Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/May 1886/Development of the Moral Faculty

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IT has been long disputed whether the moral faculty is innate and instinctive, or whether it is the result of experience and education. The probability is that it is partly the one and partly the other. The child shows from an early period a disposition to submit to others' authority, and this moral instinct may not improbably be the transmitted result of the social experience and moral training of many generations of ancestors. Yet, whatever the strength of the innate disposition, it is indisputable that external influences and education have much to do in determining the intensity and the special form of the moral sentiment. We have now to trace the successive phases of its development.

A consciousness of moral obligation arises in the first instance by help of the common childish experience of living under parental authority at the outset. The child's repugnance to doing what is wrong is mainly the egoistic feeling of dislike to or fear of punishment. By the effect of the principle of association or "transference," dislike to the consequences of certain actions might lead on to a certain measure of dislike to the actions themselves. And such an effort would greatly strengthen the innate disposition to submit to authority.

When the forces of affection and sympathy come into play, this crude germ of moral feeling would advance a stage. An affectionate child, finding that disobedience and wrong-doing offend and distress his mother or father, would shrink from these actions on this ground. Not only so, the promptings of sympathy would lead the child to set a value on what those whom he loves and esteems hold in reverence. In this way love and reverence for the father lead on naturally to love and reverence for the moral law which he represents, enforces, and in a measure embodies.

Even now, however, the love of right has not become a feeling for the inherent quality of moral rightness; it is still a blind respect for what is enjoined by certain persons who are respected and beloved. In order that the blind, sympathetic regard may pass into an intelligent appreciation, another kind of experience is necessary.

Thrown with others from the first, a child soon finds that he is affected in various ways by their actions. Thus another child takes a toy from him or strikes him, and he suffers, and experiences a feeling of anger, and an impulse to retaliate. Or, on the contrary, another child is generous and shares his toys, etc., with him, and so his happiness is augmented, and he is disposed to be grateful. In such ways the child gradually gains experience of the effect of others' good and bad actions on his own welfare. By so doing his apprehension of the meaning of moral distinctions is rendered clearer. "Right" and "wrong" acquire a certain significance in relation to his individual well-being. He is now no longer merely in the position of an unintelligent subject to a command; he becomes to some extent an intelligent approver of that command, helping to enforce it, by pronouncing the doer of the selfish act "naughty," and of the kind action "good."

Further experience and reflection on this would teach the child the reciprocity and interdependence of right conduct; that the honesty, fairness, and kindness of others toward himself are conditional on his acting similarly toward them. In this way he would be led to attach a new importance to his own performance of certain right actions. He feels impelled to do what is right, e. g., speak the truth, not simply because he wants to avoid his parents' condemnation, but because he begins to recognize that network of reciprocal dependence which binds each individual member of a community to his fellows.

Even now, however, our young moral learner has not attained to a genuine and pure repugnance to wrong as such. In order that he may feel this, the higher sympathetic feelings must be further developed.

To illustrate the influence of such a higher sympathy, let us suppose that A suffers from B's angry outbursts or his greedy propensities. He finds that C and D also suffer in much the same way. If his sympathetic impulses are sufficiently keen he will be able, by help of his own similar sufferings, to put himself in the place of the injured one, and to resent his injury just as though it were done to himself. At the beginning he will feel only for those near him, and the objects of special affection, as his mother or his sister. Hence the moral importance of family relations and their warm personal affections, as serving first to develop habitual sympathy with others and consideration for their interests and claims. As his sympathies expand, however, this indignation against wrong-doing will take a wider sweep, and embrace a larger and larger circle of his fellows. In this way he comes to exercise a higher moral function as a disinterested spectator of others' conduct, and an impartial representative and supporter of the moral law.

The highest outcome of this habit of sympathetic indignation against wrong is a disinterested repugnance to wrong when done by the individual himself. A child injures another in some way, either in momentary anger or through thoughtlessness. As soon as he is able to reflect, his habit of sympathy asserts itself, and causes him to suffer with the injured one. He puts himself at the point of view of the child he has wronged, and from that point of view looks back on himself, the doer of the wrong, with a new feeling of self-condemnation. On the other hand, when he fulfills his duty to another or renders him a kindness, he gains a genuine satisfaction by imaginatively realizing the feelings of the recipient of the service, and so looking back on his action with complacency and approval.

When this stage of moral progress is reached, the child will identify himself with the moral law in a new and closer way. He will no longer do right merely because an external authority commands, or because he sees it to some extent to be his interest to do so. The development of the unselfish feelings has now connected an internal pain, the pang of self-condemnation, and of remorse, with the consciousness of acting wrongly; and this pain, being immediate and certain, acts as a constant and never-failing sanction.

The higher developments of the moral sentiment involve not only a deepening and quickening of the feelings, but a considerable enlightenment of the intelligence. In order to detect the subtler distinctions between right and wrong, delicate intellectual processes have to be carried out. Rapidity and certainty of moral insight are the late result of wide experience, and a long and systematic exercise of the moral faculty on its emotional and intellectual side alike.

Since the moral feeling stands in a peculiarly close relation to the will, the practical problem of exercising and developing it is intimately connected with the education of the will and the formation of the moral character. This larger problem we have not yet reached, but we may even at this stage inquire into the best means of developing the moral sentiment regarded apart from its influence as a motive to action, and merely as an emotional and intellectual product.

Inasmuch as the government of the parent and the teacher is the external agency that first acts upon the germ of the moral sentiment, it is evident that the work of training the moral feelings and judgment forms a conspicuous feature in the plan of early education. The nature of the home discipline more particularly is a prime factor in determining the first movements of growth of the childish sense of duty. In order that any system of discipline may have a beneficial moral influence and tend in the direction of moral growth, it must satisfy the requirements of a good and efficient system. What these are is a point which will be considered later on. Here it must suffice to say that rules must be laid down absolutely, and enforced uniformly and consistently, yet with a careful consideration of circumstances and individual differences. Only in this way will the child come to view the commands and prohibitions of his parent or his teacher as representing and expressing a permanent and unalterable moral law, which is perfectly impartial in its approvals and disapprovals.

The effect of any system of discipline in educating and strengthening the moral feelings and judgment will depend on the spirit and temper in which it is enforced. On the one hand, a measure of calm becomes the judicial function, and a parent or teacher carried away by violent feeling is unfit for moral control. Hence everything like petty personal feeling, as vindictiveness, triumph, and so forth, should be rigorously excluded.

On the other hand, the moral educator must not, in administering discipline, appear as a cold, impersonal abstraction. He must represent the august and rigorously impartial moral law, but in representing it he must prove himself a living personality capable of being deeply pained at the sight of wrong-doing. By so doing he may foster the love of right by enlisting on his side the child's warmer feelings of love and respect for a concrete personality. The child should first be led to feel how base it is to lie, and how cowardly to injure a weak and helpless creature, by witnessing the distress it causes his beloved parent or teacher. In like manner he should be led on to feel the nobility of generosity and self-sacrifice by witnessing the delight which it brings his moral teacher.

It is hardly necessary to add, perhaps, that this infusion of morality with a warm sympathetic reflection of the educator's feelings presupposes the action of that moral atmosphere which surrounds a good personality. The child only fully realizes the repugnance of a lie to his parent or teacher when he comes to regard him as himself a perfect embodiment of truth. The moral educator must appear as the consistent respecter of the moral law in all his actions.

The training of the moral faculty in a self-reliant mode of feeling and judging includes the habitual exercise of the sympathetic feelings, together with the powers of judgment. And here much may be done by the educator in directing the child's attention to the effects of his conduct. The injurious consequences of wrong-doing and the beneficent results of right-doing ought to be made clear to the child, and his feelings enlisted against the one and on the side of the other. Not only so, his mind should be exercised in comparing actions so as to discover the common grounds and principles of right and wrong, and also in distinguishing between like actions under different circumstances, so that he may become rational and discriminative in pronouncing moral judgment.

What is called moral instruction should in the first stages of education consist largely of presenting to the child's mind examples of duty and virtue, with a view to call forth his moral feelings as well as to exercise his moral judgment. His own little sphere of observation should be supplemented by the page of history and of fiction. In this way a wider variety of moral action is exhibited, and the level of everyday experience is transcended. Such a widening of the moral horizon is necessary both for enlarging and refining the feeling of duty, and for rendering the meaning of moral terms deeper and more exact. And it stimulates the mind to frame an ideal conception of what is good and praiseworthy.

The problem of determining the exact relation of intellectual to moral culture is one which has perplexed men's minds from the days of Socrates. On the one hand, as has been remarked, the enlightenment of the intelligence is essential to the growth of a clear and finely discriminative moral sense. On the other hand, it is possible to exercise the intellect in dealing with the formal distinctions of morality without calling the moral faculty into full vital activity.

This practical difficulty presses with peculiar force when we come on to the later exercises of moral instruction. The full carrying out of the process of informing the moral intelligence naturally conducts to the more or less systematic exposition of the ideas and truths of ethics. An enlightened conscience is one to which the deepest grounds of duty have begun to disclose themselves, and which has approximated to a complete and harmonious ideal of goodness by a systematic survey and coordination of the several divisions of human duty and the corresponding directions of moral virtue and excellence. Something in the shape of ethical exposition is thus called for when the child reaches a certain point in moral progress. But the educator must be careful to make this dogmatic instruction supplementary to, and not a substitute for, the drawing forth of the whole moral faculty on its sensitive and on its reflective side alike by the presentation of living concrete illustrations of moral truth. Divorced from this, it can only degenerate into a dead formal exercise of the logical faculty and the memory.

The education of the moral sentiment is, as we have seen, carried out in part by the influence of the child's companions. To surround him with companions is not only necessary for his comfort, but is a condition of developing and strengthening the moral feelings, as the sentiment of justice, the feeling of honor, and so on. The larger community of the school has an important moral function in familiarizing the child's mind with the idea that the moral law is not the imposition of an individual will, but of the community. The standard of good conduct set up and enforced by this community is all authoritative in fixing the early directions of the moral judgment.

This being so, it is evident that the moral educator must take pains to control and guide the public opinion of the school. And in connection with this he should seek to counteract the excessive influence of numbers, and to stimulate the individual to independent moral reflection.

  1. From "Elements of Psychology, with Special Applications to the Art of Teaching." In press of D. Appleton & Co.