Can morality be taught?

Magical Realist

Valued Senior Member
Can the discernment of right vs wrong be taught? Is what is right and wrong something that is instinctive or a priori? Or is it something that one has to learn and develop on one's own after years of experimentation and trial and error?
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To whatever extent "morality" is a formal system or set of customs of a community, it has to be either taught or tacitly acquired from observation of interactions and social conditioning.

That's because the above is invented, and therefore not lodged in any innate apparatus forged by evolution, albeit there might be a few parallel developments.

For example: Empathy might be inherent, but it is not a framework of rules, and it is contingent. A fickle and unreliable emotion rather than universal or duty-based: "Today I may relate feeling-wise to __'s situation, but the next day I might not".

Empathy is neither a philosophy nor a contract of ethics, and certainly not a community's lawbook. But instead a sentimental impetus or incentive for constructing and establishing such. The innate stuff may be a prod for compelling us to devise formal systems, but are not such in themselves.
Empathy is neither a philosophy nor a contract of ethics, and certainly not a community's lawbook. But instead a sentimental impetus or incentive for constructing and establishing such. The innate stuff may be a prod for compelling us to devise formal systems, but are not such in themselves.

I agree. We need a moral justification to make good and fair laws and rules in the first place. And the innate sense of empathy for others and altruism provides that for us. It's why we can roughly tell when something is good and virtuous without having to consult some handbook of regulations.
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Are we overlooking the morality that is taught to us by our parents? That seems to be the vast bulk of where we get our morality from.
"Billy, stop that. It's not nice to hit people."
"Stealing is very bad. You'r egoing to take that back to the store and apologize to the owner."
Kohlberg's stages of moral development provides one perspective on this.

Kohlberb suggested that there are (at least) six levels of moral development. In his system, it is impossible to skip levels. Everybody starts at the level 1. Many adults end at level 4, while some progress to level 5 and a few progress to level 6.

Kohlberg called levels 1 and 2 pre-conventional morality. These levels are common in young children and probably also occur in non-human animals.

At these levels, the morality of actions tend to be judged by their direct consequences for the individual actor.

People at stage one operate based on reward and punishment. If their actions are punished (or likely to be punished), they recognise that those action are "bad" (for them), and similarly they recognise acts that are praised or rewarded as "good" (for them). In general, the worse the punishment, the more "bad" the act is perceived to be. If other people are punished, they must be guilty of doing bad things.

At stage two, people tend to weigh up the question of "what's in it for me?" when they act, then they do what they deem to be in their own best interest. Thus, if an act is convenient for the individual and not likely to result in punishment, it may be considered acceptable by the actor. At this stage, reciprocity is possible, on the basis that "I'll help you if you help me" or quid pro quo.

Stages 3 and 4 are what Kohlberg referred to as conventional morality. These stages are typically seen in adolescents and adults. Both stages look beyond the self, to consider the views and expectations of the wider society in which the actor lives. At these levels, the actor will tend to abide by societal norms, even where there are no immediate personal consequences for obediance or disobediance. However, at these levels, the rules and laws of society are seldom questioned. It is not a matter of whether a rule or law is fair, so much as whether it's a generally accepted behavioural convention in the society.

People at stage three tend to try to live up to expectations in order to attract the approval of others in their society and to avoid disapproval. The consequences of one's actions are viewed in terms of being liked and well thought of in society. If one does the "wrong" thing, one will be disliked and potentially ostracised because one is "naughty". At this level, good intentions can be considered to be a valid excuse for bad behaviour.

At stage four, the actor believes that it is important to obey the laws and social conventions in order to help to maintain a well-functioning society. At this level, it is not so much that the actor seeks the approval of others for his own benefit. Rather, he sees his own "good action" as beneficial to the greater society. "Bad" actions are bad because they tend to hurt the wider society, even when there is little or no chance of punishment for the actor. Everybody has an obligation to obey the law, because if a person does not obey it sets a bad example for the rest of the society, which might lead to a cascade of further law-breaking and eventually to a breakdown in the good functioning of society in general. Note, however, that even at this stage, the actor's personal morality is largely dictated by external forces.

Kohlberg referred to stages 5 and 6 as post-conventional morality. At these level, actors realise that individuals are not homogeneous and are conceptually separate from society. In some cases, an individual's own perspective can legitimately take precedence over the view of the wider society in which the individual is embedded; in such cases it is legitimate to disobey societal rules that are inconsistent with "higher" principles. In fact, these levels are sometimes called the "principled" levels, for that reason.

Examples of "higher level" principles can include ideas such as basic human rights (e.g. the rights to life, freedom and justice).

Actors at the post-conventional level tend to view societal laws and rules as (often) useful mechanisms, but not as set-in-stone absolutes. The current ruleset might be deficient in terms of protecting human rights, for instance. At these levels, rules are not absolute dictates that should be obeyed without question. (Note that the post-conventional levels can sometimes be confusing to people who operate at the conventional levels, because those operating at conventional levels can sometimes confuse post-conventional decision making for pre-conventional morality - i.e. apparently "anti-social" behaviours can be seen as being driven by self-interest, similar to level 2 reasoning.)

At stage five, actors recognise that the world is full of people with different opinions, rights and values, each with their own perspectives. Societies are formed when people make social contracts that enable them to live in relate harmony with one another, mutually respecting one another's sometimes-differing interests. All laws can be tested against higher-order principles, and should be changed when they do not promote human flourishing or the "greater good". Societal change is best achieved through majority decision making and compromise. (Note: the idea of democracy is based on level 5 reasoning, although once suitable laws are in place the society can still function effectively without everybody operating at level 5.)

At stage six, moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using ideas about universal ethical principles. All laws - extant or proposed - are to be evaluated with high-level principles (i.e. those principles that can justifiably be claimed to be "universally" beneficial to all human beings) in mind. For example, laws should be fair to all. If they are not, then there is no obligation to obey them (insofar as they do not operate fairly); in some instances there might be a moral obligation to disobey them.

Stage six reasoning has as a core operating principle that one must consider what it would like to be in the affected person's shoes, to consider what the practical impacts of a law or procedure would be on that person, in the light of universal ideals, considering how the affected person views the world and how one would be likely to act if they believed as that person believes. Kant's idea of the categorical imperative, or Rawl's veil of ignorance are useful core concepts here.

There is some debate as to whether people - or how many people - operate consistently at level 6, in reality. Possibly, this could be more of a notion of how an "ideal moral actor" would operate, rather than a description of how actual people operate in the real world in a consistent way.

The question of the thread is "Can morality be taught?" If Kohlberg's system is an accurate description, then it seems that all human beings start from stage one. Some progress to subsequent stages. The only way they can do that is to learn about the social world in which they live. Getting to the last couple of stages probably requires further, specialised education in most cases, including suitable exposure to ideas about universal moral principles and similar.
James R said: Possibly, this could be more of a notion of how an "ideal moral actor" would operate, rather than a description of how actual people operate in the real world in a consistent way.

Is there not in this proposed hierarchy of moralities an implicit assumption that the lower moralities are inferior to the higher moralities? For instance, we would consider it wrong for a grown adult to be stuck at the quid pro quo morality of number 2. It is inferior to numbers 5 and 6 in that it is solely motivated by gaining some personal advantage or interest. Indeed, it practically describes to a T the mode of the sociopath, who only feigns empathy and concern in order to get what he wants. The assumption that there is advancement or progression of the human to at least morality number 5 presupposes a meta-morality of successively more rational and thought-based moralities. Where does this meta-morality come from? Perhaps the Enlightenment morality of the absolute virtue of reason that gets ingrained into us from our particular culture and historical epoch?
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Morality is always taught.
Lots of whats taught is perty Shtty... like coporal punishment... racism... death penalty... laws aganst womans right to choose... lack of empathy toward the less fortunate... etc.!!!

Morals are derived from an individuals life experience... an personally... i dont know of anybody who has beter morals than i do.!!!

Much thanks Mom an Dad :)
Can morality be taught? No, not in my opinion. One can teach a particular view of morality, in the same way, perhaps, that you can "teach" someone what is "beautiful".
There may be societal norms, or that which the society you are part of considers to be moral, and you can be taught what those societal norms are (which is a particular view), but one's own morals are not simply societal norms. They are not even your parents' norms. They are , imo, particular to you, and as such must be discovered - at least with regard the difference to those norms, and not taught.

Most of the time the societal norms that we may be taught will suffice our decision-making, without the need for us to put too much thought into discovering our own morality. So to that extent, and ultimately to the extent that our own morals overlap with the societal norms, they can be "taught". Or not so much "taught" as just given a "starting point".
Can morality be reduced to a single teaching, philosophy, formula or value system?
No. Different cultues will have different sets of morals. It is still likely though that they will map onto the levels James R cited, since they are general enough.

But, with the exception of those rsised by wolves, everyone is going to get the foundations of their morals from their parents and extended family/community.
Can morality be reduced to a single teaching, philosophy, formula or value system?
Yes, some theocracies teach this and have taught one ideology to kids. Preachers, Imams, Rabbis, teachers, parents and the collective community have adhered to a single philosophy, book, dogma, historically and today in some cultures.
It gets more tricky as that community becomes larger, more diffuse and interactive with the outside world.
Difficult to tell a child something works one way only when that kid talks to his mate who's family do it differently.
Or a family on Facebook.
Are there objectively existing properties of good or evil? Or are they merely subjective attributions of the mind?
There are evolutionary aspects but I would not describe them as "right/wrong." Good/evil I associate with religion only.

"Good for the social group" is something that John Maynard Smith published on called ESS, Evolutionary, Stable Strategies.
Completely selfish genes and totally altruistic behaviours do not do well.
So called "Grudger" individuals do the best.

I will be nice to you, help you, but if you cross me I will remember. This is for social animals.

Families within the group protect their own lines primarily and in order.

So those genes we have inherited as a species. Everything else is subjective, depends on time, place, culture and religion and therefore can be taught as correct/moral/good.
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Are there objectively existing properties of good or evil? Or are they merely subjective attributions of the mind?
Well, objective in the community of humans, not in any cosmic sense.

Most humans, from the most sophisticed to the least, will be able to empathize with people they care about - friends, family. Empathizing means "If you hurt you, I will feel your pain. Therefore I do not wish to hurt you."

If they can abstract that- generalize it - to a rule that it's a priori bad to hurt people we like then they have a set of morals.
Are there objectively existing properties of good or evil? Or are they merely subjective attributions of the mind?
Maybe a good place to start thinking about that is to try to specify what, exactly, you mean when you say something is good, or evil.

There are quite a few different and conflicting philosophical possibilities, on this. For instance, at one end of the scale, consider the idea that saying "X is evil" means nothing more than "I personally disapprove of X", while "X is good" means nothing more than "I personally approve of X." Clearly, if this is true, then good and evil are completely subjective.

At the other end of the scale, consider the idea that "X is good" means "X tends to promote human wellbeing, on average", while "X is evil" means "X tends to be detrimental to human wellbeing, on average". Insofar as it is possible to objectively measure human wellbeing, this sounds like a more objective measure of good and evil.

Both of these positions have been seriously advanced by various philosophers.

There are also religious positions, which might be objective. For instance, if "X is evil" is taken to be equivalent to "The bible says X is evil", then that's an objective measure of evil insofar as we can check whether the bible actually says what it is claimed to say. But on the other hand, perhaps "the bible says X is evil" is really no better than "The writer of (that part of) the bible personally disapproved of X", which would mean that this is ultimately a subjective opinion, at its base. On the other hand, though, a Christian might argue that "the bible says X is evil" is really just evidence that "X is evil because God says X is evil", and that God provides an (or the only) objective measure of good and evil. But then we have a new set of problems: we need to prove that God exists, that his views appear in the bible and that those views are "moral" in some relevant sense.
I was raised to live by the largely Christian morality of my mother. But as I got older I went beyond it towards a morality of thinking for myself and acquiring knowledge of the world. College didn't satisfy that craving. Only reading philosophers and poets in the college library opened me up out of my ingrained belief system, eventually freeing me totally from it. To this day I wander over the vast terrain of the thoughts and ideas of mankind, molding myself into the free and original soul I long to be.
Can the discernment of right vs wrong be taught?

I have questions about "discernment of right vs wrong". Is there really anything objective to be discerned? If so, how is it discerned? It isn't discerned through the senses.

So... I guess that my reply would be that right and wrong have no objective existence in our physical world. They aren't the kind of things that can be discerned with any scientific instrument known to man.

Which creates problems for the question of teaching people to perceive things that don't exist to be perceived.

Certainly people can be taught what others in their community believe is right and wrong, which does seem to be be a more objective matter. But what is being taught there is more along the lines of conformity.

Is what is right and wrong something that is instinctive or a priori?

My own tendency is toward evolutionary metaethics.

I believe that people are born with innate social instincts. These have obvious selective utility if life for early humans was more successful in cooperating social groups than as lone individuals. I think that we share these kind of instincts (in broad outline at least) with all of the other social animals that live in groups.

(Which makes me wonder if animals that live solitary lives can have any sense of ethics. That might have some relevance if we encounter extraterrestrial life.)

So we have a built-in go along-to-get-along tendency. And that eventuates in a sense of reciprocity that can be seen in the "Golden Rule" and its many variants in cultures all around the world. A basic intuitive sense of fairness. Without it, social groups tend to fly apart or break down in violence.

And as cultures grew more complex, whole systems of rules and norms grew up around these basic instincts so as to institutionalize them in societies where most of the people around us are strangers rather than family or fellow clan members. It's those systems of rules and norms, which are often very culture-specific, that can be taught to the young.

Or is it something that one has to learn and develop on one's own after years of experimentation and trial and error?

That's where I'm attracted to virtue ethics. I am inclined to think that there are a whole set of virtues that make us better people. Benevolence, justice, courtesy, intelligence, knowledge, truthfulness, strength, courage, prudence, temperance, fortitude... and many others, each culture has lists of these.

It's easy to see how these evolved from the social instincts and typically facilitate life in groups. And yes, they are things that we work on and perfect throughout our lives.