Friday, May 15, 2009

The liberal, conservative way to teach children morals

"Two views of moral education," set forth by Eric Schitzgebel in his blog about philosophy and psychology called The Splintered Mind:

(1.) The "liberal", inward-out model: Moral education should stress moral reflection, with rules and punishment playing a secondary role. ...

(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....
Now, academically affiliated researchers on moral development almost universally prefer the first model to the second.... 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....
But he has an idea for how to blend the two together:
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.
As an adult, it can be hard to put yourself back in the child's shoes, since your childhood was so long ago. But anyone who's been to a law school where they use the Socratic method has a more recent memory of what he's talking about.

NOTE: With this post, I've created a new tag, and also applied it to a few old posts: "observed morality."