We all want our kids to grow up knowing right from wrong, with the moral courage to act on what they know. Courage is something they have to develop through experience and practice. Talking can help, as kids encounter tricky situations at school or with friends; story books also help us along with these conversations. But acquiring courage has to be a gradual, interactive process: we can’t just sit down one afternoon and tell our kids how to be courageous, hoping that talking will be enough.
What about knowing what’s right and what’s wrong? Can we just sit down and tell our kids the facts? Up to a point, yes. We do tell kids they shouldn’t lie, shouldn’t be mean to one another, should help others where they can. Just telling them once isn’t likely to do the trick, but there’s nothing mystical here—we can pass along some basic moral knowledge just as we pass along knowledge of arithmetic, geography, or exotic animals.
But only up to a point. There seems to be something special about moral education, which means that just accepting what your elders and betters tell you isn’t really enough. We’re happy for our kids to learn about lions and elephants from TV, or a trip to the zoo. If they believe what they’re told they can learn all they need to, without becoming tiny zoologists doing original scientific research.
In contrast, argues philosopher Alison Hills of Oxford University, just believing what you’re told isn’t enough when it comes to morality. Kids really understand the difference between right and wrong only when they can think things through for themselves, appreciating why they shouldn’t lie or be mean to one another. A kid who is nice to others only because her mother told her to be nice still lacks something very important: moral understanding. And that can’t be remedied by simply telling her more facts about right and wrong, she has to learn to think this through independently.
The same issues arise for adults, especially as we face morally complex dilemmas in life, and may struggle to know what to do for the best. Can we gain moral understanding simply by listening to experts, just as we gain understanding of elephants by listening to animal experts? Or do we need something deeper, going beyond a deference to authority?
Responding to Hills, Cambridge philosopher Paulina Sliwa argues that whilst moral understanding is complex and subtle, gaining understanding is ultimately just a matter of getting enough moral knowledge. In Sliwa’s view, understanding is not something separate from ‘mere’ knowledge.
So how can we come by this moral understanding? Can we learn from others, and in turn teach our children, or do we all have to work this out for ourselves? In the end, a middle way seems to match what we often do. We can learn about morality from speaking with others, whether these are our friends, family members, teachers or religious leaders, or even a wise stranger met by chance. But each of us must take responsibility for deciding where to place our trust, rather than blindly following advice.
And as parents, we must strike a very delicate balance. Our children need our advice and guidance, but they also need to learn how to question authority, even parental authority. Parents need generous doses of courage, humility, and wisdom: nobody said it would be easy!
Read more: Hills, Sliwa and others discuss these ideas in more detail at the Pea Soup blog.
Hills, Alison (2009): 'Moral Testimony and Moral Epistemology', Ethics 120: 94-127.
Sliwa, Paulina (2017): 'Moral Understanding as Knowing Right From Wrong', Ethics 127: 521-52.