Even the best of intentions can lead to disastrous results. Such is the story of moral education in modern America.
We may lament the apparent demise of character among young people. We may warn about its negative prospects for democracy. (Parental handwringing over the coming generation is perennial.) In our efforts to address these concerns through moral education, our primary goal should be to do no harm.
Children at birth are uniquely under-socialized. More than just about any other species, human children depend on others for longer and for more aspects of life. Character and morality are not automatic. Both must be learned. On this there is little dispute. But when the conversation turns to how this learning should happen, there is little agreement.
We have previously examined how moral education today adopts an inverse frame than traditional approaches to moral formation. Among those dedicated to the study of character development within this new frame, there are three major approaches: the psychological, neo-classical, and communitarian.
The dominant approach seemingly backed by science and supported by the main socializing institutions (e.g., families, schools, civic organizations, and churches) is the psychological. It assumes the child is innately good. The task of moral development is thus coaxing this innate goodness out of the child as we encourage the child to think the right thoughts or feel the right feelings. The specific content of morality is left up to the child to reveal. The psychological approach gives the child permission to do as he or she thinks or feels. This approach almost entirely focuses on the individual child without acknowledging the existence of families or larger communities around each child.
The second approach turns to the classic virtues of Western Civilization. Like the psychological approach the neo-classical approach is also individualistic and mainly cognitive (i.e., think right, act right).
It assumes that considering received virtues and drawing inspiration from historic exemplars will create the desired moral behavior in children. The content of morality envisioned remains vague and abstract, appealing to the general classical virtues of Western Civilization.
Though constrained by tradition, children formed by this approach do not often receive a why to ground the virtues, except that they are old and have endured the test of time. In practice, this approach though distinct, within educational sector has been co-opted by the psychological approach, meaning that its practical impact is not that great or distinctive.
The communitarian approach focuses less on correct thinking or feelings, but instead on shared experiences. It assumes that children learn morality by the experience of being in community.
While distinct from the individualism of the psychological and neo-classical approaches, it does not clarify what kind of community is best or how one might decide between communities with significantly different visions of the good life. While acknowledging the communal aspect of moral formation, it does not go so far as to articulate the content of the morality or the nature of the community desired. There is a distinction to be made between a local Boy Scout troop and the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown.”
This content ambiguity is because the late modern United States is socially pluralist. That is, it is comprised of many different communities with many different visions of what it means to live a good life. In a socially pluralist context, the communitarian approach does not overcome the challenge of living among contested moral visions and competing communities. So, once again, we are left without a clear, comprehensive way to shape children.
Assessment of Good Intentions
Across the country, school administrators and teachers, parents and practitioners are implementing these three approaches with the best of intentions. It has been estimated that since the early 1970s over 10,000 separate social science studies have evaluated this general strategy of moral instruction. Researchers sympathetic with the approach conducted most of these studies. The unequivocal results are in. There is little or no association, causal or otherwise, between psychological well-being and moral conduct, and psychologically oriented moral education programs have little or no positive effect upon moral behaviors. The cumulative weight of evidence is clear and overwhelming, this approach is a failure.
Even more troubling, adherence to this approach tends to make things worse. The psychological approach unintentionally legitimizing an expressivist utilitarian moral compass (e.g., moral frames of reference involving presuppositions about the normative order) among children, which in turn is associated with increasing negative moral behaviors. So this approach, though culturally and educationally dominant is both ineffective and counterproductive.
Unanchored as children are to anything concrete outside of the self, the values encouraged by these three leading strategies of moral education provide meager resources for supporting sustainable moral formation. It is clear that good intentions are not enough.