The Character Frame Shift

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) predicted a day when it would be impossible to say, “Thou shalt not.” In late-modern North America, we are fast approaching that day. To the degree that this is true, it will influence how we think about and engage in character formation.

To fully appreciate what Nietzsche anticipated, we will need to know what character is, how it is formed, and what assumptions about the nature of the human person are involved.

Traditionally, character is composed of discipline, attachment, and autonomy: the inner capacity for restraint, an alignment with values and aspirations of a larger community, and the capacity to freely make ethical decisions.

This traditional definition, however, is largely dependent on one’s anthropology. Traditionally, the child was seen as underdeveloped and thus dependent on others for moral formation. It was thought that humans are not born with a well-developed moral sensibility, much less anything approaching “character.” As a consequence, moral formation has always been seen as an essential part of parenting and schooling.

However, over the last century, this anthropological understanding of the child has been abandoned. Today the child is seen as inherently good and capable of self-deriving their own moral perspectives. The process of moral formation has thus shifted from restraint to permission. Moral education is about getting out of the child’s way in order to enable the child to express their inherent moral capabilities. Much of the debate has been in how one best gets out of the way. In this manner, the entire moral education enterprise has been turned on its head.

Rather than discussions of given moral creeds and communities of engagement, we encourage the individual child unencumbered by historic or community standards to simply express his or her values. The locus of authority for morality has shifted from outside to inside: from virtues to values, from community standards and traditions to the autonomous self.

Since society’s moral institutions in this new understanding have no essential role, they have been weakened or encouraged to abandon their formative role. The best that they can do is simply get out of the way of the child.

All of this pivots then on whether we have an accurate assessment of human nature. The anthropological basis of moral formation is foundational.

If character formation is understood in its traditional understanding, we’d have to conclude that this new understanding of moral education renders character dead. This situation demands plain speaking. We want character without unyielding convictions; strong morality without the burden of guilt; virtue without moral justifications that offend; the good without

having to name evil; community without limitations on personal freedom. We want the benefits of moral formation without any effort at or responsibility for moral formation.

Thus the entire enterprise of moral education pivots on one’s foundational understanding of the nature of the child. We cannot restore character without first asking whether we have adopted an accurate assessment of human nature. The contemporary approach to moral education is an inversion of past approaches. We have abandoned pedagogies of restraint in favor of pedagogies of permission. These are two diametrically opposed frames. All analysis of moral education needs to start by acknowledging this shift and these two frames


Beyond Good Intentions

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.

Psychological Approach

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.

Neo-classical Approach

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.

Communitarian Approach

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.