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Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning

The second installment in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting. Back to BEST PRACTICES #1.

If the Ten Commandments had been posted at Columbine High School, the April 20 massacre would never have happened.
former Republican Congressman and current Libertarian Presidential candidate BOB BARR, at a press conference on June 17, 1999

Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion. But if it’s simply indoctrination, it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.
Dr. LARRY NUCCI, director of the Office for Studies in Moral Development, University of Illinois, Chicago

L43309ast May I mentioned a powerful study
in which 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it)—were interviewed about their moral upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors note, “is the word most rescuers favored” in describing their parents’ way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.1

This echoed work by Grusec and Goodnow in the 1990s, which showed that “parents who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily authoritarian or power-assertive are less likely to be successful than those who place substantial emphasis on induction or reasoning.”2

Both the Oliners’ results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” says Nucci.

The reliability with which kids hit these moral landmarks was underlined by a University of Zurich study published in the August issue of the journal Nature. Kids between 3 and 4 were seen to be almost universally selfish, after which a “strong sense of fairness” develops, usually by age 7 or 8. Fairness was most evident toward those with whom the children identified—in this case, kids from the same school as opposed to a different one.

Ideas of fairness and of in-group preference appear to go hand-in-hand. “The simultaneous development of altruistic behavior and preference of the own group provides interesting new impulses for the conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same evolutionary process,” said Professor Ernst Fehr, one of the principals in the study. This development, which has never been shown to occur in other species, “may be an important reason for the unique cooperative abilities of humans,” he said. Unlike animal and insect societies, human societies are based on a detailed division of labor and cooperation in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals who are nonetheless joined by common concerns.

So once again, for the vast, vast majority of kids and situations, morality happens. We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness. Parents can and should encourage these tendencies, but we mustn’t think we are writing on a blank slate, or even worse, rowing against a current of natural depravity. Our job is to draw out and enhance the ethical nature that evolution has already put in place, then expand it beyond the in-group by widening those circles of empathy. Knowing that our children’s tendency is toward the ethical can help us relax and row with the current, knowing that kids in a supportive, “pro-social” environment tend to turn out just fine.

Nucci’s work does point to one way in which parents can actually impede their children’s moral growth. Any guesses?

“If it’s simply indoctrination,” he says, “it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.”3

So the one practice conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education, the one thing we are begged and urged and warned to do—to teach unquestioning obedience to rules—turns out to be the single most counterproductive thing we can do for our children’s moral development.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to encourage our kids to actively engage in the expansion and refinement of their own natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good.

Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: “The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves.”4
1 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 181-2.
2 Grusec, J.E. and J. J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parental Discipline on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology, 30, 1994.
3 Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.
4 Ibid.



This was written on Thursday, 30. October 2008 at 07:53 and was filed under belief and believers, best practices series, critical thinking, morality, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Nice article. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Comment: boonxeven – 30. October 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  2. If (at least some) moral development is indeed “hardwired,” how does one explain the evolutionary development of religion, or at least the normative aspects thereof?

    Comment: Theo – 31. October 2008 @ 11:39 pm

  3. Most of the attempts I’ve seen to explain the origin of religion agree that the moral element of religion is a by-product of a larger concern — the desire for order. Nothing is more disorderly than a world in which there are no moral guidelines, so societies create them, then attribute them to a god for the impressive credentials he brings. But they are largely refinements of our naturally-developed sense of reciprocity.

    (The research I’ve cited does not say moral development is hardwired, btw, or it would show up in the 3-4yo cohort. Neither is it taught. It is acquired naturally through interactions with others.)

    Comment: Dale – 01. November 2008 @ 9:10 am

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