Thursday, January 11, 2007

Obligations towards Children: Teaching Right from Wrong

In what has accidentally become a week-long series on moral responsibilities towards children in a godless context, I have come to a post about teaching morality to children. What is it to teach children the difference between right and wrong?

There are some who would deny that there is such a thing – that evolution itself has written its moral truths into our brains and there is no ‘teaching’ to be done. I hold that this is a nonsense view that flies in the face of reality – in the simple observation that a lot of people do some very bad things. If morality has been coded into our brains by evolution, then we must either conclude that all of this behavior is moral (because it is how we evolved), or evolution somehow missed the moral mark, and it will take something outside of evolution to find it.

Right and wrong is something to be learned – and if we do not teach the difference between right and wrong, we die – or somebody we cares about dies, or suffers some other horrible fate, in some cases worse than death.

Right and wrong is something that has to be taught. And the best time for learning these things is when one is a child and the brain is still malleable.

So, what goes on in teaching right from wrong?

Once again, M, who has been substantially involved in a discussion with me over the past week, has given me an excellent place to start.

Before I go on, I would like to thank M for his contribution. M has been well-spoken and patient, and avoided many of the pitfalls that too often plague these types of discussions. If we were to teach the right and wrong of discussions on these matters, M would be a role model for virtue.

M wrote, "If you believe that you are not bound by any external obligation, and only your own internal whims, then you are a subjectivist through and through."

The question that popped up in my head called my attention to the phrase, "bound by any external obligation," and ask, “What to heck does that mean?”

Clearly, any claim that moral obligations are binding – regardless of whether they are internal or external – has to be taken as a metaphor. They cannot actually be binding. If they were, then nobody would ever do anything wrong. Doing something wrong means that moral obligations are not binding, in any literal sense of the word. And if moral obligations are not binding, then I don’t have to explain why it is that we are not bound by any external obligation.

If somebody wants to interpret a realist moral position as one that says that no person can perform an evil action – because moral obligations (whatever they are) somehow ‘binds’ us and controls our actions – that person would be creating a straw man.

The idea of being bound by moral obligations is not literal, it is metaphorical. The metaphor compares moral obligations to constraints – to something that ‘binds’ a person the way that rope and duct tape can be used to ‘bind’ a person. It prevents them from doing certain things. In the case of morality, it prevents them from killing, raping, assaulting, robbing, and deceiving others.

Moral obligations are not binding until they are installed. And, trust me, we want them installed. More importantly, we want the correct moral obligations installed on people. Otherwise, they will kill you, rape your children, take your property, burn what’s left, and move on to the next house up the street.

We have no difficulty recognizing the value, in certain circumstances, of physically restraining people. If somebody comes after you with a knife, and you cannot run away, your next best option is to restrain him in some way. There are no shortage of arguments stating that captured and convicted terrorists or rapists are to be confined and constrained in some way to protect those who would otherwise be their future victims.

There is no philosophical difference between this and putting on or installing the psychological constraints of moral obligations.

I hold that all intentional actions (and that is what we are seeking to control through the institution of morality - what we are seeking to limit through our moral bindings, are intentional actions) follow the formula:

(beliefs + desires) -> intentions -> intentional actions

If we are going to constrain people's intentional actions - prevent them from committing rape, terrorism, or theft - we need to work on either their beliefs or their desires or both.

Yesterday, in the post, “Obligations towards Children: Education,” I spoke extensively of the value of true beliefs. Of these two entities – beliefs and desires – beliefs have the capacity of being ‘true’ or ‘false’. Desires do not. A ‘belief that P’ is true if and only if P is true. We act to fulfill our desires given our beliefs, and false beliefs stand in the way of desire fulfillment. A person with the false belief that he can fly is at risk of failing to fulfill his desire to get off of a tall building and make it home in time for dinner.

Desires, on the other hand, have no capacity to be true or false. Desires simply exist. In this, desires are like height, weight, age, hair color, pulse, blood pressure, and any other physical property a person has. There is no sense in which a person with a desire for chocolate ice-cream is ‘right’ and the one who desires vanilla is ‘wrong’. This makes no more sense than saying that the person who is 5’11” is the correct height, and the person who is 5’ 10” has the wrong height.

We have the capacity to bind people so that they will not perform certain types of intentional actions by altering their desires. Give a person a strong aversion to blowing up innocent people and that person becomes less likely to strap on a bomb and head off to the local pizza parlor. The stronger the aversion, the smaller the chance of blowing up innocent civilians becomes. Give him an aversion to taking property that does not belong to him and you can leave your purse under your desk at work without fear the money inside will show up missing.

We can bind people against performing certain types of actions by giving them an aversion to performing those actions, and by increasing the power of the desire to perform alternative actions. A person with a strong desire to help others will be too busy helping others to find time to blow anything up.

Now, let's return to M's original statement. "If you believe that you are not bound by any external obligation . . ."

The bindings of an external obligation become effective once they become internalized. To internalize a set of norms is to acquire a set of desires and aversions consistent with those norms. From that moment on, those desires and aversions will determine one’s actions.

Though the binding of an obligation does not exist until it is worn – until it is internalized; the obligation itself exists even before it is worn. The parent who says to a child, “Don’t do that; it is wrong,” is not saying to the child, “Don’t do that. You have an aversion to doing such things.” In many cases, the child will realize that he did not have an aversion to doing what he did. If he had an aversion, he would not have performed the act.

Instead, the parent is saying, “Don’t do that, you should have an aversion to doing such things. Good people have such an aversion. If you do not acquire it, then you are not a good person.”

Desires are not taught to children, or to anybody, through reason. Desires are taught through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, and through the development of good habits. There is no set of facts that a person can memorize that will cause him to have an aversion to lying. There is, however, the stern shouting of an angry parent, followed by some form of punishment, that has some historic measure of success at causing children to acquire an aversion to lying.

There is no syllogism that will cause a child to want to help others. At most, he will learn that helping others is sometimes useful. However, helping others for its usefulness is not the same as kindness, and it does nothing to motivate a person to help others in those cases when he realizes, “There is nothing in it for me.”

However, praise at those who are kind, a habit of helping others, and a role-model of kindness all show some promise at molding a child’s desires, so that the child himself becomes somebody who helps others because he likes to help others, and for no other reason.

Lessons such as these explain how children come to be bound by obligations.

Furthermore, people generally have a great many powerful ‘reasons for action that exist’ to motivate parents to put these moral constraints on their children. Of course, we have ‘reasons for action that exist’ to motivate parents to install those moral constraints that promote the fulfillment of other desires, and inhibit the thwarting of other desires.

Some people may talk of other ‘reasons for action’ – such as intrinsic value or God’s wrath. However, those are ‘reasons for action’ that do not exist, so they are not ‘reasons for action’ at all. What some people believe we have reasons for action to have parents install in children is not necessarily the same as what we do in fact have reasons for action that exist to have parents install in children. People – particularly religious people – can be mistaken about the constraints we have ‘reasons for action’ to put on others.

The only ‘reasons for action that exist’ are desires. The only obligations that we have ‘reason for action’ to have parents install in children are those that tend to lead to the fulfillment and avoid the thwarting of other desires. But we certainly do have ‘reasons for action that exist’ to insist in installing those obligations. These are the obligations to be made binding.


Anonymous said...


The guiding principle of evolution is survival and reproduction, not morality, so we cannot expect evolution to have handed us a complete and perfect moral system. On the other hand, any moral system based on fulfillment of human desires is intimately tied to the results of the evolutionary process as the source of all basic desires.
In its simplest form, we desire what makes us feel good, and try to avoid what makes us feel bad. The internal reward and punishment we have is just the result of evolutionary processes encouraging and discouraging behaviors and states that have been useful or destructive in our evolution.
To the extent fulfilling the desires of others has been useful in evolutionary terms we can predict we will have predispositions to do this. To the extent thwarting them has been useful we can predict predispositions for that. In complex social settings such as real life, it may require such fine distinctions to be drawn that no particular general predisposition provides enough of an evolutionary advantage to be favored.
However it seems rather unlikely that billions of years of evolution has had left us with no predispositions at all in the moral arena, and that we all start as totally blank slates and all morality is purely the result of personal experience and what has been taught.

jamon said...

This post is quite possibly one of the most eloquent explorations of moral development in a godless world that I've come across.

Lacking as I am in this narrative ability, I give you my thanks.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

atheist observer

There are way too many scientists who think that evolution has handed us a "perfect moral system" because they define morality itself as a system handed to us by evolution.

On this view, there is no sense to be made of something being wrong other than that we have evolved a disposition to see it as wrong. Therefore, our evolved dispositions cannot be mistaken. They are perfect.

Obviously, I reject this view. We have evolved some dispositions consistent with morality, and some dispositions that conflict, and some of our dispositions have not evolved at all. They are not inherited, they are learned.

Clearly, we have a desire for what makes us feel good. However, a desire is a piece of programming code in the brain that says to make a particular proposition true. "I feel good" is one of the propositions we are disposed to make true - but it is not the only one.

The experience machine that I wrote about in Obligations towards Children: Happiness and Desire Fulfillment also effectively refutes the idea that our sole desire is to "feel good".

My objection to the claim that we have evolved moral dispositions is conceptual. If our behavior is a result of our genes, and is not in any way 'chosen' then it makes absolutely no sense to say that it is a proper object of praise and condemnation - whereas praise and condemnation are central to the concept of morality.

The reason that praise and condemnation are central to morality is because morality is concerned with those traits that praise and condemnation have the power to influence. They cannot change our genetic makeup, so our genetic makeup is beyond praise and condemnation, which means that moral concepts do not apply. However, praise and condemnation have the power to influence our learned desires, which means that moral concepts do apply to our learned desires.

Maxim said...

I agree that children must be taught morality, and are not born with a correct understanding. But how do we decide which are the correct moral lessons to teach children, and to instill in others? On what basis do you promote one course of action and not another?

The result of my consideration of the subject can be found here.

And thank you, I'm honored by your commendation.


Anonymous said...

Alanzo --

I think yours is the best moral sysem I've encountered. I can't imagine a better way of determining right and wrong. I can think of no substantive criticism of your theory explaining these things.

However, I do think you err when it comes to issue of how to get people to do good and not do wrong. In my view, you are much too dismissive of using reason to change beliefs while you put too much emphasis on conditioning -- using praise, condemnation, and reward.

I acknowledge that praise, condemnation, and reward can be useful tools for changing behavior for the better. But, I'm not at all confident that a heavy reliance on conditioning combined with minimal reasoning will really produce the type of citizens we want (moral ones).

Yes, condemnation may stop the particular behavior being condemned. Or, perhaps it will simply hide it. Perhaps the child is merely avoiding the condemnation. When he believes he can avoid detection, perhaps he will feel free to engage in the behavior. Perhaps he will learn to be more sneaky. Or perhaps the lesson the child will take is that being powerful, like the parent, allows one to coerce the less powerful. Perhaps the child will learn to seek power. I don't think one can safely assume that the primary lesson the child takes to heart is that the condemned behavior is bad and therefore to be avoided even when there is no threat of condemnation or punishment.

And, I don't see reason to beleive that a conditioned child will grow into an adult prepared to deal with the many complex situations that arise in life. In such situations, I don't want to be surrounded by people who've acquired their morality in the manner you prescribe. I fear their primary thinking may be "will I get in trouble if I do this?" I don't want that to be the guiding concern in their decision.

I want people who can think about the effects that a course of action will have on others. I know you might reply "You don't want those people if they also have a desire to see others suffer. Then their thinking will only help them to make plans to bring about such suffering."

That's true. But, thankfully, such people are rare. A child who has parents who point out the real suffering endured by the evil actions of others is, I believe, more likely to feel sorry for the sufferers and thereby form an aversion to the suffering of others.

Yes, if my child and I witness a cruel act that inflicts suffering on another, I will forcefully condemn the cruel person, in part so my child will learn to disapprove of such behavior. But I will just as certainly make sure to highlight the suffering the action caused, express empathy for the afflicted, and discuss ways in which the cruel person could have behaved that would have been better and why it would have been better.

I believe combining conditioning with moral learning is the best way to impart good morals on a child. And, in practice, the teaching part will probably consume much more time and energy than the conditioning.

I feel I've given a pretty skimpy picture of why I don't trust your focus on conditioning, but this format is not conducive to a lengthy, in-depth discussion. I trust that you will be charitable in interpreting my position.

Anonymous said...


You state:

My objection to the claim that we have evolved moral dispositions is conceptual. If our behavior is a result of our genes, and is not in any way 'chosen' then it makes absolutely no sense to say that it is a proper object of praise and condemnation - whereas praise and condemnation are central to the concept of morality.

-I have two problems with this. First, the question of genetic dispositions is an emperical one, not one that we should reject just because we don't like the implications. We should keep an open mind and see what science discovers.
Second, if some dispositions exist, that doesn't mean there are not legitimate reasons for examining moral questions. Warring hunter clans may have evolved dispositions to fulfill the desires of those within the clan and violently thwart the desires of those outside it. We can both have an interest in encouraging people to take a wider view of who is in our clan (ultimately extending membership to everyone) and also discouraging acting out whatever violent dispositions remain in the mean time. Just because dispositions exist, behavior doesn't need to be unrestricted.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

I am not denying the existence of any evolved dispositions per se in objecting to evolved moral dispositions. As I said in the quote you provided, my objections are conceptual.

If our behavior turns out to be 99.9% genetic and 0.1% learned, I would then assert that moral concepts apply only to the 0.1% that is learned. It simply makes no sense to apply moral concepts to genetic dispositions.

In other words, I am not denying that genetics could have a great deal to play in a mother's affection for her child. However, insofar as it is a genetic disposition and not under the influence of social forces, then applying praise or condemnation - and, in particular, to apply reward and punishment to a genetic disposition makes no sense.

It does not matter what scientists find regarding genetic dispositions, moral concepts only make sense when they are applied to learned characteristics under social control. The idea of an "evolved moral disposition" is like the idea of a "round square" - it simply makes no sense.

The reason that scientists will never find an example of an evolved moral disposition is the same as the reason that it will never find an example of a round square or a married bachelor. The very concept is logically incoherent.

The reason it does not appear to be incoherent to most scientists is because they have tunnel vision. They only see those parts that would be consistent with the concept of an evolved disposition, and they have blinded themselves to the inconsistency. Like the person trying to discover an example of a married bachelor who looks only at the fact that bachelors are male (and males can be married) and simply blinds himself to the fact that moral terms are used to refer to unmarried males. As long as he insists on working under these blinders, his quest for a married bachelor seems plausible.

Scientists looking for evolved moral dispositions are looking only at the fact that morality seems to be associated with certain feelings, and thinks that it can explain the fact that we feel a particular way in evolutionary terms. However, those scientists are ignoring those parts of moral concepts that would tell him that moral terms only make sense when they are applied to feelings that can be modified through social customs. If a scientist were ever to prove that a certain feeling is evolved, he would not have discovered an evolved moral disposition. Rather, he would discover a set of facts that would make moral concepts forever inapplicable to that trait.

Again, it is like the scientist who thinks he has discovered a married bachelor. What he actually would have discovered is a male to which the term 'bachelor' no longer makes sense.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure we have worked out what we mean by dispositions, traits, and behaviors. I would say morality really applies only to behavior. If morality has to do with fulfilling the desires of others, I can only do that through actions. If my actions are intentionally beneficial to others' desires, no one should condemn me as immoral whatever my desires are.
Of cousre there is no moral questions about things like metabolizing food, we truly can't change that. We also mostly feel good about being praised by others and bad about being condemned by them, otherwise they would be useless as tools to modify behavior. However, even something as basic as response to social cues, which I would call a disposition, is something that can be modified based on beliefs and experience.
I think mose effective behavior modification comes through changing the beliefs of the individual about the consequences of the behavior. If enough negative associations and consequences can be tied to a behavior that behavior will eventually be extinguished, whatever the orginal disposition.

Anonymous said...

Atheist Observer --

If my actions are intentionally beneficial to others' desires, no one should condemn me as immoral whatever my desires are.

If you are behaving in a way that is intentionally beneficial to others, then you desire to benefit them. That desire gave rise to your action. I think Alonzo would say that, yes, if there were no actions desires wouldn't matter. Actions are what affect others. But actions spring from desires, so desires are ultimately what must be judged.

I agree with you that changing beliefs is an important method of achieving behavior modification. As I said in a post above, I think Alonzo relies way too much on conditioning and way too little on addressing beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Thayne wrote, "actions spring from desires, so desires are ultimately what must be judged."
I would disagree about this because actions are what impacts others. Bush desires a safe and prosperous America. So do I. But he believes listening to my conversations and opening my mail is a way to achieve this. I don't. I judge his actions of taking away my freedom as wrong not because of his desire, but because of the actions he is taking to fulfill that desire.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I wish to let it be known that I will attempt to address some of the issues raised in this discussion this weekend.

I have two posts planned at this point.

"The Role of Belief" posted Friday night for Saturday.

"Establishing Desire Utilitarianism" posted Saturday night for Sunday.

Anonymous said...

Atheist Observer --

As a practical matter, yes, actions are often all we can actually judge.

But, even so, sometimes we still have to look at, to the degree possible, the intentions of the actor, even when they've just done something harmful. Did they understand what they were doing and the possible ramifications? Were they operating under a mistaken assumption that, if it had been true, would have justified their actions? Even if so, were they diligent in assessing the situation? And so on.

If a person inflicts harm, we can say that the act was bad. But, that doesn't automatically lead to the conclusion that the one who acted was being immmoral. To know that, we must know something about their state of mind -- their intentions (desires), the information they had, etc.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I'm Thayne, not rofhddi.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have written a lot as to why I hold that desires are the primary object of moral evaluation, rather than actions (or intentions).

This being that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires. Beliefs track to truth, (that is to say, a belief is 'right' or 'wrong' in virtue of its being true or false). Desires track to the fulfillment of other desires (a thing is 'good' or 'bad' in virtue of its tendency to fulfill desires, so desires are 'good' or 'bad' in virtue of their tendency to fulfill other desires).

It makes absolutely no sense to say that a person 'ought' to have done something else except to imply that he ought to have wanted to do something else.

To say that a person's beliefs and desires should have stayed exactly as they are, and yet the person should have acted differently, is as absurd as saying that the physical forces on a ball should have stayed exactly as they were, but the ball should have moved differently.

"Ought to have done something else" must imply "Ought to have wanted to do something else."

Anonymous said...

The list of desires for any person is very long and complicated. The list of beliefs is even longer. We're are probably not even fully aware of all our own beliefs and desires, let alone anyone else's.
I don't claim desires and actions are unconnected, only that the things we see and judge in others is generally based on what they do rather than what they assert, if anything, about their desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I would argue that the list of possible desires is the same as our list of possible beliefs. Beliefs and desires are propositional attutides - attitudes towards a proposition. I have not seen an argument suggesting that the range of propositions that a desire can take as an object is any different than the range of propositions that a belief can take as an object.

Clearly, we do not perceive beliefs and desires directly. Rather, we infer them from actions. This is true in the same way that we do not see the interiors of stars (or black holes) or quarks directly. We infer from from that which we do perceive. We infer beliefs and desires by looking for the best combination that explains the intentional actions of individuals. If a person watches baseball every chance he gets, we may assume he likes baseball.

If we were to discover that he has been sentenced by a judge to watch as much baseball as possible, and would not watch baseball otherwise, in which case we may infer that he does not like baseball - but hates the potential consequences of disobeying the judge even more.

We then use these theories of beliefs and desires to predict how a person will respond to a future situation. This is very important to us - to our survival. It is very useful to be able to predict how one's spouse, parents, bosses, employees, co-workers, neighbors, and the like will respond to a particular situation - it helps us plan.

So, yes, we must look at what people do in order to determine their desires. However, it is still the desires that we judge. It must be . . . again, because it makes no sense to say that somebody ought to have done otherwise except to say that he ought to have wanted to do otherwise.

The details are explained in that book that I mention near the top right corner of this blog: A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism. That explains why the evaluation of actions is derived from the evaluation of desires.

Anonymous said...

Potentially one could have a desire or belief about any proposition, but I would argue that practically the list of beliefs is longer, because if we have a desire about a proposition we will also have at least one belief about it. However, there are a large number of propositions about which we have beliefs, but no particular desires.