Cultivating Virtue: How to Encourage Moral Behaviour

3 01 2011

It seems a crucial but oft overlooked step in discussions of morality: how to actually encourage moral behaviour?

Most moral philosophy is obsessed with either understanding the nature of moral judgement, or in developing a system that reliably produces the correct moral judgements. Good on it, but that’s not the end of the story. Even if we did have a system that produces judgements on which we can all agree, what then? How to we translate that theoretical triumph into the actual end goal of moral enquiry: encouraging moral behaviour? Seems little ink has been spilled by moral philosophers on this issue.

The exception to the above is virtue ethicists, who do emphasise the role of personality and character in producing moral behaviour, although much virtue ethics is also related to justifying particular judgements or actions rather than talking about how to shape personality or character such as to promote particular judgements or actions.

Moral psychology fares little better. Certainly it provides crucial insights into how we form the moral judgements we do although, like moral philosophy, most studies stop at the point of forming a moral judgement, and don’t investigate how people behave once they form that judgement.

The psychology of action is undoubtedly complex, and even in moral psychology the path between judgement and behaviour is poorly understood. But I think there are a few things we can say with some confidence as to how to encourage moral behaviour in the majority of people in the real – rather than theoretical – world.

Limits of reason

Firstly, we need to appreciate that knowing a bunch of moral norms isn’t enough. Norms are typically couched in fairly abstract or generalised terms, and translating those broad norms into the specific application in a particular instance isn’t necessarily an easy task.

And making norms more fine-grained doesn’t necessary solve the problem. Making a norm highly conditional or contingent – instead of ‘thou shalt not kill’, making it ‘thou shalt not kill, except in self-defence in cases with it’s likely your life is at stake and it is unlikely you’ll be able to subdue your attacker without harming them, and you’re not in a state of war’ etc etc – also is unhelpful.

We simply can’t expect people to either be able to translate general norms into specifics, or remember the intricacies of conditional norms, and apply them in the heat of the moment.

We also can’t rely on reason and rational deliberation to be our only means of arriving at a judgement and motivating behaviour. Humans are notoriously irrational most of the time. We only employ effortful conscious deliberation in rare moments of quiet, and even then our accuracy is perilously poor.

Instead, we need to find a way to translate the norms into heuristics that can actually motivate the appropriate behaviour with the minimum of cognitive burden and at the highest level of reliability.

At this point, moral psychology can tell us a lot about how we form moral judgements and, assuming there is a correct judgement in a particular circumstance, how we might come to a different, or incorrect, judgement. It appears that reason plays a back seat role to both perception and emotion, with these two faculties strongly influencing the initial intuitive judgement(s) that emerge.

This suggests two things: firstly, that we need to adjust perception and emotional responses such that they tend towards the correct answers; and secondly, that if our initial intuitive judgements are consistently producing sub-par judgements, then we need to find some way to mitigate this process and encourage the correct judgement.

Moral perception

On perception, it turns out that an individual’s worldview is extremely important in the formation of moral judgements. And by worldview I don’t just mean their ideology or philosophy of life, but the way they view the world, the way the project meaning on to the world, and the way they parse and interpret a scene in the moment. Someone is likely to come to a very different moral judgement when seeing an anonymous individual from a perceived out-group being harmed compared to seeing a loved sibling being harmed.

We also know that people respond unconsciously to environmental cues, and these can flavour how altruistically or empathetically they behave in that environment. So if the environment appears more threatening, they’ll withdraw and be less likely to help another person in need, for example. And, consider that most people in developed countries consistently overestimate the level of danger or threat in their community, not helped by mainstream sensationalist media and the glut of psychopath-homicide dramas on telly.

The key here is to adjust perception to as closely match reality as possible. This is not the wishful thinking of The Secret – visualising what you want and attempting to wish it into existence – it’s adjusting perception so as to not have an incorrect view of the threat or dangers in one’s world.

For example, in 2008, only 3.1% of Australians were the victim of some kind of physical assault (of any degree), and the vast majority of victims were young single men aged between 15-24. If you’re older than 25, employed and married, you’re highly unlikely to be exposed to physical assault. And 62% of offenders were known to the victims, suggesting the risk of assault from a stranger on an individual or a family taking a stroll down a main street at night is remote in most communities.

(The US might be a different case, particularly with the ludicrous propensity to arm its citizens, meaning even a small altercation can rapidly escalate into a lethal encounter. Removing guns from the community and providing visible and effective policing can help too, but that’s another argument.)

Spreading accurate and positive news (unlike what most news outlets prefer to do) could have a highly beneficial effect on moral behaviour. Even encouraging people to become self-aware of their own worldview, and encourage them to question it from time to time might weaken the grip of inaccurate worldviews on many folk.

We can also work to positively improve the environment to change those cues to encourage more cooperative and altruistic behaviour. Simply tidying the streets, removing graffiti (but not necessarily street art), providing comfortable work and public spaces, and even embarking on a positive affect programme through beautification can all potentially have a beneficial effect.

External motivation is also important. Linking behaviour to outcomes, and providing approval/disapproval from peers is a highly effective way of motivating behaviour, as is punishment for misbehaviour. There are clearly great challenges in facilitating public approval/disapproval, but it’s a device that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Emotional control

Emotions are also central to the formation of moral judgements and motivating behaviour. Someone stepping in front of you in a queue can elicit feelings of outrage and even anger – these are moral emotions manifesting themselves. We also have non-moral and self-interested emotions, such as desire, lust and envy.

Someone with strong emotional responses and/or poor emotional control can see these emotions burst forth and encourage behaviour in a spontaneous an uninhibited manner, resulting in immoral behaviour. While emotions are crucial to encouraging moral behaviour, we can’t let emotions carry us away.

Adjusting perception to encourage appropriate emotional responses to a particular situation is one important step, but so too is encouraging emotional self-control. Self-control is not easy, and we can’t expect it to always work – adjusting perception is a more effective way of managing emotions – but it’s a necessary technique.

As the virtue ethicists suggest, encouraging patience, calmness, self-control and diminishing the grip of heated emotions can all contribute to better behaviour. Encouraging these traits in most people is a tricky proposition, however.

I would suggest that instead of encouraging effortful conscious control of our emotions, we should instead attempt to habituate good traits from an early age. This, coupled with managing our perception and shaping our environment to remove negative cues and add positive cues, could go a long way to encouraging moral behaviour.

Final reason

The final step is reason. While I’ve poo-pooed moral reasoning above, it’s still an essential part of our moral behaviour toolkit. We need to encourage people to employ sound reasoning and be informed of the moral norms and values to be upheld. Even if these are difficult to employ in the heat of the moment, they can be used to retrospectively evaluate behaviours and judgements and reflect on the decisions and actions made.

Ultimately, moral education comes down to a few key elements:

  • Encouraging accurate and positive worldviews and perception
  • Creating an environment without negative cues and with more positive cues
  • Cultivating and habituating virtuous traits, such as patience, calmness, humour etc
  • Encouraging and providing the tools for emotional self-control
  • Promoting reflection upon one’s worldview, emotional character and behaviour
  • Encouraging sound moral reasoning for post-hoc evaluation

This is but a cursory overview of how we might facilitate better moral behaviour, and I’m sure there are many other approaches that can be taken. I’m also sure there are many challenges and pitfalls in implementing the notions I’ve suggested above. But philosophers and moral psychologists (positive moral psychologists?) should put more consideration in how to go beyond moral judgement to actual moral behaviour.

Given we’ve been nutting out morality for over two and a half thousand years, it’s about time we got back to the core issue of actually encouraging moral behaviour rather than just arguing over metaethics or consequentialism versus deontology.

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22 responses

3 01 2011
Vincent

Other than to promote the sidelining and doubtless the speediest possible demise of religion, I can see no point to your advocacy of “secular morality”. And it seems to me that if philosophy has an activist agenda, it does not deserve to be called philosophy. It is activism and public relations for a militant cause.

3 01 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, I applaud the idea that there should be more focus on figuring out how to encourage people to behave morally and agree that the means you propose may be helpful.

But it seems to me there is a big gun that you are not bringing to bear on the problem.

I expect we don’t disagree too much that the following assertion can almost certainly be shown to be provisionally true as a matter of science (‘true’ in the normal sense of science). “Our moral emotions and present and past cultural moral standards exist or existed primarily because they increased the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups by motivating unselfish behaviors.”

Perhaps we agree that these ideas define a form of Utilitarianism defined by: “The utility of morally right action is to maximize the benefits of cooperation in groups and between groups by unselfish acts”.

We may not yet agree that this form of Utilitarianism has the following five characteristics, each of which increases its potentially cultural utility. First, this form is universal due to its basis in the fundamental nature of reality as revealed by the mathematics of game theory. Second, this form of Utilitarianism defines moral behavior in terms of benefits, not penalties or obligations. Third, acting according to this version of Utilitarianism is almost always likely to be in the best long term interests of the individual, even when, in the moment of decision, the individual expects that it will not be. Fourth, the existing moral heuristics (like the Golden Rule) and moral intuitions of people who believe it is immoral for one group to exploit another (as in modern, liberal cultures) will, almost always, already be consistent with it. Fifth, based on the first four characteristics, this form of Utilitarianism is arguably the most the most attractive for adoption and practice of available secular alternatives.

I expect we could greatly increase mortal behavior if we could just get a rough consensus about what moral behavior ‘is’ in a secular sense. How about we go with what appears to be the universal function of moral behavior and its implied form of Utilitarianism as described above (assuming my assertions are confirmed) at least until something better shows up?

Mark

3 01 2011
Tim Dean

@Vincent. I’ve written before about the need to replace supernaturalist morality with secular morality. That is precisely why I write posts like this. I’m not interested in arguing against supernaturalism on this blog – the arguments have all been convincingly made many times over elsewhere – and I’m interested in moving forward to talk about morality post-supernaturalism. If you’re not convinced by the many arguments against supernaturalism, then there’s probably not much on this blog for you.

And your distinction between philosophy and activism seems nonsensical. Are you suggesting philosophers make no suggestions as to how we ought to live our lives? Or perhaps you suggest my writings are militant? Or perhaps you consider rational argument to be no more than public relations?

@Mark Interesting thoughts. But I’m talking about what we do after we’ve agreed on a particular consensus of what moral behaviour is (assuming such agreement is forthcoming).

What I’ve said above is fairly agnostic in terms of what that theory might be; it might well be what you state. But what I’m interested in is how to turn abstract theory into real action given the many limitations of our psychology.

And for that, I suggest greater emphasis on moral perception/worldview, encouraging emotional control through habituating virtuous characteristics and shaping our environment to promote positive behaviour.

3 01 2011
James Gray

Vincent,

Philosophy has always had activism. You think moral philosophers should say that slavery is wrong but refuse to actually do anything about that? Philosophy changes who you are, how you think, and how you behave.

If philosophers have the tools and wisdom to understand morality (which is what ethics is all about), then why not use that wisdom?

The word “militant” makes it sound like philosophy is oppressive. You have no right to criticize philosophy without using sound reasoning (AKA philosophy). To decide what philosophy should be is known as meta-philosophy and it’s not the job of the rabble to tell philosophers how to live their life based on their own unwarranted assumptions and emotions. That is oppressive and irrational.

Is philosophy oppressive for trying to help people? I don’t think so. There is this common idea that philosophers are “authoritarian” and oppressive for telling people what to think, but that’s normal. Philosophers have told people what to think based on the soundest reasoning and expertise possible throughout history. Philosophers certainly aren’t perfect, but people who don’t even try to be reasonable and use arguments and understand what other intelligent people think aren’t even part of the real conversation.

To be oppressive is not to use arguments and sound reasoning. It’s to appeal to violence and propaganda rather than reason.

Is it ever OK for a philosopher to hurt someone? Maybe, but philosophers tend to be highly anti-oppression and anti-violence.

3 01 2011
Vincent

Proudly speaking as one of the rabble, I note that Tim speaks of “supernaturalism” and doesn’t say “religion”. I’m not sure why.

“we’ve been nutting out morality for over two and a half thousand years” seems to cover the Christian period and go back to Plato.

Have there been no Christian philosophers?

There are many forms of oppression. Women and slaves were oppressed when they weren’t given the right to vote. It certainly seems like oppression to disrespect religion’s role in encouraging moral behaviour, by ignoring it completely.

3 01 2011
Vincent

“If you’re not convinced by the many arguments against supernaturalism, then there’s probably not much on this blog for you.”

Yes, I think you’re right, for it is plain that you and most of your readers don’t want to give religion credit for anything over the last two thousand years. I just think you ought to stop claiming to speak on behalf of philosophy itself, as a kind of orthodoxy seeking supremacy over all thought, just as science is doing.

I shall of course get bored soon enough with provoking you, and go away, for there is more in this wonderful world than rational argument that dismisses so much of value in human achievement.

True, “it’s not the job of the rabble to tell philosophers how to live their life based on their own unwarranted assumptions and emotions”. But the converse is also true! I side with the rabble.

4 01 2011
James Gray

Vincent,

Have there been no Christian philosophers?

There have been. Is it OK for Christian philosophers to tell us how to live but not atheist ones?

There are many forms of oppression. Women and slaves were oppressed when they weren’t given the right to vote. It certainly seems like oppression to disrespect religion’s role in encouraging moral behaviour, by ignoring it completely.

Most philosophers don’t know much about “religion’s role” for morality and many philosophers that studied Christianity were not impressed by the “Christian morality.” If you think you or your religion has something important to contribute, then form an argument and let us know about it.

True, “it’s not the job of the rabble to tell philosophers how to live their life based on their own unwarranted assumptions and emotions”. But the converse is also true! I side with the rabble.

What is the converse? That philosophers shouldn’t use unwarranted assumptions and emotions to tell people how to live? A major reason of being a philosopher is to have warranted beliefs rather than unwarranted assumptions. If a philosopher’s belief is false, then form an argument.

The idea that philosophers should “keep their mouth shut” and “just have faith” is beyond stupid. The idea that the philosopher’s arguments are all bullshit is ignorant beyond belief. Let’s use our powers of reason and try to make the world a better place. To not do so is to allow oppression and immoral horrors.

4 01 2011
Paul

I must say that it seems inconsistent to argue that religious emotions evolved precisely because they promote cooperative behavior and then to search for ways to promote pro-social behavior that don’t engage religious emotions. The only traditions of moral cultivation to have lasted through the ages are religious ones. Secular traditions of moral cultivation have existed, particularly among the Ancient Romans and Greeks, but those died away while traditions within Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have consistently trained. Reason by itself moves nothing, and so all of our desires are ultimately irrational. Many religions have figured out how to actually shape our desires to make us moral.

4 01 2011
James Gray

Paul,

You said:

I must say that it seems inconsistent to argue that religious emotions evolved precisely because they promote cooperative behavior and then to search for ways to promote pro-social behavior that don’t engage religious emotions.

What is a “religious emotion” and how do you know that atheists don’t engage those emotions?

I agree that religion might have encouraged pro-social behavior to some extent, but there are other reasons that a religion can “survive.” See Dennett’s idea that religion are “memes” and some “memes” might be harmful — even if they can survive: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes.html

The only traditions of moral cultivation to have lasted through the ages are religious ones. Secular traditions of moral cultivation have existed, particularly among the Ancient Romans and Greeks, but those died away while traditions within Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have consistently trained.

One, the Christians and Muslims took the non-Christian philosophy of others very seriously. It’s all part of the same tradition. Without Aristotle, Plato, or the Stoics Christian philosophy in particular would be much different. Therefore, it’s not quite right to say that such non-religious moral philosophy “died off.”

Two, Buddhism isn’t necessarily religious. The moral training described by Buddha was similar to Stoicism and is still of interest.

Three, secularism obviously didn’t die off. It’s alive and well in philosophy.

Reason by itself moves nothing, and so all of our desires are ultimately irrational. Many religions have figured out how to actually shape our desires to make us moral.

First, it’s an assumption that “reason by itself moves nothing.”

Second, you never proved that “desires are irrational.” Let’s assume that “reason moves nothing.” That still doesn’t prove desires are irrational.

Third, it’s quite possible that religions have “figured out how to actually shape our desires to make us moral.” However, it’s not something we can take for granted. There are many religions with many different ideas about making people moral. One idea is to punish people who do “immoral acts.” Another idea is to tell people to be good to go to heaven and avoid going to hell. The first idea is endorsed to some extent by atheists, but the second idea is rejected for being illegitimately coercive.

The Buddhist idea of shaping thoughts and beliefs is highly relevant to atheism and what Tim describes above.

4 01 2011
Tim Dean

@Vincent. I’ll ask that you cease posting vacuous provocations that have nothing to do with the post in discussion. If you have a critical argument to contribute, you’re welcome to post. But if you continue to dish out straw man and other fallacious statements, then I will be forced to delete your comments.

@James and the others: I suggest you don’t respond to Vincent unless he offers a critical argument.

@Paul:

it seems inconsistent to argue that religious emotions evolved precisely because they promote cooperative behavior and then to search for ways to promote pro-social behavior that don’t engage religious emotions

I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all, for several reasons. First, evolution can teach us two distinct things: the nature of the problem, such as the challenges in promoting cooperative behaviour; and how evolution has tried to solve the problem, such as through the evolved moral – or even possibly religious – emotions.

Just because we draw on evolution to understand the problems doesn’t bind us to accept the solutions that evolution has provided. Many of our evolved faculties are problematic when relied upon today; our evolved food-seeking mechanisms are fuelling an obesity epidemic, for example, yet understanding evolution is crucial to understand digestion and metabolism.

That said, I’ve stated before on this blog that secular morality has a lot to learn from religion, particularly in terms of how to motivate behaviour by engaging the emotions as well as the organisational structure that religion employs.

And I don’t doubt that religions have been very effective at propagating themselves, largely because they have fostered cooperation and solidarity amongst their adherents. But supernaturalism is a dangerously erroneous theory to rely on today and into the future. To answer a question raised by Vincent, I distinguish the two – religion and supernaturalism – because I don’t have a problem with secular religion (i.e. an institution that mirrors the role and structure of religion sans supernaturalism), but I think supernaturalism should be discarded.

5 01 2011
Vincent

Dear Tim and others, I shall not post after this. It is pointless to duel with one another because we would never agree on a choice of weapons. That we are in implacable opposition to one another is beyond doubt. The world (aka the Rabble) has chosen and will continue to choose who, if anyone, it will allow to define and encourage moral behaviour; which Sunday-school, or none, it will send its children to. You will find that it is necessary to try propagate your views, preach to the rabble as well as the converted; to foster cooperation and solidarity amongst your adherents; and be prepared for the inevitable future, that others will judge your ideas to be dangerously erroneous theories. I wish you well!

If you are “forced to delete” this reply, I shall accept your decision, philosophically.

5 01 2011
Vincent

PS (sorry not to stick to my promise): James Gray addresses me thus: “If you think you or your religion has something important to contribute, then form an argument and let us know about it.” Well I would James, but honestly, I have no religion, am agnostic.

But “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”. “I’m a man. I consider nothing human alien to me”—present past or future; and not excluding unreason.

5 01 2011
Paul

Mr. Dean,

I think that I am missing something in the distinction you are making. An institution that mirrors the structure and function of a religion, whether or not it contains belief in supernatural phenomena, is just a religion, no? Is a religion only a religion if it contains supernatural beliefs?

@James Gray

Isn’t motivation the same thing as desire? Doesn’t every choice a human makes imply at least one desire, if not many? Even when we choose between desires, we do so on the basis of desire. It seems to be turtles all the way down. As for what I meant by the phrase religious emotions, I was referring the set of moral intuitions/feelings that Jonathan Haidt has called the conservative moral emotions. Insofar as we all have intuitions about elevation and pollution, who we should give deference to and when, and about to whom we must be loyal, we are all religious. It is by employing such emotions, and others as well, that religions shape behavior. Part of the reason that Monotheists turned to Plato and Aristotle were that both were theologians as well as philosophers. Indeed, Socrates wasn’t only accused of being an atheist, he was also accused of corrupting the young by introducing them to new gods.

5 01 2011
James Gray

Paul,

Isn’t motivation the same thing as desire? Doesn’t every choice a human makes imply at least one desire, if not many? Even when we choose between desires, we do so on the basis of desire.

I don’t know, but you said, “Reason by itself moves nothing, and so all of our desires are ultimately irrational. Many religions have figured out how to actually shape our desires to make us moral.” You are assuming that there is no overlap of reason and desire. Some people think desires are reasons for action. Some people think there are desire-independent reasons that can produce motivation or desire.

It seems to be turtles all the way down. As for what I meant by the phrase religious emotions, I was referring the set of moral intuitions/feelings that Jonathan Haidt has called the conservative moral emotions.

I have nothing against conservative moral emotions and I think that those desires can be quite rational. I myself can sympathize greatly with those desires, but I don’t see why they should be considered to be religious.

Insofar as we all have intuitions about elevation and pollution, who we should give deference to and when, and about to whom we must be loyal, we are all religious. It is by employing such emotions, and others as well, that religions shape behavior. Part of the reason that Monotheists turned to Plato and Aristotle were that both were theologians as well as philosophers. Indeed, Socrates wasn’t only accused of being an atheist, he was also accused of corrupting the young by introducing them to new gods.

I’m not convinced that they were theologians and I quite like both the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. I think what they had to say is still very relevant to moral philosophy.

5 01 2011
Tim Dean

@Paul:

An institution that mirrors the structure and function of a religion, whether or not it contains belief in supernatural phenomena, is just a religion, no? Is a religion only a religion if it contains supernatural beliefs?

Short answer: it is possible to have religion without supernaturalism. That’s one route I envisage secular morality, or belief systems such as Humanism, taking in terms of offering itself as a replacement for supernaturalist religion.

Doesn’t every choice a human makes imply at least one desire, if not many?

There are several theories of desire and motivation, but typically it’s believed that desire provides a motivational drive, but not necessarily the direction of action. Reason can mediate between desires and help determine the best course of action to satisfy them.

Insofar as we all have intuitions about elevation and pollution, who we should give deference to and when, and about to whom we must be loyal, we are all religious

I disagree with the usage of the term ‘religious’ here. Just because I have intuitions about something doesn’t necessitate that I adopt a particular belief system. For example, innate bias (the unconscious bias we all hold against those who are different from us) doesn’t necessarily make me racist if I don’t act in a discriminatory way or hold discriminatory beliefs.

Part of the reason that Monotheists turned to Plato and Aristotle were that both were theologians as well as philosophers.

Using the term ‘theologian’ in this context is problematic. There was no distinction between philosophy and theology in ancient Greece. Heck, there wasn’t a distinction between philosophy and science, economics, psychology, politics, astronomy, mathematics etc etc in ancient Greece.

That said, Socrates didn’t really introduce new gods, he just challenged the moral authority of the Greek pantheon. And even that was just a pretext for his execution.

7 01 2011
Michael J. Kerrigan

My layman’s views probably do not merit mention in such an erudite discussion. However, to the extent they may strike a responsive chord, I am struggling how to encourage moral behavior in the next generation of politicians. I have worked with Members of the US Congress over the past 30 plus years. My quest is to cultivate greater moral virtue in the next generation than I have experienced with the current one. I welcome your suggestions since self government requires at least some leaders with sound moral character.

7 01 2011
Mark Sloan

Michael, I expect that if moral philosophers had a golden bullet to encourage moral behavior in politicians, beyond the sensible ideas such as Tim described in his original post, they would have fired that bullet long ago.

However, work over the last 30 years or so suggests that such a golden bullet does exist. But its origins are mainly in science rather than moral philosophy. I expect that in the next few years it will become generally accepted that past and present moralities have or had a specific function, a primary secular reason they exist or existed in those cultures, specifically:

“The primary function of moral standards (the primary reason they exist in cultures) is that they increase the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups by advocating unselfish behaviors”.

Note this function is only about benefits within a group. It is consistent with groups exploiting other groups such as in slave holding societies and societies where women are morally obligated to be subservient to men.

However, from this function, a moral principle can be derived that appears to be the moral principle underlying virtually all secular morality in modern, liberal cultures. This principle classifies as immoral one group exploiting another as for slavery and women being morally obligated to be subservient to men.

“Moral behaviors are unselfish behaviors that increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation within groups and between groups”.

I expect such knowledge should increase moral behavior in politicians in two main ways.

First, the public would have a simple secular moral standard to sort the wheat from the chaff of politicians’ purported moral claims. I am thinking in particular of those concerning the ‘moral threats’ to society of gay marriage, universal health care, and regulating free enterprise. Claims that these are ‘moral threats’ could be seen for what they really are, strategies to unite people’s support for the slimy politicians that try to frighten people with them.

Second, individual politicians who sincerely are trying to behave morally should recognize their moral intuitions are virtually always consistent with the above moral principle. Having a recognized, factual basis for knowing what is moral in a secular sense and as a matter of science, not just opinion, should strengthen their hands in arguing for moral laws.

Also, the above moral principle defines moral behavior in terms of benefits, not burdens or obligations. That is, acting according to the principle is arguably the rational choice, the choice expected to best meet the individual’s needs and preferences in the long term. Acting immorally (by the principle) is arguably, almost always, making an irrational choice.

7 01 2011
Matthew H

Nice post Tim. I agree that this is an area we should have people working on, and think you give a good sketch of the basic terrain. However, I don’t buy your point about moral philosophy having erred by focusing on normative ethics and metaethics as the expense of this topic. The question of how to get people to behave morally is an empirical question that depends on contingent facts about human psychology and current environmental conditions. As such, it seems the kind of question best suited to social scientists of various stripes. Of course, philosophers can make some contribution to this investigation by engaging with the empirical research, making conceptual clarifications, and perhaps critiquing methodology. But the actual empirical investigation is going to have to be done by people with the appropriate training and expertise. By the way, an interesting historical point is that prior to the separation of social science from philosophy in the late 19th century, philosophers did often comment on the question of how to teach virtue. Aristotle (qua proto-social scientist) gives an extensive treatment of it in the Nichomachean ethics. And though I don’t know the literature well, my impression is that many moral philosophers from the early-modern period do discuss teaching virtue, however, because their discussion is based on anecdotal evidence and armchair speculation rather than rigorous empirical investigation, it is mostly (and rightly) forgotten or ignored.

7 01 2011
Tim Dean

Hi Michael. Interesting problem!

I would start by drawing a distinction between encouraging moral behaviour and discouraging self-interested behaviour. One of the (few) triumphs of democracy is that it couples a politician’s self-interest to the interest of the people. So, in some ways, we assume and accept that politicians will advance their own interests, and in doing so, will drag the public along with them. We don’t necessarily want to exclude politicians that pursue self-interest from politics.

On the other hand, there are many areas where politicians might misbehave or act in a corrupt manner, or who have a slack moral compass and are willing to compromise on values for political expedience. That’s a harder issue to crack. It’s as much systemic as psychological.

My initial thoughts on how to encourage moral behaviour in the next generation of politicians, besides the ideas mentioned above, is not simply to implore them to adhere to any certain set of principles, but construct an environment that encourages them to behave in accordance with their stated values (and that implicit in the state), and discourage them from deviating from those values.

Greater transparency, oversight and an effective media (that pick up on and criticises poor reasoning and use of fallacies) are all important parts of that puzzle that reside outside the purview of the politician.

Also greater contact with the individuals that the politicians’ policies affect is important, as such contact triggers our moral emotions in a way that dispassionate reflection on generalised and remote issues can’t.

Ultimately, a lot of your programme might be more about systemic changes than asking politicians to change the way they think on an individual level. Interesting problem, though, and I’ll give it more thought.

@Matthew H

I guess I take a different view of philosophy than you. I don’t accept the diminution of the field to the ‘philosophy of the gaps’ of modern times. Sure, social science, economics, physics etc all used to be a part of philosophy, and they have split off into their own disciplines, but I don’t think that means modern philosophers are relegated only to the more abstract, more theoretical problems and they shouldn’t dabble in empirical questions.

I wouldn’t undertake the empirical studies myself – they should be performed by experts – but I think it’s important to work with empirical researchers and be familiar with their studies in order to give a complete and meaningful picture of morality. I suppose I take a bigger picture view of some philosophy questions – possibly why I came to think a lot about Synthesis.

Perhaps that doesn’t make me a strict philosopher, but I’m fine with that. In fact, I’ve drawn a distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ philosophy on this blog before, and I’ve stated that I don’t consider myself a ‘pure’ philosopher.

I should also clarify that in criticising moral philosophy for overlooking moral education, I’m not suggesting that existing philosophers shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, or that they should be doing something else – only that there’s a gap in the research, and someone ought to fill it.

7 01 2011
James Gray

Michael J. Kerrigan,

There are a lot of ways to tackle the problem. Tim mentioned some. Lobbying should also be considered.

However, if we want to “cultivate greater moral virtue in the next generation” then I suggest making philosophy and ethics mandatory in high school. Why would anyone expect rational or moral behavior from people who live in a society that thinks so little about such things that no one is expected to learn what good reasoning or morality is in the first place?

8 01 2011
Matthew H

Tim, I doubt that there is any substantial difference in our views on the nature of philosophy. I don’t, for example, think that the philosopher “shouldn’t dabble in empirical questions”. And I reject that view that says philosophy and science are fundamentally different because philosophy is purely a priori whereas science is a posteriori. Indeed, I find the distinction between science and philosophy to be continuous and not discrete, both because philosophy does address empirical questions and because science is full of conceptual clarification. But I do think that the type training that philosophers get, and the type of training that scientists get, means that there are some things that one group can do especially well that the other group can’t.

You seem to agree with me on this. You accept that philosophers, with their training, aren’t well suited to carrying out experiments or empirical studies. But you still think they have a substantial role to play in addressing the question, ‘how do we cultivate virtue?’. I take it that what you have in mind are the kinds of things I mentioned: making conceptual clarifications, critiquing methodology, suggesting lines of further investigation. If this is the kind of thing you’re thinking of then again we seem to be in agreement.

Maybe where we disagree is that I don’t think there is that much philosophical work to be done here – it seems to me that the kinds of empirical studies needed to answer the question are pretty straightforward and uncontroversial, so the main contribution is going to come from qualified people doing these studies. To be fair, I haven’t thought through your question carefully so maybe I’ve underestimated things. But my general point is surely right. Empirical questions can be placed on a continuum based on the degree to which philosophical expertise is relevant to answering them. At one end of the continuum are questions like “How do we build a more efficient solar cell?” that philosophers will have virtually nothing to contribute. At the other end are questions like “Is evolution progressive?” that are full of complex conceptual issues that philosophers are particularly well placed to elucidate. Where your question fits on this continuum seems fairly open at this stage.

8 01 2011
James Gray

Matthew,

Scientists can tell us what behavior and such to expect from various “nurturing” or “cultivating” situations but scientists tend not to tell us what counts as “good,” “right,” or “virtuous.” It’s up to us and moral philosophers in particular to make the value judgments.

Also the philosophical work can be phenomenological and speculative.

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