It seems a crucial but oft overlooked step in discussions of morality: how to actually encourage moral behaviour?
Most moral philosophy is obsessed with either understanding the nature of moral judgement, or in developing a system that reliably produces the correct moral judgements. Good on it, but that’s not the end of the story. Even if we did have a system that produces judgements on which we can all agree, what then? How to we translate that theoretical triumph into the actual end goal of moral enquiry: encouraging moral behaviour? Seems little ink has been spilled by moral philosophers on this issue.
The exception to the above is virtue ethicists, who do emphasise the role of personality and character in producing moral behaviour, although much virtue ethics is also related to justifying particular judgements or actions rather than talking about how to shape personality or character such as to promote particular judgements or actions.
Moral psychology fares little better. Certainly it provides crucial insights into how we form the moral judgements we do although, like moral philosophy, most studies stop at the point of forming a moral judgement, and don’t investigate how people behave once they form that judgement.
The psychology of action is undoubtedly complex, and even in moral psychology the path between judgement and behaviour is poorly understood. But I think there are a few things we can say with some confidence as to how to encourage moral behaviour in the majority of people in the real – rather than theoretical – world.
Limits of reason
Firstly, we need to appreciate that knowing a bunch of moral norms isn’t enough. Norms are typically couched in fairly abstract or generalised terms, and translating those broad norms into the specific application in a particular instance isn’t necessarily an easy task.
And making norms more fine-grained doesn’t necessary solve the problem. Making a norm highly conditional or contingent – instead of ‘thou shalt not kill’, making it ‘thou shalt not kill, except in self-defence in cases with it’s likely your life is at stake and it is unlikely you’ll be able to subdue your attacker without harming them, and you’re not in a state of war’ etc etc – also is unhelpful.
We simply can’t expect people to either be able to translate general norms into specifics, or remember the intricacies of conditional norms, and apply them in the heat of the moment.
We also can’t rely on reason and rational deliberation to be our only means of arriving at a judgement and motivating behaviour. Humans are notoriously irrational most of the time. We only employ effortful conscious deliberation in rare moments of quiet, and even then our accuracy is perilously poor.
Instead, we need to find a way to translate the norms into heuristics that can actually motivate the appropriate behaviour with the minimum of cognitive burden and at the highest level of reliability.
At this point, moral psychology can tell us a lot about how we form moral judgements and, assuming there is a correct judgement in a particular circumstance, how we might come to a different, or incorrect, judgement. It appears that reason plays a back seat role to both perception and emotion, with these two faculties strongly influencing the initial intuitive judgement(s) that emerge.
This suggests two things: firstly, that we need to adjust perception and emotional responses such that they tend towards the correct answers; and secondly, that if our initial intuitive judgements are consistently producing sub-par judgements, then we need to find some way to mitigate this process and encourage the correct judgement.
On perception, it turns out that an individual’s worldview is extremely important in the formation of moral judgements. And by worldview I don’t just mean their ideology or philosophy of life, but the way they view the world, the way the project meaning on to the world, and the way they parse and interpret a scene in the moment. Someone is likely to come to a very different moral judgement when seeing an anonymous individual from a perceived out-group being harmed compared to seeing a loved sibling being harmed.
We also know that people respond unconsciously to environmental cues, and these can flavour how altruistically or empathetically they behave in that environment. So if the environment appears more threatening, they’ll withdraw and be less likely to help another person in need, for example. And, consider that most people in developed countries consistently overestimate the level of danger or threat in their community, not helped by mainstream sensationalist media and the glut of psychopath-homicide dramas on telly.
The key here is to adjust perception to as closely match reality as possible. This is not the wishful thinking of The Secret – visualising what you want and attempting to wish it into existence – it’s adjusting perception so as to not have an incorrect view of the threat or dangers in one’s world.
For example, in 2008, only 3.1% of Australians were the victim of some kind of physical assault (of any degree), and the vast majority of victims were young single men aged between 15-24. If you’re older than 25, employed and married, you’re highly unlikely to be exposed to physical assault. And 62% of offenders were known to the victims, suggesting the risk of assault from a stranger on an individual or a family taking a stroll down a main street at night is remote in most communities.
(The US might be a different case, particularly with the ludicrous propensity to arm its citizens, meaning even a small altercation can rapidly escalate into a lethal encounter. Removing guns from the community and providing visible and effective policing can help too, but that’s another argument.)
Spreading accurate and positive news (unlike what most news outlets prefer to do) could have a highly beneficial effect on moral behaviour. Even encouraging people to become self-aware of their own worldview, and encourage them to question it from time to time might weaken the grip of inaccurate worldviews on many folk.
We can also work to positively improve the environment to change those cues to encourage more cooperative and altruistic behaviour. Simply tidying the streets, removing graffiti (but not necessarily street art), providing comfortable work and public spaces, and even embarking on a positive affect programme through beautification can all potentially have a beneficial effect.
External motivation is also important. Linking behaviour to outcomes, and providing approval/disapproval from peers is a highly effective way of motivating behaviour, as is punishment for misbehaviour. There are clearly great challenges in facilitating public approval/disapproval, but it’s a device that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Emotions are also central to the formation of moral judgements and motivating behaviour. Someone stepping in front of you in a queue can elicit feelings of outrage and even anger – these are moral emotions manifesting themselves. We also have non-moral and self-interested emotions, such as desire, lust and envy.
Someone with strong emotional responses and/or poor emotional control can see these emotions burst forth and encourage behaviour in a spontaneous an uninhibited manner, resulting in immoral behaviour. While emotions are crucial to encouraging moral behaviour, we can’t let emotions carry us away.
Adjusting perception to encourage appropriate emotional responses to a particular situation is one important step, but so too is encouraging emotional self-control. Self-control is not easy, and we can’t expect it to always work – adjusting perception is a more effective way of managing emotions – but it’s a necessary technique.
As the virtue ethicists suggest, encouraging patience, calmness, self-control and diminishing the grip of heated emotions can all contribute to better behaviour. Encouraging these traits in most people is a tricky proposition, however.
I would suggest that instead of encouraging effortful conscious control of our emotions, we should instead attempt to habituate good traits from an early age. This, coupled with managing our perception and shaping our environment to remove negative cues and add positive cues, could go a long way to encouraging moral behaviour.
The final step is reason. While I’ve poo-pooed moral reasoning above, it’s still an essential part of our moral behaviour toolkit. We need to encourage people to employ sound reasoning and be informed of the moral norms and values to be upheld. Even if these are difficult to employ in the heat of the moment, they can be used to retrospectively evaluate behaviours and judgements and reflect on the decisions and actions made.
Ultimately, moral education comes down to a few key elements:
- Encouraging accurate and positive worldviews and perception
- Creating an environment without negative cues and with more positive cues
- Cultivating and habituating virtuous traits, such as patience, calmness, humour etc
- Encouraging and providing the tools for emotional self-control
- Promoting reflection upon one’s worldview, emotional character and behaviour
- Encouraging sound moral reasoning for post-hoc evaluation
This is but a cursory overview of how we might facilitate better moral behaviour, and I’m sure there are many other approaches that can be taken. I’m also sure there are many challenges and pitfalls in implementing the notions I’ve suggested above. But philosophers and moral psychologists (positive moral psychologists?) should put more consideration in how to go beyond moral judgement to actual moral behaviour.
Given we’ve been nutting out morality for over two and a half thousand years, it’s about time we got back to the core issue of actually encouraging moral behaviour rather than just arguing over metaethics or consequentialism versus deontology.