TED Conversations

Ellen Feig

Professor, Bergen Community College


This conversation is closed.

Can one teach young people to be moral? Is morality something that must be taught in the home? Is it innate?

Currently I am working on a professional development platform focused on teaching college students ethics and morality. Young people seem to be incredibly disengaged from others, have little sense of what it means to be moral, gracious or ethical and don't care. How can we teach morality or is it something that is innate?

Topics: ethics morality
  • Jan 23 2013: Morals and Ethics are not taught, they are accepted by observation of others behaviours and a decision on what your behaviour will be. That is, what you will allow yourself to do and what you will not.
    You are the only person you shouldn't lie to, although I understand that some people have decided that they can live with that behaviour.
    In my case, none of that came from any religious affiliation since I walked out of Sunday school when I was 8 because I just couldn't believe any of that crud.
    One of the worst characters in my past was the son of the local Baptist preacher. Everyone was happy when that flake moved out of town. Another kid had parents that beat him regularly but he turned out better than most.
    I think that everyone goes through a period where they explore all the big questions in life. You know, why am I here, what’s the universe all about, what is the purpose of everything.
    Naturally, you find out that there are no real answers to this and everyone is still searching.
    But nature abhors a vacuum so you fill it with what you decide is your moral code...how far you will go but no further, and what you will do and not do.
    Once you have it, most of us keep it for the rest of our lives. Some of us act as role model for our kids with the hope that they take the hint and develop their own moral code along the same lines.
  • thumb

    . . 100+

    • +2
    Jan 27 2013: I can't get enough of the Talks you have posted. Every one is important and Barry Schwartz drives the point home.

    I feel, everyone enters this world ' hard-wired ' for goodness, empathy, trust and love. "Being a baby is like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.” (Alison Gopnik)


    Once in this world, I feel, that morality, like everything else, is learned from observation as of birth. It is learned, first from one's parents, who are initial and emotive teachers, then from teachers (objectively) at school. Teachers often play a critical role because their job and privilege is to ACT ' in loco parentis'. Since our contemporary world has come to suffer from a large number of fractured families, most values must be instilled in children by teachers and mentors at schools. The teaching of morality is only possible through being the example for the child to emulate and by imparting self awareness on the children in relation to each other.

    It is taught through proper socializing of a person rather than instructional, academic or any form of enforcement.

    Discipline, physical or emotional, is counter active. While it forces obedience in the immediate, it desensitizes the person to empathy on the long run

    It is a matter of building an ' inclusive' society instead of an ' ex-clusive ' society in which individuals are socially isolated and bullied or shunned, as allowed by the 'group'.

    Morality is born and thrives in an environment of trust. Every child must feel safe in the common social environment and feel a belonging to a healthy environment.

    So actually, " Kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of EVERYONE'S job, even when and if their job does not include this in it's description. Having the moral will to do right by other people, and beyond this they should have the moral skill to figure out what 'doing right' means."(Barry Schwartz)
  • thumb
    Jan 27 2013: I believe that morality is something that you hopefully are exposed to and raised with as a young child. At a certain point or time in everyone's life they have to become responsible for themselves and their actions. Great people raise bad people and bad people raise great people.

    What you and I think is moral may not fit the same criteria as what others believe. We are all products of our environment. And in this world there are more environments that anyone can imagine so, what you may consider to moral others may not.

    Morality is as individual as DNA.
  • Jan 25 2013: Based on studies in anthropology and evolutionary psychology, nature provides us with a first draft of the moral mind which include five channels - harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity. The first draft is malleable and is then revised by family and culture. For further information, follow the link below.

  • thumb
    Jan 24 2013: Most of our fairytale culture is based on the idea to teach moral concepts to young people, yet there is no guarantee that what is taught will be taken. As moral itself is no constant entirety and is constantly changing and mixed by religious, political and social 'belief systems', it is a task on its own for each generation to do their best in trying to hand over what deems right for them in that moment in time.

    If you, as you describe, deal with young people who already 'don't care', your question is without doubt a good one!

    When I look at myself, I got all of my 'moral core values' exclusively within my family and at very young age. And this without being directly taught, like, 'Today my dear we will teach you about 'lieing', 'stealing' and 'envying' .. :o)

    It was the overall 'atmosphere' and exemplary living of all the family members - besides my older brother, of course ... :o), which was carefully guiding into directions I was able to choose from. At times with consequences if my choice wasn't welcome, yet also with understanding and support at times where I had to find my own ways.

    I personally belief, that a positive childhood in love and care is the most influential factor for the development of a strong moral compass and that 'outside' institutions like childcare, kindergarten and schools are hopelessly over-strained to compensate for that.

    If I just look at the increasing number of children in Germany with speech disorders due to a lack of communication within their families, I would not be surprised, if 'their' moral development is lacking enough 'input' too.

    As children and in terms of behavior we are choosing our role-models instinctively. This can be parents, grandparents or close relatives or even friends of the family. Important, I think is, in either case the continuity and closeness of this relationship for 'moral behavior' to transfer, as it comes as a trial and error process as well, which needs 'supervision' and constant 'correction'.
  • thumb
    Jan 23 2013: Don -- as a teacher and a parent I consider myself a moral person, at least through my own perspective. Each and every day I teach, I consider the words coming out of my mouth and how they are received. As far as thinking anyone without a degree is scum, my father did not graduate from high school and was one of the smartest people I knew.
  • Jan 23 2013: My observation may be small and simple, but I do see there are differences in how people define morals. It is their behavior that defines their true morals. Theory is only theory. Religions teach specifics of behavior and the result is intended good relationships. These could be called morals of the teachings. What one really does is either in harmony or out of harmony with moral teachings.

    With that said we could ask young folks what they think of the ages-old teaching, "Do to others what you expect of others to do to you" The higher road of humankind thinking may be the widely accepted and ultimate definition of morals. So therefore, is a person in harmony with these higher values? It is these morals we hold as basis for good or bad behavior.

    Why not ask a young person to think about how they want to be treated? Ask for an honest answer. What is their understanding if in society no one cares? What are the repercussions if no one cares? Get them to think and request from them an honest answer. We don't have to stand idle as morals decline. What real threats to themselves if morals continue decline. Real social and civil problems really do come down to personal individual behavior and we humans cannot escape that fact.

    So responders, how do you reach young persons? This is the profound question asked.
  • Jan 27 2013: I think everyone enters the world hardwired for selfishness, acquisitiveness, and rudeness. Babies want what they want when they want it and cannot conceive of the possibility that someone else has needs. After that, society takes over and what we define as morals are actually guidelines on how to better achieve our personal goals. I think we have two sets of "morals"; the ones we would like to be true and the ones that society actually values and rewards. It sounds as if you wish to teach the former while the students are more in tune with the latter. The only way to change someone's moral outlook is to provide convincing concrete evidence of the efficacy of your choices. I doubt that's possible. Society is what it is and reality may not align with what we'd like it to be. You might approach it as a kind of game theory, showing the long term benefits of ethical/moral behavior over the short term benefits of unethical/immoral behavior but even the terms moral and ethical are fairly fluid.
  • Jan 27 2013: Have you read any of Robert (Bob) Altemeyer's works on right-wing authoritarianism? He's done excellent work in the field, and integrated social dominance orientation (Pratto and Sidanius) with his theoretic support. Let me know if you take a look at it, and it interests you.
  • Comment deleted

  • thumb
    Jan 25 2013: Our values dictate our morals (how we behave) and ethics is the language we use to discuss our morality with others.

    There is a lot of work out there about morals and moral development. You can start with a pioneer, Lawrence Kohlberg and his stages of moral development. However, his model does not always stand up to research and it is pretty well confirmed that his model does not apply to female moral development. Just do a lit search.

    Absolutely we must teach morals all the time. I get students ready for a profession. In this profession sometimes they need to support the value and morals of others which means they must suspend their own values and morality. It is a huge leap for many. But they cannot act on their values and morals because they now understand the values and morals of the profession. They better behave as a professional or they will not achieve professional status.

    There are many many professions with distinct professional values and to be a professional, you must act in accordance with the profession, which means you must integrate professional values to behave morally within that profession.

    Here is a sample of a values clarification sheet that can begin the discussion of values, morals, and ethics in the classroom.
    http://www.sofia.edu/resources/crc/pdf/values.pdf. I would recommend you clarify your institutional values before initiating this kind of thing.
    • thumb
      Jan 25 2013: I agree Linda and have read Kohlberg. To model behavior I have begun creating service opportunities which they get credit for
      • thumb
        Jan 25 2013: What I can tell you is you need to make sure to articulate outcomes to assign credit. The DOE is coming down heavy on credit and credit hours. Good luck.
  • Jan 25 2013: Yes, you can teach young people to be moral, however the most strong influence comes from parents at the most early ages of the child development. So once again: Yes, morality is something that must be taught at home. And to answer your last question: I don't think morality is purely innate or purely learned, I believe a small part is innate and the rest is learned.

    If young people seem to be incredibly disengaged form others, and have little sense of what it means to moral, gracious or ethical, and don't care, the blame is on their parents, because they didn't pay enough attention to their kids when they needed it the most. What most parents do, is to endorse their kids to the public education system hoping they don't have to pay too much attention to them, leaving all the load to the teachers, and then, when a teacher becomes strict, they go to the principals office and make a fuzz, complaining about that evil teacher, who dare to correct the poor little child who is so innocent... And I want to make it clear that I am not a teacher, but this is what I see as a common denominator, so in my humble opinion that is why universities are full of students that don't have a clue about what morality or ethics mean, and they don't give a dime.

    Like I said, I believe is possible to teach young people to be moral, however I don't think college students can learn this subjects by theory and lectures, what you require is something more physical.
    • thumb
      Jan 25 2013: As a parent and a teacher I agree with your assessment...when I taught high school I would get phone calls from irate parents when I gave their kids a bad grade; they blamed everyone - me, the school, society- but never themselves or their child. I do think that in order for there to be a moral society we must first take responsibility for our actions.
  • Jan 25 2013: The American Mental Health Association believes there is an ever increasing rate of mental disfunction even though more and more public money is being spent to correct the problem(s). And many people in this discussion have described a disconnect of individuals with society. This disconnect is, IMHO, much of the problem. Many people in our society today are disconnected but everything is fine for them because agencies pay the bills. Years and decades ago this was not so. For example, parents named godparents for their children in case something should happen to them (the parents). In other words, people relied on the community for support and survival, not an ever extending hand of governmental and NGO agencies.
    So why would I agree to connect with society if I can apply for and receive aid from an agency? Can't I just do what I want? And doesn't being a member of society mean getting along with the status quo? The problem is, the status quo isn't perfect so many don't want to slither through this human muck. We are imperfect, frail, guilt ridden, and not anything like a perfect, omni present, omni powerful God who will never forsake us.
    To this I say, Forgiveness is divine. Prayer is used to remind and remind. Failure is what we do but not and end. So let us try, try, try again and again. Amen.
  • thumb
    Jan 25 2013: Hi Ellen, here is my concept:

    I have been digging into my ancestry (including getting DNA ancestry) and during my search I came across the “The Nine Noble Virtues” and I can’t think of better virtues to follow and teach.
    1. Courage
    2. Truth
    3. Honour
    4. Fidelity
    5. Discipline
    6. Hospitality
    7. Self-Reliance
    8. Industriousness
    9. Perseverance

    There is nothing about religion in them, nor can I see anything a religion would abject to.
    They are thought and discussion provoking.
    For example: Is truth something you seek, tell, or accept?

    Do you have the "courage" to accept the "truth" that you eat poorly, and have the "discipline" and "perseverance" to change? And can you be "industrious" enough to find food that is healthy and taste.

    I wonder if optimism should be a 10th virtue.
    • thumb
      Jan 25 2013: These are great - do you know where they came from?
      • thumb
        Jan 25 2013: Yes, hehehe my Viking ancestors.
        That is right there were noble Vikings, in fact as I’m discovering the Vikings were not as history generally depicts them.
        They had tools 100s of years ahead of Europe, one blacksmith made swords 2,000 years ahead of Europe. Russia is named after the Swedish noble Vikings (called Rus) that traded along the Volga River.

        You can Google “Nine Noble Virtues” and get more information, history and interpretations.
  • thumb
    Jan 25 2013: Children need to be taught rules of decent behaviour so that they will grow up to be responsible citizens. There are certain moral rules and values that has to be inculcated in children during the formative years so that they would be able to make choices that benefitial to them and to the society.
    This is the responsibility of parents, even though teachers and schools are stakeholders.
  • Jan 25 2013: Morality is a very personal yet vague notion. Every society has or had thier own form of norms that would be equated to morals. I believe parents play an extremely important role in the moral growth of their children. Sharing personal stories and learning points work to a certain extent.

    Proviidng quantity time as opposed to quality time made a difference to me as a child. Whenever I wanted to talk or such, my dad would always be there for me, even though he was pulling in minimum wage and long hours. HE instilled in me a great sense of responsibility as well as a sense of morals that have put me in good stead with my peers. While morals may shift, the values we give as significant figures in children's life enable them to evolve.

    As an educator, I applaud you in your attempt to teach ethics and morality. It's not easy. Especially as they come to you at this age, where they have already 'tasted' the world.
    The Scouts have a term that Scouting means 'Doing". Nothing beats a lesson on morality than to get into the trenches and do physical work.

    Using lesson times to work at the homeless shelters/orphanages to make new furniture or to even organise long term stints as "Big Brother' to the underpriviledged and other such programmes will really help them to shape their ethics and sense of morality. It did for me.
  • Jan 24 2013: Morality - Its time to redefine morality like anything else as things have changed over course of time. When these words were created situation was different - I think most kids or younger people or people who wants to understand Morality or value of Moral science get confused with what is being told and what is happening. In Older days as there was no diversity among common people what was told to one person was acceptable and was practised almost by entire society but now coz its world of globalization every community is diversified so every one has different moral values for e.g. For Person from one cultural background killing animal for food is bad moral values and for other its part of life. So this brings in agreement with few comments which says "Moral values cannot be told" but on other hand because society need some rules and moral values to sustain itself -, we need to redefine moral values according to modern society. Once our modern society does that I think it will be easier to make new generation understand what are moral values
    • Jan 25 2013: I agree. But how are we going to define these new morals?
      • Jan 25 2013: Thats where schools come in - so far by large morality is taught through religion in one or other form but if kids are taught moral science with facts and little more scientific way it can solve the issue. Few hiccups can occure while preparing the curriculm in start but I guess thats achievable. Now about little older generation or "teens" - I think it will be hard but can be tried through ways which suits them and we all know social media is great on this . Make things cool for them and they will adapt it - force it and they will rebel against it. But in nutshell new scientific and factual moral science has to be part of curriculm starting grade 1. I hope i was able to make my point clear.
        • Jan 26 2013: The problem is that I don't think you could ever get people to agree on what's right and wrong. You could get schools to teach philosophy/scientific method for sure, but as for "This is wrong, this is right" I don't think you could ever get that to work.
  • Jan 24 2013: I think morality is innate until ego intrudes. '' In the land of innocent there are no gods "
    I have serious doubts that morality can be taught, what can be taught is a set of dos and don'ts and it never works properly and shouldn't. Morality is absorbed 24/7 from environment, any kind of environment : political social family ....nature.
    Nature is the best teacher, if we are truly attentive. I would say the only teacher.
    The practical advice may look like : ' live as you teach ' . Whatever we are teaching our children our attitude morality spirituality goes trough us and is absorbed by them without words mediation, directly , then comes back to us ...and so it goes on and on.
    Something like this ... :)
  • Jan 24 2013: I think we still attempt to instill morals like we
    always have. It is true, as you say, that we are
    "Bombarded with sex, foul language, violence,
    and overall chaos," but we still have moral
    standards. I think these standards are ingrained,
    innate, and we couldn't get rid of them if we tried. I agree that the bombardment has to have
    had some effect on how moral our behavior is at
    times, but short of becoming a dictatorial society,
    that's just how it's going to be. Teaching kids to
    think analytically and to be self-reflective will help
    to some degree.
  • thumb
    Jan 24 2013: We have a good and evil side in all of us. Which side becomes dominant is partly innate and partly what we learn from each other. Environment conditioning plays a major role.

    We learn from many different forums. School is one. Media is one. Home is one. Church is one (if you go). Peer pressure is one. Role models are one. Internet is one.
    Today schools teach that God isn't important, most likely doesn't exist. So we get our signals from science; "survival of the fittest" and "we are a cosmic accident" are loud and clear. Video games that require killing to win the game add to the "survival of the fittest" notion. And when the media tells us that the world is coming to an end, what is right is what will keep you alive.
    The idea that there may be divine retribution kept our parents in line. They thought about what they were doing because there may be far reaching penalties involved. Today, penalties are only evident in wrongdoing if you get caught. Getting away with what you can get away with is growing like a plague. Fortunately, most people still have integrity. But when push comes to shove, morality is no longer the main issue. It's all about survival. This is a hard thing to bear when you are trying to teach what is right because people have so many different notions about what is right.

    Before you can instill morality, you must first establish is this all there is to life, or are we part of something much bigger than ourselves! "All is fair in love and war" and "Might makes right" are very strong statements. Is this true, or is there more to it than that?
    • Jan 25 2013: I feel like atheists and agnostics want to have their cake and eat it too. Everybody wants to do the right thing. The problem is, when you take God out of the equation, there's no way to tell what's "right" anymore. There just isn't. So many people are trying to, but it just can't work. The end result of atheism is that we are animals, there is no purpose to life, so you might as well do what you want and have fun. There can be no right or wrong as atheists, but I feel like nobody wants to admit that. Those of you who are atheists, what do you think? Am I completely wrong here?
  • thumb
    Jan 23 2013: I don’t believe schools stop teaching morality, because teachers have no morals.
    I’m sorry but morality is more than accepting other nationalities and sexual preference, appreciating art. Liberal arts are without ethics they not even accept any religion and treat women as a subclass, and anyone without a university degree as scum.

    Yes the young need to learn to live by all the noble virtues, but schools would warp the meaning of them to fit their own egos. So how about teaching students to be professional in the work place and good at their carrier.
  • thumb

    Gail . 50+

    • +1
    Jan 23 2013: I have MANY really VIVID memories of being a very young child - from being in my crib as an infant, my first time in a high chair, my first steps, the first time I ran, and the time that I realized that I knew more than my parents about what the world looked like and how it worked.

    I would say that children can teach morality to parents from the time that they are able to articulate ideas - however roughly. The problem is that parents think that they know better.

    To give you context, my grandfather died with I was 4. My family was upset. I wasn't. I understood that though he was no longer around, he wasn't "Dead dead". I tried to tell them that "He's dead, but he isn't DEAD dead". I could feel him in the greater reality of which I was. They were upset and put me down for a nap. They disregarded everything that I was trying to tell them.

    That's when I realized that they didn't know about the real world. (which is how I saw it). It's a world where things that you call morality are known. Their world (the physical one) was so incomplete that it was isolating and scary. It was full of mistakes. But they didn't believe me. I was four, after all.

    It took a lot of years to get back what I was taught how to dispense with (at my own expense). That which our culture calls "moral" is not very moral in my estimation. If it were, I wouldn't be living in a white christian man's world. I would be afforded full humanhood with the right to own my body - as would homosexuals and other groups. I wouldn't be subjected to laws that serve Christianity and denigrate me.

    I learned how to disrespect others by learning that my view (that was right) is really wrong and couldn't be trusted.

    I'm not interested in learning "morality" from those who have no idea of what morality is.
  • M K

    • +1
    Jan 23 2013: I like to believe that morality can indeed be taught to the newer generation. However I do not believe that morals and ethics can adopted by force. An instructor such as yourself should know the familiar disposition of being lost as a young student finding their own path in life. I suggest talking to a professor in Philosophy, as their teachings are exactly that.
  • thumb
    Jan 23 2013: As you are working with college students, here is one resource: http://www.fordham.edu/academics/office_of_research/research_centers__in/center_for_ethics_ed/index.asp
    Moral behavior is taught by parents, teachers, and everyone a child encounters. Because it has been such a longstanding interest within education, there must be a lot of curricula on which to draw for any grade level.

    Ethics is best taught, I think, by bringing forward cases, or situations, in which kids can discuss what to do and from the different situations deduce basic principles.

    I don't agree that young people have little sense of what it means to be moral, gracious, or ethical. Most are exposed to standards and expectations at home which may be different from what any particular person considers best behavior. They refine their views under the influence of peers during adolescence and the teenage years.

    Kids love talking about what is fair and are acutely conscious of whether adults in their lives are treating them fairly and respectfully.
    • W T 100+

      • 0
      Jan 23 2013: Your comment made me remember a conversation I had with a group of teenagers at a middle school.

      We were discussing freedom, and one of them was really upset that he had been thrown out of a Walgreens. He was furious that he and his friends could not go into the Walgreens and hang out, afterall, this is the United States, and there is freedom to go wherever you want to.

      I asked him several questions about the intent of his visit to the Walgreens, and what he and his friends did once they were in the store.

      Then I explained the difference between freedom, and a free-for-all.

      In his teenage mind he felt like the victim. He was seriously upset at beeing thrown out of Walgreens.

      After the discussion was over, he understood the other side of the coin.

      As an educator, I have always found these "teachable moments" very valuable in the classroom.
      Young adults are very observant, but they are not good at discerning other's points of views, or how their actions or lack of actions may be perceived by adults.

      They are so bent on their rights, they fail to think of other's rights.

      And I think as educators, we have to be aware of this type of dangerous thinking, and be on the lookout for these teachable moments where we can reach out and help our young people understand what is truly fair.

      Your point Fritzie is a very valuable one.
      • thumb
        Jan 23 2013: Middle school is a great age for engaging kids in getting more nuanced views of words and ideas, to cultivate a disposition to be thoughtful and to consider the other side.
  • W T 100+

    • +1
    Jan 23 2013: Parents usually teach their morality to their children. Sometimes by word, sometimes by actions. Sometimes by both words and actions.

    And, even though some children are raised in an environment that might not be helpful for rearing what some would call a moral child, still the child can choose how they will lead their life as they grow older.

    I don't think you can really 'teach' morality. Although, some individuals change for the better after undergoing, for example, a Bible study with a religious group, or therapy of some sort....etc....

    Some on TED have stated before that what is moral to one person, might not be moral to others.

    There are alot of different lines of thoughts related to your great question....I'll have to follow the topic and see what others say.
  • Jan 28 2013: ...when everything is working on Fear, Opportunity and Greed...connect the morals and ethics with the same..homeopathy gives sweet to support medicine, we need to reverse...selling sweet but not in sweet...

  • Jan 28 2013: Who cares whether or not it is inate if you can teach it. Here's how. 1) Tell your pupil how important it is that there is altruism in the world, talking about ghandi or however you want to inspire this do-good feeling. 2) Drop a bit of money (enough to be meaningful) in a place where you know where your pupil will find it. 3) If the pupil finds it and gives it to you, give them some and emphasize how good of a person they are for giving the money back. Even give them some of it and also donate some of the money on their behalf to some cause to which they might be sympathetic. Let them see how it helps them and others. If they keep the money, catch them and make them feel extremely guilty (don't wuss out) verbally. Regardless, you are trading incentives/reinforcers for a learning opportunity. I would say that often people are verbally reminded of morals, but don't get many chances to practice. I say give them a few practice opportunities and show them how good it feels to help people and do good. No disrespect to those that want to talk about the philosophy of this, but regardless, if you can teach it, teach it. If you want more, talk to a behavior analyst (yes, they exist, are good, and are expensive).
  • Jan 28 2013: Consider that if you want to change behaviors, you need to change the operating reward systems. If you can do that, you can get at least the results you want, if not actual attitude change.
  • Jan 28 2013: moral and ethical values are essential tools of human nature. we are born greedy. the pleasure is seen in material, this is a basic wrong direction where people crazily participate and ruin the harmony of nature. present generation is not taken care in this subject since the parents as well schools are busy in their own commitments. less attention is paid to inculcate self esteem and character. this is built on moral and ethical nurturing. the growth of discipline and understanding of human relation takes place. nation with moral beggars is better than unhappy millionaires.