In my recent post on Plato’s Protagoras, I left a number of questions unanswered on the subject of moral education. These questions can be rolled up into one: how do I become a good person? I doubt I’ll come up with a cosmic answer, but in this post I propose to take up the matter.
Let’s start where the Protagoras left off. I assume that right behavior, or virtue, can be taught, and is taught to each child by the community, starting of course with the parents. This is possible because virtue is a product of community life: of tradition. Reality can’t instruct us. The facts of the matter, whether naked and alone or scientifically understood, have of themselves no moral force. The facts about a developing fetus may be perfectly known, for example, yet two rational persons may come to opposing moral opinions regarding abortion.
Moral decisions are powered by values, which are codified and taught by the community. But such values must be learned as well as taught. We are not passive receptacles into which teachers pour virtue, but quite the opposite: each person acquires a moral character, good or evil, by an internal process. Moral education, while a matter of public interest, must conclude secretly and invisibly, in self-rule when successful or self-indulgence when not.
This hidden process is what I wish to examine here.
What is the relationship between a person’s heart and mind and those values codified by the community – how are the latter internalized? To answer the question, we must obtain a clearer understanding of what we mean by “values.” Usually, we identify values with moral rules such as “Thou shalt not kill.” It is the set of these rules, then, that we are taught and that we internalize when we achieve self-rule.
But how does that work? In fact, the rules of morality guide behavior in a very different way than is generally supposed. The rules aren’t a menu of solutions. We very rarely ask, “What do the rules say about this particular case?” If we think about it for a moment, we’ll realize that no satisfactory answer can be given to this question.
Richard Taylor once observed that every moral rule admits of exceptions. This must mean that a higher rule trump the rules. “Thou shalt not kill” or even a modern variant such as “Place the highest value on human life” may appear to be an uncontrovertible rule of morality, but it is trumped when life is taken by abortions, or in self-defense, or by the execution of criminals, or by soldiers at war. Because moral rules admit of exceptions, we would need rules to decide when the rules apply and when they don’t – and more rules to decide when these rules apply – and so on, in infinite regress.
That’s the logic of the case. In reality, we never go through this rigmarole. We perceive a situation, and almost immediately feel the right or wrong of it. Later, the rules may be brought in, lawyer-like, to justify our original feeling of right or wrong, but I doubt they were in mind when the feeling first occurred. So we return to the question: how are the rules internalized?
They are not simply memorized. They are not a menu of solutions applicable to every situation. The rules of morality, I submit, are internalized not piecemeal but as a whole, and attain the form, in the human mind, not of a code of law or a set of instructions but of an idealized person, who then becomes the model of right behavior.
Every community produces a handful of such idealized types: for example, “warrior” or “saint.” These are behavioral endpoints or goals that impose a theme on the muddle of human existence, toward which real-life persons will aspire.
Further, idealized or typical behaviors are scripted to a situation, rather than derived abstractly from the rules. We are taught how to behave in church and on the football field, and it would be a disgrace to confuse the two. Similarly, we are taught to value human life, but also that an armed intrude to one’s home may be killed in self-defense. There’s nothing relativistic about this approach to morality.
Each situation carries an absolute injunction to right behavior. There’s nothing contradictory about it either. Contradiction pertains to logic or mathematics; virtue pertains to the human heart. Universalizing, for consistency’s sake, a rule (“thou shalt not kill”) that works only in specific circumstances, would lead to failure and unhappiness for the individual, weakness and disorder for the community.
The biology behind this process is beginning to be understood. Antonio Damasio has proposed a “somatic marker hypothesis,” by which he means the body’s capacity to tag situations with body states felt to be good or bad, thus allowing immediate decision-making about how to behave.
Somatic markers hijack primitive biological systems to help manage complex social situations, including moral dilemmas. The body states are felt as emotions: physical revulsion in the presence of evil, exaltation when confronted with selfless or noble actions. “Somatic markers are thus acquired by experience,” Damasio concludes, “under the control of an internal preference system and under the influence of an external set of circumstances which include not only events and entities with which the organism must interact, but also social conventions and ethical rules.”
We become good by being taught, on a situation by situation basis, what is right behavior and what is wrong. Yet we don’t perceive the moral universe as a mosaic of problems to solve: we perceive it whole, as the sum of all possible situations, dealt with the way an idealized person would. The ideals themselves are produced by the community in religion, stories, and art.
None of us ever attain to the perfection of the ideal, though the best of us may approximate it. Similarly, we judge one another not piecemeal but as a whole, by how far we fall from the ideal. That measurement is what we call a person’s character.
This explanation has a third-person perspective, which allows us to understand the mechanics of moral education without offering much in the way of advice. I have glossed over what is surely the most important question of all: “What must I do to become a good person?” That will be the subject of a future post.