Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/August 1894/The Chaos in Moral Training

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AUGUST, 1894.




IN teaching undergraduates in the subject of ethics, I have been impressed with the need of getting the discussion as near as possible to what is going on in the minds of students themselves. Although ethics is the most practical of the philosophic studies, none lends itself more readily to merely technical statement and formal discussion. It is easy to forget that we are discussing the actual behavior, motives, and conduct of men, and substitute for that a discussion of Kant's or Mill's or Spencer's theory of ethics. It seems to me especially advisable to get in some contact with the practical, and accordingly largely unconscious, theory of moral ends and motives which actually controls thinking upon moral subjects. One is, however, considerably embarrassed in attempting this. As any one knows who has much to do with the young, their conscious thoughts in these matters, or at least their statements, are not fresher, but more conventional, than those of their elders. They are apt to desire to say the edifying thing, and the thing which they feel is expected of them, rather than express their own inner feelings. Moreover, some points have been so much discussed that any direct questioning upon them is apt to bring forth remnants of controversies that have been heard or read, secondhand opinions, an argumentative taking of sides, rather than to evoke the spontaneous and native attitude. Among other devices for eliminating or at least reducing these disturbing factors the following method was hit upon: To ask each student to state some typical early moral experience of his own, relating, say, to obedience, honesty, and truthfulness, and the impression left by the outcome upon his own mind, especially the impression as to the reason for the virtue in question. The answers brought out a considerable mass of material, incidentally as well as directly. Some of this seems to me to have value beyond the immediate pedagogical occasion which called it forth, as furnishing a fairly representative sample[1] of the motives instilled by existing methods of moral training, and the impressions which these methods leave behind.

Nine tenths of the answers may be classified under one of the following heads: The impression left by the mode of treatment was that the motive for right doing is (1) found in the consequences of the act; (2) fear of being punished; (3) simply because it is right; (4) because right doing pleases the parent, while wrongdoing displeases; (5) the religious motive. In number the religious motive predominates; next to that comes fear of punishment. In many cases, of course, several of these reasons were inculcated.

1. The regard for consequences as a reason for morality takes the form of regard either for external consequences or for intrinsic reactions—that is to say, upon the character of the agent or upon those about him. A number seem to have learned the value of obedience by observation of disagreeable results proceeding from its opposite. For example, one child was told not to take off her shoes and stockings; she disobeyed, and had croup in the night—whence, she remarks, she derived the idea that others knew more than she, and that disobedience was dangerous. Another girl was told not to wear a lawn dress to a picnic; she disobeyed, but a rain storm came up and faded it out. "From this and other similar experiences I deduced the idea that obedience was wise. Yet this was with the reservation that obedience was to be tempered with discretion, as I observed that in some instances acting upon my own judgment was justified by the outcome."

When we come to the moral motive as determined by the intrinsic results of the act, we are obviously approaching the question, so mooted upon its theoretical side, of intuitionalism versus empiricism. Nothing was said upon this point in giving out the questions; the students may fairly be presumed to have been unconscious of any such bearing in their answers, and so these may be taken as fairly free from any bias. No one reply indicates any distinct recognition of right or wrong prior to the commission of some particular act.[2] After acting, a number of persons note the fact that they became so uncomfortable that they either owned up or resolved not to do that sort of thing again. This experience, however, is noted only in the case of a lie told or acted. Several expressly state that obedience and honesty (as a regard for the property of others) appeared quite artificial, their need being seen only after considerable instruction and some rather crucial experiences. Obedience, in many cases, seemed quite arbitrary—"necessary for children," as one puts it, "but not for grown people"; or, as another notes, "till he got big enough so he wouldn't have to mind"; while a third states that obedience, as such, was always accompanied with a certain resentment and a desire to have the positions reversed, so that he could do the commanding. As for honesty, one says that it always seemed to him that anything he wanted to use belonged to him; another, that any pretty thing which she admired was her own. One child notes that she saved up the pennies her father had given her to take to Sunday school, and bought a valentine with them, which she gave to him, to surprise him. The father threw this into the fire first, and then punished her, taking it for granted that she knew she was doing wrong,[3] Not even after that, however, did she feel it was wrong, but rather felt indignant and humiliated that her father had treated her gift in such a way. Another child could see no wrong in taking the pennies from a bank which she and her sister had in common. The following instance is worth quoting in full: "Before I was four, I remember several instances in which I saw moral delinquencies in others, which I wished to punish or did punish, but none in myself. As to honesty, I claimed all the eggs laid in the neighborhood as coming from my own pullet. After being convinced of the physical impossibility of this, it was a long time before I would believe that everything I laid hands on was not mine. I was once driven off from a field where I was picking berries; this made a great impression upon me, and led to questions regarding the rights of others to be so exclusive. The effectual appeal always lay in being led to put myself in the place of others." A number note that there was great difficulty in appreciating that a fence could institute a moral barrier between mine and thine. But as regards lying, a few report having been made thoroughly imcomfortable by its after effects in their own emotions. The following story, trivial in itself, is not trivial in meaning: "Once, when I had two apples, I wished to give one to my playmate; I knew she would expect the best one, which I also wished for myself, so I held out the best side of the poorer one and made her think that was the better of the two. Her belief that I had really given her the best took away all the sweetness from my own apple, and I decided that straightforwardness was better." This instance, as well as others pointing in the same direction, so far as they would justify any conclusion, fall in line with the case reported by Professor James relative to the experience of a deaf-mute. This boy had stolen ten dollars, thinking it a smaller sum, having previously stolen many small amounts with no compunctions of conscience. In this case, the reaction into himself was, so to speak, so massive and bulky that he became thoroughly uncomfortable and ashamed; was brought spontaneously to recognizing its badness, and kept from stealing money in the future. This genuine meaning of the innate theory of conscience seems accordingly, to Professor James, to mean that any act, if it can be experienced with adequate detail and fullness, "with all that it comports," will manifest its intrinsic quality.[4]

2. An astonishingly large number record that they got their first distinct moral impressions through punishment, and of these a considerable fraction got the idea that the chief reason for doing right was to avoid punishment in the future. This division runs into that dealing with the religious motive, as sometimes the fear was of punishment from parent, sometimes from God; it also runs into the fourth head to be considered, practically if not logically, for a number record that the motive appealed to by their father was fear of punishment, while that of their mother was love of her, and grief caused by wrongdoing.

A few samples tell, in different language, the almost uniform tale of the outcome of the appeal to force. "I rebelled with feelings of hatred and of desire for revenge. It seemed to me unjust, imposed by sheer force, not reason." One tells the story of being coaxed by older boys to steal some tobacco from his father. "I was caught and given a whipping, no questions being asked and no explanation given. The result was certainly a fear of punishment in the future, but no moral impression. I thought my father whipped me because he wanted the tobacco himself, and so objected to my having any of it." Another reports that the impression left by punishment was a mixture of a feeling of personal indignity suffered—a feeling so strong as to blot out the original offense—and a belief that she was punished for being detected. Another thought she was punished because her father was the stronger of the two; another, that fear of harm to self induced people to do right things; another tells that he longed for the age of independence to arrive so that he might retaliate. One upon whom fear of punishment from God was freely impressed formed the idea that if he could put off death long enough, lying was the best way out of some things. One child (five years old) went in the front part of the house after she had been forbidden, and, falling, hurt herself. She was told that this was a punishment from God; whence she drew the not illogical conclusion that God was a tyrant, but that it was possible to outwit him by being more careful next time, and not falling down. One peculiarity of the method of inducing morality by creating fear is that some parents, in order to prevent lying, deem it advisable to lie themselves; e. g., talk about cutting off the end of the boy's tongue or making him leave home, etc. But there is hardly any need of multiplying incidents; all the reports re-enforce the lesson which moralists of pretty much all schools have agreed in teaching—that the appeal to fear as such is morally harmful. Of course, there are a number of cases where good results are said to have come from punishment, but in such cases the punishment was incidental, not the one important thing; it was the emphasis added to an explanation.

3. Some report that they were instructed to do right "because it is right," either as the sole reason or in connection with other motives, such as harm to one's character, or displeasing God or parents. A little more than one tenth of the persons report this as a leading motive instilled. Most simply mention the fact, with no comment as to the impression made upon them. One remembers displeasing her mother (after she had been told that she must do right because it was right) by asking why she must do what was right rather than what was wrong. On the whole, she was confused, and the basis of morality seemed to be arbitrary authority.

4. Such answers as the following are exceedingly common: "I saw by mother's face that I had grieved her"; "was made to feel that I had shocked and pained my parents"; "the motive appealed to was giving pain to my parents, who loved me"; "I felt ashamed when I found I had grieved my father"; "was made to feel sorry when my parents were made unhappy by what I did," etc. There is a paucity of information about the attitude toward morality left by this mode of treatment. The following, indeed, is the only comment made in any of the reports: "Upon disobeying my mother, I was told that I was naughty and bad, and that she would not love me unless I was sorry and promised not to disobey again. This impressed me with the necessity of obeying, but I did not see then, and can not now, any reason for it."

5. We come now to the religious motive as the ground for right doing. There are different kinds of answers here—appeals to fear and love, to Bible teachings and Bible warnings, to terror of an avenging God, and to the wounded affection of a personal friend and Saviour; sometimes one, and sometimes a mixture of all. Certain of the practical ones among the parents used, indeed, not only all these appeals, but pretty much all the foregoing mentioned as well, evidently on the principle that it is not possible to use too many inducements toward morality, and that if one fails, another may hold. I shall give one or two typical quotations illustrating each method. First, of fear: "My mother told me, 'You must tell the truth, for God knows all about it, for he is continually watching you, and I certainly shall find out all about it.' This caused great fear; we thought of God as a powerful avenger, and also believed that he communicated with our parents about our faults." Three or four mention that the story of Ananias and Sapphira was used with considerable effect. Second, of Biblical authority: "I was taught that the Bible said that these things were right and wrong, and that it must be so. I can not remember a time when I did not think that it was wrong to break any of the ten commandments, because they had been given by God in the Bible." "When I asked the reason why I should not do certain things, I was told that it was because they were forbidden in the Bible." Third, of love: "I was taught that Jesus looked upon me, just as my parents did; that he was pleased when I did right, and grieved when I did wrong, and that he had done so much for me that I ought to be sorry to grieve him." "I was taught that wrong acts grieved our Lord, and that he knew about them even if no one else did; also that he was pleased when I did any little act of kindness to any one." Fourth, mixed cases: "I was brought up in a distinctly Christian home. I was made to feel that certain things were right and their opposites wrong; was taught that there is a God who sees and knows everything that I do; that he looked upon disobedience with an eye of displeasure; the Bible was taught from early infancy as a text-book of morals; was made to feel that not only would punishment result from wrongdoing, but that both God and my parents were hurt by my wrongdoing. The impression left on my mind was that certain things were right and that God was the standard; at first fear, awe, and reverence were induced, with occasional feelings of rebellion; the general effect was to awaken respect for the right qualities, and to make me consider the right and wrong of things in my own consciousness." "After the first lie which I remember, I was not punished, but was given a lecture on the words in the Revelation, 'Without are. . . whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.' I was made to see that the habit would grow and dishonor me in the sight of God and man, and left with the promise of a good whipping if I ever told another. In general, I remember that I was taught that my faults had the peculiarity of increasing at an astonishing rate; that I was a very naughty child, and that every wrong act grieved a heavenly Father who loved me and who was ever present to see both the good and the bad." "After lying I was told that I got no good from it; that teachers and friends disliked such persons; that my honest playmates would look down on me; that God was grieved with me. The room was filled with the splendor of the setting sun, and it seemed to me that God must be up there looking at me and seeing what a naughty girl I was. Then I was told that God would forgive me if only I confessed, and that in the future he would help me to be good if only I tried."

I am not afraid that any one will despise these incidents as trivial. It is easy, indeed, to recall our own childhood, to look out at what is now around us, and say that there is nothing new here; that all this is commonplace and just what any one would expect. Precisely; and in that consists its value. It all simply brings out the most familiar kind of facts, but still facts to which we shut our eyes, or else ordinarily dismiss as of no particular importance, while in reality they present considerations which are of deeper import than any other one thing which can engage attention. Every one will admit without dispute that the question of the moral attitude and tendencies induced in youth by the motives for conduct habitually brought to bear is the ultimate question in all education—whatever will admit it with a readiness and cheerfulness which imply that any one who even raises the question has a taste for moral truisms. Yet, as matter of fact, moral education is the most haphazard of all things; it is assumed that the knowledge of the right reasons to be instilled and knowledge of the methods to be used in instilling these reasons "come by nature," as reading and writing came to Dogberry. There is, if I mistake not, a disposition to resent as intrusion any discussion of the subject which goes beyond general platitudes into the wisdom of the motives and methods actually used. Yet I do not see how any successful training of children as to their conduct is possible unless the parents are first educated themselves as to what right conduct is, and what methods are fit for bringing it about. I do not see how that is to be accomplished without a free treatment of present aims and methods.

The first thing which strikes one's attention in these answers is the great gap existing at present between theory and practice. Either prevailing theory is egregiously wrong, or else much of present practice, measured by that theory, may be fairly termed barbarous in its complete disregard of scientific principle. If there is one thing in theory upon which all schools are agreed, it is that conduct is not moral except as its motive is pure except, that is, as free from reference to personal fear of punishment and hope of reward. The intuitionalist insists that duty must be done for duty's sake; the empiricist, that while consequences make the moral criterion, yet the agent is truly moralized only in so far as his motive is regard for the consequences which follow intrinsically from the act itself. And yet the main motive actually appealed to is the desire to avoid either actual punishment, whether from God or from one's parent, or else the reflex into one's self of their displeasure in the way of being grieved or hurt. The last motive appealed to, it would seem, is that connected with the act itself. Enlightenment as to the true nature of the act performed, irrespective of the source of its imposition, irrespective of the favor or disfavor which the act will arouse from others (save, of course, in so far as that disfavor or favor is, through the social structure, one of the intrinsic constituents of the act) and the development of interest in that act for its own sake, seem to be the last things aimed at.[5] It is commonly said, I know, that a child can not understand the moral bearing of his acts, and that therefore rather arbitrary and external motives must be appealed to. Of this, I would say two things: First, it is true that the child can not see in the act all that an adult sees in it. There is not the slightest reason why he should. If he did, it would be an entirely different act, an act having different conditions, a different aim, and a different value. The question is whether the child can be made to see the reason why he should perform the act, not why some other older person should perform it. Limiting the question in this way, it loses, I think, a large part of its force. As for what remains, it may still be said that the ideal is to appeal to the child's own intelligence and interest as much as possible. One of the strongest impressions made upon me by the papers is the natural strong interest of children in moral questions—not, indeed, as consciously moral, but as questions of what to do and what not to do. We do not have to take any position regarding the intuitive character of moral distinctions or the a priori character of moral laws to be sure that a child is intensely interested in everything that concerns himself, and that what he does and how other people react to it is a very intimate part of himself. To decline to show the child the meaning of his acts, to hold that his desire to know their reasons (that is, their meaning) is a sign of depravity, is to insult his intelligence and deaden his spontaneous interest in the whys and wherefores of life—an interest which is the parent's strongest natural ally in moral training.

Secondly, in and so far as the child can not see the meaning and value of his acts and value them for himself, it becomes absurd to insist upon questions of morality in connection with them. Make the widest possible allowance for the necessity that a child perform acts, the bearing of which he can not realize for himself, and the contradiction in the present method is only emphasized as long as parents impress upon the children strictly moral considerations in connection with such acts. Surely, if morality means (as all moralists are agreed) not simply doing certain acts, but doing them with certain motives and disposition, rational training would emphasize the moral features of acts only when it is possible for the child to appreciate something of their meaning, and in other cases simply manage somehow to get the acts done without saying anything about questions of right and wrong. To continue the present method of holding, on one side, that a child is so irrational that he can not see for himself the significance of his conduct, while, on the other, with regard to these self-same acts, the child is punished as a moral delinquent, and has urged upon him, on moral grounds, the necessity for doing them, is the height of theoretical absurdity and of practical confusion. Present methods seem to take both the intuitive and utilitarian positions in their extreme forms, and then attempt the combination of both. It is virtually assumed that prior to instruction the child knows well enough what he should and should not do; that his acts have a conscious moral quality from the first; it is also assumed, to a large extent, that only by appeal to external punishments and rewards can the child be got to see any reason for doing the right and avoiding the wrong. Now these two propositions are so related that they can not possibly both be true, while both may be false—and are both false unless all contemporaneous tendencies in ethics are in a wrong direction.[6]

The gap between theory and practice comes out also in the great reliance placed upon religious motives in the moral life. It is not necessary to enter into controversial questions here. The fact is enough that contemporary moralists, almost without exception and including all schools, hold that the reasons and duties of the moral life either lie within itself, or at least may be stated by themselves without direct reference to supernatural considerations. In running over the names of moral theorists of the present day, of all schools, I can think of but two exceptions to this statement. Sidgwick holds that it may be impossible to get a final statement of morals without postulating a supreme moral Being and Ruler, while Martineau holds that obligation is derived from such a Being. But even Martineau holds that the facts of obligation may be found directly in human nature; that it is only when we demand a philosophical explanation of its nature that we bring in the reference to God. Either, then, theory is working in a very unpractical direction, or else much of practice is going on in very anti-scientific fashion. A readjustment is demanded.

This brings me to my final point. An influential movement of the present times (I refer to the ethical culture movement) holds, as I understand it, that it is possible to separate the whole matter of the moral education of children and adults from theoretical considerations. With their contention that education can be (must be, I should say) separated from dogmatic theories I am heartily at one; but as, after all, a dogmatic theory is a contradiction in terms, the question is, whether such an emancipation can be effected without a positive theory of the moral life. It is a critical and practical question with every teacher and parent: What reasons shall I present to my child for doing this right act? What motives in him shall I appeal to in order that he may realize for himself that it is right? What interests in him shall I endeavor to evoke in order to create an habitual disposition in this right direction? I fail utterly to see how these questions can be even approximately answered without some sort of a working theory. To give a reason to a child, to suggest to him a motive—I care not what—for doing the right thing, is to have and use a moral theory. To point out its consequences to himself in the ways of pains and pleasures; to point out its reaction into his own habits and character; to show him how it affects the welfare of others; to point out what strained and abnormal relations it sets up between him and others, and the reaction of these relations upon his own happiness and future actions—to point to any of these things with a view to instilling moral judgment and disposition is to appeal to a theory of the moral life. To suppose that the appeal to do a thing simply because it is right does not involve such a theory; to suppose that the practical value of this appeal must not itself be submitted to investigation and statement—to theory—strikes me as decidedly naïve.

Here as elsewhere our greatest need is to make our theories submit to the test of practice, to experimental verification, and, at the same time, make our practice scientific—make it the embodiment of the most reasonable ideas we can reach. The ultimate test of the efficacy of any movement or method is the equal and continuous hold which it keeps upon both sides of this truth.

  1. The class numbered over one hundred. About ninety replied. About twenty of the answers were put aside, as indulging in general statements, or as bearing the stamp of artificiality. The remaining answers represent Central Western States, particularly the States of Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Pretty much all grades of homes are represented, and at least three lines of descent beside native American.
  2. This may be due, of course, to the way in which the question was put.
  3. A sense of injustice seems to have been the first distinctly moral feeling aroused in many. This, not on account of the wrong which the child did others, but of wrong suffered in being punished for something which seemed perfectly innocent to the child. One of the distinct painful impressions left on my own mind by the papers is the comparative frequency with which parents assume that an act is consciously wrong and punish it as such, when in the child's mind the act is simply psychological—based, I mean, upon ideas and emotions which, under the circumstances, are natural.
  4. Philosophic Review, vol. i, p. 674. I can but think, however, that Professor James is very charitable in ascribing to the ordinary intuitionalist any such reasonable view.
  5. I hope I shall not be understood here as arguing for the principle of doing right because it is right. In the first place, the phrase is very ambiguous, meaning either doing the act for the sake of something light, in the abstract or at large, a right whose connection with the particular act is not seen; or else doing the act for its own sake, for the meaning which the act itself has for the agent—a principle which is the extreme opposite of the other sense. But, in the second place, I am desirous to state the matter in terms upon which all schools are agreed; and I understand that (however differently they may phrase it) all schools are agreed that an act has really moral worth only when the agent does it because of what he sees and feels in it.
  6. There is one basis upon which both views may be logically held—total depravity. It may then be assumed that the child knows the right in advance, but can be got to do it on'y through punishment.