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Ellen Feig

Professor, Bergen Community College


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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

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  • Jan 26 2013: yes morality is innate, there have been many studies that show that even animals have morals, and most of them are connected with society, in that when you behave morally you will not be ostracized from the group and have to fend for yourself. there was an interesting bbc documentary quite a few years back no (sorry don't remember the title) that examined the flaws of game theory. basically in a single encounter sure you're likely to get more from acting in your own interest, but in a society where interactions tend rarely to be once off (and even if they are there's also your reputation from previous one-off interactions) both parties come out ahead when both parties play nice. they also found that punishing those who do not play nice leads to great sharing and increased future benefits for the one punished, as well as the 'victim'.

    that said we have the potential for both - ie were are innately moral but we also innately try to get the upper hand, and children need lessons in that regard, to reinforce that their innate feelings of fairness get followed while the innate urge to try to get away with having more is understood to be self-defeating.
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      Jan 26 2013: Very interesting re: game theory as I was of the belief that games (and competition) teach one to further their own interest rather than the interest of the whole. Having just spent some time reading about the conflict in Sudan, there are some strong global examples of the immorality that comes from acting to further one's objectives while ignoring the needs of the group.
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        Jan 27 2013: Game theory actual includes consideration of games in which there are repeated interactions as well as games in which the best outcome is achieved only if the parties recognize and act on their mutual interests. There are zero sum games in which every win is paired with a loss, but there are also games that are not zero sum.
      • Jan 27 2013: "Very interesting re: game theory as I was of the belief that games (and competition) teach one to further their own interest rather than the interest of the whole."

        Depends upon the type of game such as win/lose , win/win, or lose/lose. Chess - self (individual) versus other (individual), war - us (ingroup) versus them (outgroup). We tend to define our morality in terms of the "whole" or "other" by our ingroup such as self, family, friends, town, tribe, city, state, country, and mankind. As ingroup gets larger, the activation of our emotional brain (limbic) tends to decrease or becomes completely inactive because we were designed to be local by evolution. However, culture can accentuate ingroup/outgroup differences and can lead to the "other" being defined as stupid, lazy, evil, etc. (limbic) or maybe we are just "ignoring the needs of the group" (apathy, nonlimbic). Isn't that all of us, Ellen? Thanks for letting me respond to your thoughts.
        • Jan 27 2013: chess only if you go for a single game though. you start a league where multiple interactions are likely and cooperation is likely to spontaneously appear. it even happened during the first world war, confounding the generals as peace was breaking out along the front, with soldiers deliberately missing and warning the other side before they sent off artillery.

          agree with you about the group/other, as does steven pinker evidently as he lists the increasing size of our groups as one of the 4 possible reasons as to why violence has been steadily declining for millenia. mark twain also seems to agree as he said "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness".
        • Jan 28 2013: sorry can't reply directly to your most recent comment, please see below.
      • Jan 27 2013: found it over the weekened, a bbc horizon episode entitled "nice guys finish first". it's on the tubes.
        • Jan 28 2013: Thanks Ben. Great points regarding multiple interactions leading to cooperation. Regarding group/other, I was actually taking a more pessimistic view of our chances for a more peaceful world because of our evolutionary limitations. However, after watching Pinker's talk on TED, I realize he makes a strong case for the decline in the rate of violence because of technology, increased standards of living, and trade which increases the size of our ingroup. However, couldn't one make the case that technology has amplified both the power and accessibility of weapons that can destroy so therefore even though the rate of violence has decreased historically the probability of a catastrophic event has increased?
      • Jan 28 2013: i see what you mean in that 1 person could have a much larger effect than in the past, however the repercussions have also grown. if there was a catastrophic event the perpetrator would have nowhere to go these days, so even if a strong party such as a state approved of the action, they wouldn't be able to actually give support because it would be known and they'd suffer all manner of boycotts and other forms of lashback. recently the bank UBS chose just to pay nearly $2 billion (not million!) in fines over their libor scam rather than contest them, my guess is that this is because they know they'd lose a lot more if their practices became more widely known. with elections too back in the day you only ever had to give the impression of being decent when your picture was being taken, but nowadays there are recorders behind every vase to catch you in the act before you get the chance to do anything heinous.
        • Jan 28 2013: I hope you are right. All we need is one attack and the results could be catastrophic, especially if the attackers see the rewards in the afterlife versus this life, Thanks for your response.

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