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As a philosopher of moral education, I am deeply concerned with how individuals become moral, that is, how they come to accept whatever beliefs they hold about what is just, good, and virtuous. Given the fact that we do not come into the world as feral children being raised by wolves in a remote jungle, we are all shaped (in ways both overt and covert) by moral systems passed down to us, the majority of which we are unaware until much later in our lives (For example, I get the sense, right or wrong, that I am “brainwashing” my kids into my moral system every time we drop them off in Sunday School).

The formation of conscience is a moral act, for it operates within the realm of moral choices, and shapes ends that are justifiably “moral.” Notice I did not say “immoral” for, as Socrates points out, rarely does a man commit an immoral act for the sake of pure evil. Rather, one commits an act that may be deemed immoral within a framework of a given morality that is normed to be perfectly justifiable. Managers and CEOs of companies may make many destructive and oppressive decisions for those downstream but can justify these actions by pointing to the communal norm that holds these practices up as “part of doing business” or “the price one pays for success.” Failing to pay front-line employees a living wage or providing adequate medical insurance can be callused over by adhering to the “higher” morality of protecting and increasing profit revenue for shareholders, not stakeholders (employees). This collective norm has become an ingrained and accepted practice through the education CEOs received from a very early age in the media, the capitalist myth, the schoolhouse, even the church. 

Individuals become socially conditioned to accept as normal things that might otherwise be considered heinous and evil, without ever stopping to critique the system. To do so would certainly cause physic distress and perhaps be even dangerous. Many even benefit from the norms and mores of their given cultural surround, so critiquing something that could become detrimental to one’s success, livelihood, standing, etc. makes little to no sense. Why would anyone want to critique the moral language of racial segregation from the position of power? Why would the winners want to critique the savage inequalities of a market system when that very system provides them with their comfortable lifestyle? Even the road to Auschwitz was paved with “righteousness”.

Critiquing a culture’s dominant moral language must be done, however, if we are to posit a different morality—a morality that takes into consideration the common or public good. Being shaped by a given morality early and often does not make it right, and we must hold our dominant ideologies up to critique if we are to work to shape a more moral membership. We must also ask very difficult questions of the systems, forces, and institutions that educate us all. Are we comfortable with the morality by which and in which we are being shaped? Can we trace back its origins to find where, when, and how this particular moral matrix was shaped? What might be done to address or perhaps even dismantle it? Do we want to pursue such a project? What alternatives might we posit?

These were the questions that plagued the ancient Biblical prophets. For many, the moral systems of dominance and power (even among the people of God) had become so common place that few stopped to listen to the groans of the widow, the orphan or the outcast. The prophetic sense of justice was aimed at the numbed silence and indifference with which far too many had grown accustomed. Moving through life adhering to “business as usual” was costly to a people called from Abraham on to be counter-cultural in how they shaped their lives, practices, customs and beliefs.
Today, the ways in which we shape morality are so taken for granted that we never stop to question them. We don’t hold up “family” sitcoms, commercials on Monday Night Football, political rhetoric, or educational objectives to critique for the ways in which they shape “business as usual” in America today. We have grown accustomed to the world in such a way that we are too distracted by the “noise” of culture to hear the cries of the hurting, wounded, oppressed and downtrodden right next to us. We take for granted that this world is as it is and always shall be, for better or worse, and the best we can do is, like Boxer in Animal Farm, keep our heads down, do our work, raise our children, and pay our taxes, day in day out, year in year out.
If, however, we do come to understand and believe that moral language (any moral language) is a choice, then we can choose to shape another, alternative language. We can choose to transmit to future generations a moral conscience that is intentional and participatory. We can choose a moral language that does adhere to our better angels, one that might shape a better world for us all.