK to stop a genocide?  We might have visceral impulses about all these questions, but for many of us, the answers are actually quite malleable, and this is where the types of experiences we've had come to bear on our thinking.  Our opinion on whether the war in Iraq is justified can be changed by reading accounts of bloody battles, and can be changed right back by reading accounts of Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Kurds.  We can be convinced that the war is just by reading philosophy or op-ed pieces, just as we can be convinced that it is wrong by learning about the history of colonialism or the Vietnam War.  And we can be swayed again by a visit to a Holocaust museum, or by listening to a guest speaker from Iraq.  Indeed, as a former U.S. history teacher, I saw kids change their minds on these types of issues dozens of times throughout the course of a single school year because they were afforded precisely these kinds of opportunities. 

Thus, even if morality is visceral, educators, parents, and philanthropists still have a huge role to play in the moral education of our children.  The way children contextualize their moral impulses and the types of experiences they have been afforded will drastically shape their moral outlook, even if basic moral impulses are instinctive and evolved.  We cannot simply abdicate to children's evolutionary impulses the responsibility of shaping moral citizens.

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