On Being and Doing Good


I attended a debate between a theist and an atheist last year, though I try hard to avoid these things. They are usually all heat, and—since the audiences generally consist of recruited partisans of the two sides—very little effective light. There are always better ways for the two sides of the issue to learn about each other, if they are so inclined.

This one took place in one of the new teen Christian centers now appearing in suburban strip malls. Before the debate began, loud Christian rock thumped and bright lights flashed as juice-drinking teenagers welcomed each and every comer with a genuine smile and handshake.

The presenters were old friends and so were more respectful of each other than is sometimes the case. The theist made several points that I thought were well-taken. But when the discussion turned to morality, he said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment …” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “… there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!”

His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?

Not love?

How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn’t want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

Of course not. There are good reasons to be and do good. And I’m pretty confident that the debater has all of those additional reasons but simply hasn’t recognized that they are in play as well as the commandment—and that removing the finger-shaking commandment would in fact change nothing in his marriage or in his moral action, except maybe increasing his appreciation of how strong and beautiful his marriage actually is, just between the two of them. Just as our children benefit more from hearing why they need sleep than hearing, “Go to bed because I said so,” the development of a meaningful moral sense is better served by understanding moral principles than by numbly receiving commandments.

Fortunately, very few people have a sense of right and wrong so hobbled that they do not know right from wrong on their own and are reliant on received orders. Even religious believers who claim their morality relies on scriptural commands are putting the cart before the horse. Commandments can reinforce and remind us, but it’s hard to believe that anyone really saw the sixth commandment for the first time and said, “Wow. Killing is bad. Didn’t see that one coming. Well okay, if You say so.” Think about it: Not actually knowing right from wrong is so rare that it is considered a mentally altered state and a legal defense in criminal cases. If the debater’s claim was true, a defendant could mount a complete defense by taking the stand and saying, “I’m sorry … the Ten what?

Yet this inaccurate view of moral development persists. Advocates of placing the commandments in public schools have argued that a prominent display of the sixth commandment at the entrance to Columbine High School would have stopped Klebold and Harris in their tracks. “Wait just a minute!” you can hear the killers saying. “This murdering we’re about to do—it’s apparently wrong!


It is important for children to learn the difference between right and wrong. But knowing what is right is much less than half the battle. Much more important is providing the incentive to do what you already know is right. It’s here that the wrath of God comes into play in some denominations, with very mixed results. A more meaningful and reliable groundwork is laid by discussing the “why.” This chapter begins with the insights of one of the great advocates of developing reflective thinking in children, Dr. Gareth Matthews, who addresses the complex concept of evil. Developmental psychologist Dr. Jean Mercer describes how moral development actually occurs in children, and Dr. David Koepsell examines the relative merits of commandments and principles.

This chapter also introduces the first of several poems by nonbeliever and secular parent E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Yip authored all of the lyrics and much of the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz, making in the process one of the greatest contributions of the past century to the imaginative landscape of modern childhood.

Morality and Evil

Gareth B. Matthews, Ph.D.

SECULAR PARENTS MAY FEEL that they have a special advantage over religious parents in not having to discuss the problem of evil with their children. That is, since they do not believe there is such a thing as a divine being who is both allgood and all-powerful, they do not have to try to explain to their children why terrible things sometimes happen to innocent or even good people—tsunamis that kill thousands of innocent victims, or terrible illnesses that make babies and small children suffer unbearable pains before they then die. These parents, like most all parents, may want to shield their children from news about the horrors of the world. But, if the children see something heartbreaking on TV, at least they do not have the burden of explaining how a loving and allpowerful being could allow such a thing to happen.

On the other hand, religious parents may feel that they have an advantage over secular parents when it comes to moral upbringing. These parents may be upset at the moral relativism they and their children see in the movies or hear in their favorite music, but they may feel confident that they have an answer to all moral relativism: Morality, they believe, rests on the unshakable commands of God.

In fact, I shall argue, both assumed advantages are illusory. The idea that it is God’s commands that justify morality is not as much of an advantage in helping our children to become morally good people as one might think. And the idea that the problem of evil is only a problem for religious believers is mistaken. But my counsel is not a counsel of despair. It is rather that parents, whether religious or secular, should have open discussions with their children, including discussions about morality and about evil. Children need to work out their own answers to the fascinatingly difficult questions of life. With encouragement from their elders, they will do this. I begin with the problem of evil.

My grandson Julian has always loved trucks. When he was barely fifteen months old, and just learning to talk, he would take my hand and lead me to one of his father’s trucks, most likely to his father’s dump-truck, which was then his favorite. He would stand by the dump-truck in an almost ecstatic trance, quiver all over, and pronounce, very carefully, perhaps several times, those magic words, “dump-truck.”

Julian continued to like dump-trucks through early childhood. But his primary allegiance shifted from dump-trucks to bucket-loaders. I remember seeing him at 2½, in the same trance-like state, literally shaking all over, as he watched the magical actions of a bucket-loader.

Julian was also, and remains so to this day, an ardent nature-lover. Even at age 3 he could recognize a large number of bird varieties, more than many of us adults. He also knew much, much more about frogs and turtles than I have ever dreamt of knowing. He was especially passionate about frogs. While he was still 2, he and his mother, my daughter, Sarah, had heard wood frogs quacking in the wetlands across the street from their house. So, in the following spring, just as Julian was turning 3, Sarah took Julian, and Julian’s older sister, Pearl, onto the land across the street in the hopes of hearing wood frogs again, and maybe getting a look at one.

Unfortunately, a developer had recently cleared a huge tract of land adjacent to the wetlands and had filled in some of the wetlands. Julian had enjoyed watching the big trucks do this work. But now, when Julian and his sister and mother went to look for wood frogs, none could be found. Instead of the quacking sound of wood frogs, which Julian could clearly distinguish from the call of tree frogs, they heard nothing but the sound of bucket-loaders. Without thinking about what effect her words might have on Julian, Sarah blurted out, “The bucket-loaders have killed the wood frogs.”

Sarah’s remark stunned Julian. He kept repeating, “Oh my God! You’re kidding, Mama! The bucket-loaders have killed the wood frogs?” Sarah tried to console Julian, but nothing helped.

In that experience Julian encountered the problem of evil. It is not that he wondered how it is possible that God, who is all-good and all-powerful, could allow evil to exist in the world. He was relatively innocent of any explicitly theological framework for thought. But he had to face the shattering realization that one pre-eminent good in life, a bucket-loader, could destroy another preeminent good in life, a colony of wood frogs.

Later on, in a move somewhat reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s argument from justice for human immortality, Julian developed the conviction that mother wood frogs have babies, then die, and then later come to life again. In this way he reassured himself that his beloved wood frogs had not, after all, been completely obliterated by his equally beloved bucket-loaders. They would be born again.

Evil does come from good. This is a metaphysical problem. This is also, as it was for Julian, an existential problem. There is no particular age, or stage in life, when we have to confront the problem of evil. It may hit us when we first read David Hume in a philosophy class. It may hit us when we read the Book of Job in church or temple. It may hit us when we read about the torture of prisoners in Iraq or Guantánamo. Or it may hit us when we have seen what a bucket-loader, or perhaps a developer, who may, of course, be a very good person, has done to the wetlands, and to the wood frogs who had inhabited it.

The religious parent who teaches her children about God’s love and unlimited power should be prepared to think freshly with her children about the problem of evil. It is not easy for anyone to do that. Yet, I maintain, it is part of the responsibility of a religious parent to have an honest discussion with her children about the problem of evil.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the challenge for secular parents is not entirely different. They might hope to avoid having to deal with any form of the problem of evil with their children. But for parents who have a genuine respect for their children and for the hard questions their children ask the hope of evading the problem of evil may well be frustrated. After all, evil does sometimes come from good.

Parents may not want their children to think of either frogs or bucketloaders as inherently good things. Yet, one could argue, it is an impoverished childhood in which nothing seems to be unqualifiedly good. Julian’s consuming love of nature, and of trucks, gave his childhood an especially magical quality. But it also gave him the problem of evil.

I turn now to my second topic, the issue of whether the idea of morality as something commanded by God can help ward off the threats of nihilism and moral relativism so pervasive in our society. No doubt many religious parents feel they have a distinct advantage over their secular counterparts when it comes to moral education. After all, they can teach their children that it is God, no less, who commands us not to kill, lie or steal, and it is God who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Secular parents who are conscientious about raising their children to be morally good people may also wish they had an easy way to ground morality and protect their children from cynicism and moral relativism. They may even harbor the secret wish that they could pull out the divine trump card to fend off the attractions of immorality their children will have to face.

Yet the divine trump card is not fully effective in the way religious parents may expect. This was shown a long time ago by Plato in his dialogue, Euthyphro. In that dialogue Socrates asks what the holy is. After several failed efforts to answer the question, Euthyphro offers the suggestion that the holy is doing what the gods love. Socrates then asks, “Is it holy because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is holy?”

We can translate Socrates’s famous question into the theology of monotheism by asking, “Is is morally right (for example) to tell the truth simply because God commands it (‘Do not bear false witness!’), or does God command us to tell the truth because that is the morally right thing to do?” If we say it is right simply because God commands it, we leave open the possibility that moral rightness could be a mere matter of divine whim. For most religious believers, that doesn’t seem right. But, if we say that God commands us to be truthful because that is the morally right thing to do, then it seems we should be able to understand what is morally required of us independently of the fact that God commands it.

I once discussed the Euthyphro problem with two classes of seventh graders in a Hebrew day school. We were discussing whether the things God commands in Leviticus 19 are holy because God commands them or whether instead God commands them because they are holy. One student said this: “God wants us to do these things because they are holy. If God [had] told us to kill, steal, and commit adultery, would [those] be holy thing[s] to do? I don’t think so. I think these things are holy and God wants us to do them because they are holy.”

If what this seventh grader said is right, and I am inclined to agree that the religious person should say this, then the religious parent and the secular parent are in much the same boat when it comes to raising their children to be morally good people. Moral development will have to include cultivating moral feelings, such as empathy and a sense of fairness, developing habits of telling the truth and keeping promises, nurturing attitudes of generosity and loyalty, and reflecting on how to resolve moral dilemmas when, for example, the duty to tell the truth or keep a promise conflicts with the duty to help someone in need, or under threat of assault.

Whether the ideal of a moral life has a divine sanction is not a trivial question. But once one sees the implications of the Euthyphro problem, the question of divine sanction does not offer much enlightenment about what morality requires, or about how to become a moral person. Unless what God commands us to do is what we morally ought to do anyway, then the very idea of a divine sanction for the moral law seems to threaten the rationality of trying to be moral.

So where does this leave the secular parent with respect to issues about the problem of evil and the nature of morality? It seems to leave the thoughtful secular parent in roughly the same situation as the thoughtful religious parent. Children cannot be shielded from the problem of evil, even by trying to keep them innocent of theology. Evil does come from good. And as for helping one’s children to become caring, fair-minded, and responsible moral agents, the primary resources open to religious parents are much the same as those open to secular ones.

If one believes that God is supremely just, merciful, and good, then it will follow that God also wants us to be just, merciful, and good. But we will have the very same reasons for being just, merciful, and good as God has, even if, as the religious among us may suppose, we don’t understand those reasons as well as we think God does, or even as well as we ourselves would like to.


Behaving Yourself: Moral
Development in the Secular Family

Jean Mercer, Ph.D.

A 5-YEAR-OLD BOY SWIPES the coins his mother has left on her desk. As it happens, the mother knows exactly how much she has put there in preparation for a trip to the laundromat. She confronts the little boy, who says he didn’t take the money—but there lies the exact amount of the missing money, right on his pillow. The mother gives him a serious talking-to, then sends him to his room, telling him to come out only when he can say why he should not have taken the coins. After some minutes, he emerges in tears, but is able to state what was wrong with what he did: “Ya get in TROUBLE!”

This vignette contains many elements common to the moral instruction of secular and religious families alike. The child did not plan to break any rules, but was not able to resist temptation when it occurred. The offense was only a minor inconvenience to the mother at the time, but she wanted to respond appropriately because she was concerned that the child not take other people’s property in the future. She was influenced by what she feared was the development of an undesirable pattern of behavior and so was unwilling to let the incident pass. She believed the child was old enough to think through the situation, but she was also willing to accept a very simple rationale when the child offered it.

The early development of moral thinking and moral behavior choices is largely based on brief interactions like this one. Children do childish wrong things, and parents provide ad hoc corrections. In early and middle childhood, parents are quite unlikely to instruct children on major moral issues, because the children are unlikely to do things that obviously involve major issues in a direct way. It is probably safe to say that no parent gives direct training on avoiding the most serious moral lapses—“Sally, when you go out to play, I don’t want you to murder anybody. And Timmy, no raping—I don’t care what the other boys do, it’s not nice to rape people.” Nevertheless, few adults do commit murder or rape, in part because they did receive direct instruction about related minor matters like hitting or pulling another child’s pants down—instruction from which abstract moral principles may be derived as the child’s reasoning ability matures. The whole process is a gradual one involving repeated experiences, rather than memorization of a list of “right things” and “wrong things,” or the early mastery of universal principles.

Whether a family is secular or religious in beliefs, the basic processes of moral training and development are probably pretty similar. One college student, brought up in a devout Catholic family, responded to this idea with a disbelieving exclamation: “How can they develop morally if they’re brought up without any values?” Of course, every family has a set of values, although the parents might have trouble stating just what they are, and every family has an interest in passing on a value system to the next generation. Although some families admire criminal or simply underhanded behavior and encourage it in their children, most families in a cultural group want to foster socially desirable behaviors: some degree of truthfulness, some willingness to sacrifice for others, some concern with others’ property rights, and, later on, some caution about sexual activity. Background values are different, however. In many non-secular families, supernatural entities and events are presented as reasons for complying with rules about behavior; in secular families, compliance is connected with overarching principles related to human needs and experiences, such as individual autonomy, equal rights of human beings, and freedom of conscience.1 Religious families may find it easier to state the connection between values and behavior than do secular families, who are generally thinking in terms of highly abstract principles rather than of nonhuman entities who can be presented as having personal wishes and emotions. But all families function to help establish children’s ways of thinking about moral issues, emotions connected with morality, and behavior patterns related to value judgments.

The Development of Moral Reasoning

The term moral development describes the fact that children’s moral behavior and thinking change with age in predictable ways. Developmental changes of all kinds can be studied empirically, and many aspects of development have proven to follow systematic pathways, so that most human beings go through the same developmental steps, often at similar ages. Empirical studies of moral development have most often focused on changes in moral reasoning, the kind of thinking that underlies decisions about moral issues. The best-known theory of developmental change in moral reasoning comes from the work of Lawrence Kohlberg,2 who studied the process by presenting children with “moral dilemmas”—problems where two decisions seemed equally desirable—and asking them to explain why they made the choice they did. Kohlberg felt that the development of moral reasoning could be described as involving six stages. (Because Kohlberg’s method involved talking about a problem, the first stage could not be identified until the child could talk well, which would not occur until at least age 3 for most children.)

The earliest stage Kohlberg described was one in which right and wrong are defined by punishment rather than by any larger principle. If something is followed by punishment, it was wrong; if it is not, it was right. The light-fingered 5-year-old mentioned before was at this stage. A second stage considers reward as an important indication that something is right. The stress in these early stages is on works, not faith—rightness or wrongness is identified in terms of what a person actually does, not what he or she intended but was unable to perform.

A third stage described by Kohlberg involves social approval and disapproval. By this point, the child separates moral correctness from specific punishment or reward. The moral choice is instead the one that makes other people consider someone a nice boy or a good girl. Continuing with the stress on community approval, a fourth stage emphasizes the existence of laws or rules that are valuable in themselves; breaking a rule is morally wrong simply because it is a rule, not because of the possible consequences for the rulebreaker or for others.

Very few individuals would move beyond this fourth stage during childhood, but in adolescence or afterward a number of people will achieve a “social contract” level of moral reasoning, in which laws and rules are seen as desirable for the comfort of the community, but potentially changeable if they do not work well. Moral decisions can involve complying with rules or working to change them. A final stage, not likely to be reached before late adolescence, involves thinking in terms of universal ethical principles such as the value of human life; decisions to support a universal principle could be made in spite of others’ finding one “not nice” or even in the face of certain punishment under the laws.

Most descriptions of developmental change involve steps that are typical of all human beings. Kohlberg’s theory is somewhat different, however. This approach suggests everyone follows moral development in the same sequence, but that people do not necessarily arrive at the same step at the same age and that some may never reach the higher stages. Certainly, a number of adults do not appear ever to go beyond the second stage posited by Kohlberg, and the “official morality” of the United States appears to be somewhere between the fourth (“law and order”) and the fifth (“social contract”) stages. These facts raise questions about advanced development in moral reasoning: Are there experiences that help people achieve these higher stages?

Family actions do seem to be related to the development of moral reasoning. Contrary to traditional beliefs, frequent punishment and the assertion of parental authority are not factors that facilitate growth in moral reasoning. Parents of children with advanced moral reasoning are more likely to be authoritative (taking charge, but without an overly strict or punitive approach) than authoritarian. Authoritative parenting fosters cognitive development in general, so it is not surprising that moral reasoning, a type of cognitive skill, is also facilitated. Advances in moral reasoning are also associated with exposure to parental discussion of moral uncertainties and to equal sharing of power between parents, which leads to frequent negotiation and compromise.3

Intriguing as it is, Kohlberg’s theory is far from a complete description of moral development; for example, women and girls are not usually assessed as highly advanced moral reasoners in Kohlberg’s model. And, of course, moral reasoning is not the whole story of moral development. Decisions about moral behavior involve motivation to do what is right as well as the ability to apply moral principles in thought.

Emotion and Moral Development

Looking at moral development from the viewpoint of moral reasoning showed us stages of morality beginning in the nursery school years. When we consider the emotional aspects of morality, however, we must go back to an astonishingly early period of development—even as far back as early infancy, when the first social relationships begin to form. This statement is particularly true of values based on human needs and rights, because events during infancy provide the foundation for our understanding of others’ feelings and our wish to comfort and help them.

Infants in the first few months of life have little ability to understand facial expressions or other indications of emotion, but they already react very differently to human beings than they do to inanimate objects, even moving ones.

If they have frequent experiences with sensitive, responsive adult caregivers, infants soon begin to notice emotional cues. For example, an infant responds by beginning to cry if an adult simply turns a blank face toward the baby and does not respond to smiles or vocal sounds. By seven or eight months, an infant confronted with some surprising new object turns to look at a familiar caregiver’s face; if the caregiver looks frightened, the baby backs away from the object, but if the caregiver looks happy, the baby goes on to investigate. The baby is beginning to develop an essential set of skills, sometimes categorized as Theory of Mind.4 Theory of Mind allows each person to be aware that behind every human face is an individual set of experiences, wishes, beliefs, and thoughts; that each of these sets is in some ways similar to and in other ways different from one’s own set; and that facial expressions and other cues can enable each of us to know something of how others feel and what they are going to do. The development of Theory of Mind has already begun by nine or ten months, when a well-developed baby can already show the important step of joint attention. In this behavior, the child uses eye contact and movement of the gaze to get an adult to look at some sight that interests the baby and then to look back again, to gaze at each other and smile with mutual pleasure. Importantly, not only can the child do this, but he or she wants to do it, demonstrating the very early motivation to share our happiness with others—surely the foundation of empathic responses. Without this early development, it would hardly be possible to achieve secular values such as a concern with equal rights, a principle based on the understanding that all human beings have similar experiences of pleasure and pain.

How does this complex and early developmental process occur? Does it simply unfold, or does experience with others play an important role? This question is more complicated than it appears, because some individuals, often characterized as autistic, do not seem to develop Theory of Mind, even though they have normal experiences.5 For most infants, however, there seems to be an initial component of being especially interested in human beings, and this is followed by many experiences of predictable interactions with caregivers, so that a facial expression or tone of voice becomes a signal that the adult is about to do certain things. Ideally, the caregiver also responds in a predictable way to the baby’s signals of smiling or reaching or turning the eyes away. Unfortunately, many babies are exposed to the much less responsive and predictable demeanor of a mother who suffers from a perinatal mood disorder or who is involved with drugs or alcohol. They may also spend many hours in poor-quality child care arrangements, with repeated changes of foster family so that no one learns to “read” the baby’s expression, or with caregivers who mistakenly believe that responding to the baby’s emotional expressions will cause “spoiling.” Theory of Mind is facilitated by responsive nurturing and the devoted care of adults who value infants as members of the human species. Early steps in Theory of Mind seem to be essential to the growth of the empathic attitudes that are a basic part of humanistic values.

However, the first steps are not the end of the process. Experiences in the toddler and early preschool period provide a watershed for the development of empathic behavior. It is important to realize that the distress of another person does not provide a simple signal calling for a simple response. Distress causes complex facial expressions and behavior patterns that call out ambivalent reactions in young children and in adults. People who like clowns find their sad faces funny; many of us have horrified ourselves by laughing quite inappropriately at a funeral; a common trigger for child abuse is the child’s crying. The appearance of distress can call out an impulse to help, but can also create amusement or even the wish to attack the troubled person. What makes some human beings more likely to respond compassionately to distress, others more likely to laugh or attack? This is a difficult topic to study systematically, but it is thought that experience with caregivers helps to establish an individual’s compassionate or aggressive response to distress signals. When the young child is distressed himself or herself, a caregiver’s kind or hostile response models the appropriate way to act when others are uncomfortable. Nurturing, responsive caregivers are likely to help children become compassionate, and unsympathetic caregivers guide children toward an aggressive response to others’ distress. Perhaps the worst model is the adult who teases and torments a child into a tearful rage and then dismisses or even punishes the distressed child as “a big baby.”

Guidance, Discipline, and Moral Development

As a child develops Theory of Mind and the capacity for emotional empathy, and as moral reasoning progresses to more advanced stages, parental guidance provides specific information about right and wrong behavior. (Incidentally, the actions that are considered right or wrong will change as the child gets older—for example, a toddler might be punished for trying to pick up a crying infant, but a 10-year-old praised.) Such guidance helps to establish knowledge about specific behaviors that can eventually be used to derive abstract principles of morality.

Although the behavior of parents serves as an important role model for children, few families rely on modeling alone as a way to shape children’s behavior. And, although parents may prefer to praise and reward approved behavior, few manage to raise children without some use of punishment. For secular families, this fact may be problematic, because the use of punishment by persons in authority appears to be in conflict with humanistic principles such as the autonomy of the individual. Nevertheless, it is clear that when a parent is dealing with a young, relatively nonverbal child who is doing something dangerous to himself or painful to others, punishment may be the quickest, most effective way to stop the behavior, and thus to work toward understanding of related moral issues.

Punishment need not be physical in nature, although physical restraint or removal of the child from the scene may be part of the parent’s action. Punishment may simply involve the parent’s communication of anger or sadness and interruption of the behavior (which the child presumably wanted to carry out). To be effective, punishment must be highly consistent—if there is a rule, it always applies. The timing of punishment is critical, and it is by far the most effective if it occurs just as the undesirable behavior begins. If punishment is swift and sure, it need not be severe, and in fact milder forms of punishment, which do not trigger an intense emotional reaction, are more likely to teach effectively. These points about punishment suggest that the most effective parents will be those who plan their use of guidance techniques, who are consistently attentive to the child’s behavior, and who respond predictably even when they find it inconvenient or boring to do so.

Parental guidance techniques are also associated with moral development as factors in the establishment of the social emotions. These emotions occur in response to the child’s awareness of others’ evaluation of her, and they appear in the late toddler/early preschool period. One approach to the social emotions classifies these feelings as either positive or negative, and as either global or specific, yielding four basic social emotions that occur in response to awareness of others’ opinions.6 The child may experience guilt, an unpleasant feeling of having failed in some specific way; shame, an unpleasant feeling of having been judged as globally bad or wrong; pride, a pleasant sense of having received approval for a specific action or characteristic; and hubris, a pleasant but unrealistic feeling of global approval by others. Of these emotions, guilt and pride are useful guides to good behavior, because they involve specific acts that can be avoided or repeated in future. Shame and hubris are far less useful, because the individual has no control over the nature of the self and can not change the basic self to gain approval or avoid disapproval. In fact, the response to shame may be one of helpless terror and rage, as destruction of the self seems to be the only way of escape from the judgment. In older children and adults, shame experiences may be triggered easily by events that imply “disrespect,” and extreme antisocial reactions may result.

This view of the social emotions suggests that moral development would be fostered best by parenting that stresses pride and guilt rather than hubris and shame. Such parenting involves mild punishment that does not overwhelm the child with fear and anger and careful verbal communication that clarifies for the child exactly what was bad or good in his behavior. Parents who work toward desirable social emotions need to have insight into their own reactions of approval or disapproval. Parental reactions of contempt or disgust toward the child are difficult for the child to process as connected with specific actions, and they may pass unexplained if the parent is only vaguely aware of his or her attitude; a pervasive sense of shame is a likely outcome if there are many experiences of this type.

As a general rule, parenting practices seem to support desirable behavior and moral development best when they involve mild emotion that does not threaten the child’s autonomy. Messages to the child are most effective when they are understandable but indirect and have some humorous component.7 Parenting practices are less successful when they involve a high degree of psychological intrusiveness or attempts to control the child’s beliefs and emotions through psychological means such as threatened withdrawal of love. Although effective parental control of children’s behavior (like demanding mature behavior) has positive outcomes, psychological intrusiveness results in a higher number of emotional and behavior problems, and this is, surprisingly, particularly true when a high level of parental affection is also present.8

Advantages and Disadvantages
of a Secular Approach to Moral Development

Are there differences between secular and nonsecular families in the fostering of children’s moral development? There is no recent evidence that seems to support the superiority of one group or the other. The development of emotional components of morality, such as empathy, begins so early that it is doubtful that family beliefs play a significant role. As for discipline and guidance practices, these are probably similar in families with various beliefs, except that a small number of religious fundamentalists stress “breaking the child’s will” and try to establish complete obedience from the age of a few months.9 It is possible that secular humanist principles such as individual autonomy and equal rights may reduce secular families’ use of punishment, or at least point up the need for reasoning and discussion of behavior issues in addition to reward and punishment.

The major difference that might be expected to result from contrasting beliefs has to do with moral reasoning. Whereas nonsecular families may choose to stress reasoning in terms of the punishments or rewards available from supernatural entities or their agents (which they do not necessarily do), such ploys would be most unlikely among secular parents. Secular families base their standards on overarching ethical principles that may be highly abstract and that are connected to specific behaviors through extensive reasoning. Because discussion of moral issues in the family encourages advanced moral development, it is possible that children of secular families have an advantage here.

Are there disadvantages in a secular approach to moral development? The one obvious problem has to do with the need for a community that shares and reinforces the family’s values. Although the earliest steps in moral development occur within the family, older children and adolescents come into increasing contact with the standards of the surrounding community. The issue here is not so much that the children will abandon the family’s values as that family members may feel isolated or even beleaguered by value conflicts with neighbors. Nevertheless, if this situation is handled well by secular parents, value disagreements may be turned to advantage through family discussion and opportunities to model advanced moral reasoning.


Take Two Tablets and Call Me
in the Morning

a poem by Edgar “Yip” Harburg

If the Lord, who could surely afford it,
Were a little bit more democratic,
That is, if the Lord didn’t lord it
And weren’t so doggone dogmatic,
The world would be one bed of roses,
Sweet psyches and better digestions
If the tablets he handed to Moses
Were inscribed not commands but suggestions.


On Being Good for Good Reasons:
Commandments vs. Principles

David Koepsell, JD, Ph.D.

IT ALL STARTED ABOUT 2000 years ago

Many people, when confronted with the fact of a friend’s atheism, will exclaim something like “Well, we need religion so we know how to behave,” which puzzles most of us. Though we nonbelievers are not god-fearing, we seem to behave well, to be civil, to not run rampant through the streets robbing, stealing, pillaging, and raping. How odd, then, that most religious people feel that the foundation for morality is a set of commandments they barely know from a book most of them have not read. Since we are living proof we can be good without god, the question will inevitably arise when Johnny or Sally comes home one day from school after being accused by classmates of being evil—and Mommy and Daddy will have to explain why their friends say they are going to hell.

All poetry of Yip Harburg in this volume is © The Yip Harburg Foundation and is used with permission.

I suggest we teach our children to respond that they are simply not going to hell (a) because there is no such place, and (b) because they act ethically in ways that even Jesus would approve of. And that’s not because of some moribund commandment, but because Jesus’s second favorite rule, to love one’s neighbor as one would wish to be loved, is just good old-fashioned rational behavior from a liberal freethinking Essene. And by the way, he borrowed that from a number of philosophers who predated him, but no matter. Of course, Jesus mentioned his preference for this commandment when queried by his followers as to which of the famous “Ten” Commandments he liked best. In many ways, this dispute between the ethics of the Golden Rule and the morals allegedly displayed by the Old Testament commandments echoes disputes about the nature of ethics that have been underway for thousands of years. Recognizing this “commandments vs. principles” dispute can help us think about how to make ethical principles resonate in kids in a way that will help them make good ethical judgments on their own.

Commandments vs. Principles

Philosophers have debated for centuries where the foundations for ethical behavior might lie. There are two predominant schools of thought, though their expressions are many, varied, and nuanced. The two major views are roughly (a) that morals are unchangeable laws inherent in nature or divinely sanctioned and (b) that morals are man-made creations based upon reason and intended to produce certain consequences that generally improve our lives. Even while these two competing schools of thought have duked it out for centuries, humans have never acted as though the choice is a zero-sum game. Rather, we tend to employ both the “received-wisdom” model and the “bestconsequences” model in our ethical decision making. Getting this point straight when educating our children about ethics could save years of questioning, disillusionment, and distrust. You can do this all without even mentioning a single philosopher or ethical theory by name. But introducing kids (in developmentally appropriate ways) to the basics of ethical theory is, in my opinion, essential to making children capable of making moral judgments. As free inquirers, disposed to using reason and science to help us solve human problems, we can more or less agree that an essential tool is knowledge, and knowledge about the rudiments of ethical theory is just the sort of knowledge that can help enable us and our children to choose to act ethically.

As anyone with a 2-year-old knows by now, it isn’t enough to tell them what to do, since the inevitable next question is “why.” At some point, “cuz I say so” won’t cut it any more with a little free inquirer, so let’s explore some reasons to do the right thing beyond that offered by a mere appeal to authority. Good reasons can be expressed, in logical and accessible ways, according to each of the two major schools of ethical thought. Here is one good “commandment”-type reason for acting ethically: As a general rule, we should not treat others as we would not wish to be treated.

Now some may cringe that this is the Golden Rule to which the biblical Jesus refers when he admonishes us to love our neighbors as we wish them to love us. It is—and it isn’t. Jesus did not invent it. It dates at least as far back as Confucius, and possibly much further back in philosophies as distinct as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The rule continued to stimulate ethical reflection in philosophy. Immanuel Kant provided an excellent secular defense of the rule, adding his own version—“Follow only those principles you would wish to be made universal”—to the formulations of the others, while providing a comprehensive framework of argument to demonstrate the reasoned roots of ethics.

Recent studies indicate that the Golden Rule is naturalistically based. Studies of ape culture, and other animals, have shown that reciprocal altruism abounds in the natural world. This makes a certain amount of sense. If one’s species is to survive, one has to help one’s fellow monkey, armadillo, or human, and so on. This general rule, simply stated, makes good sense, although there are also certain common-sense exceptions. Teaching it may not only make good sense, but is already acceptable to most children once they develop the psychological capacity for empathy and can envision themselves in the shoes of another. “Now how would you feel, Rayna, if Jordan did X to you?

A second good reason for acting ethically—this one of the “bestconsequences” variety: We ought to generally act in ways that maximize happiness.

This one is most familiar and friendly to your average secular humanist. Under the general banner of “Utilitarianism,” this kind of moral system focuses on the net effect of our acts to determine their moral value. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill is credited with updating Utilitarianism and can be thought of as giving it a more humanistic bent. At the core of Utilitarianism is the notion that the goal of all moral behavior is to maximize happiness generally. This certainly seems to be a pretty commonsensical criterion for our day-to-day ethical and moral judgments. When we make everyday decisions about how to act, we often ask ourselves: What will be the consequences for the people I care about? Will this make so-and-so happy?

This can become rather complex. One of the shortcomings of Utilitarianism is the difficulty in assessing the results of any particular action. How many people will become happier due to a particular action, and to what degree? Moreover, in its original form, there is no distinction among types of happiness. Does the happiness in question involve simple bodily pleasures, or are some pleasures better, objectively, than others? Mill values intellectual and aesthetic pleasures above “base” bodily pleasures, but on what basis can he make that distinction hold?

Another significant problem with Utilitarianism is that is can justify certain things that none of us would be very happy with, if carried to its logical extreme. The most common example is Utilitarian justification for enslaving a small segment of a population if overall happiness could be increased. Much worse examples could be devised. It has been suggested that instead of making utilitarian calculations on an act-by-act basis, we should devise general rules of behavior that, when followed, tend to increase happiness. This, again, is both complicated and difficult to base philosophically on firm ground. Ultimately, many Utilitarians have to ground their ethical judgments not upon calculations of best consequences, but upon what is really a type of received wisdom: that happiness is itself good.

Practical Ethics

So where does that leave us, in learning ethics, in devising moral modes of behavior, and in educating our children about right and wrong? When ethical theories so divergent exist, and are followed to some degree by most people, what does this say about their truth or use? I think it demonstrates that there is something to ethics. There is a real grounding for our making ethical judgments, and despite divergent theories of the basis for that grounding, we tend to come to similar conclusions in all but the toughest cases about what we should or should not do. The only remaining unsolved question is the one that 2-year-olds habitually and rightly ask as budding philosophers: Why?

The “why” is very important and remains fertile ground for investigation. Moreover, as free inquirers interested in understanding the world, we cannot stop asking this question. While we may be able to derive some good normative ethical rules, we cannot stop there, and must always ask ourselves whether those rules make sense. To do anything less would be to fall into the trap of dogmatic thinking and to reject the use of philosophy in ordinary life. Free inquiry demands that we put to the test, on a regular basis, our judgments and those of others, asking always what the principles we employ are. Let’s encourage this in ourselves and our children, because it is truly the stuff of reason, and quintessentially human.

Chapter Four Endnotes

1. A. Dacey, “Believing in doubt,” New York Times (2006, February 3), A23.

2. L. Kohlberg, C. Levine, & A. Hewer, Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics (Basel, Switzerland: Karger, 1983).

3. R. Dobert, & G. Nunner-Winkler, “Interplay of Formal and Material Role-Taking in the Understanding of Suicide among Adolescents and Young Adults. I. Formal and Material Role-Taking.” Human Development, 28 (1985), 225–239.

4. S. Baron-Cohen, “From Attention-Goal Psychology to Belief-Desire Psychology: The Development of a Theory of Mind, and its Dysfunction,” in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. Cohen, eds., Understanding Other Minds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 59–82.

5. S. Baron-Cohen & P. Howlin, “The Theory of Mind Deficit in Autism: Some Questions for Teaching and Diagnosis.” In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. Cohen, eds., Understanding Other Minds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 228–291.

6. M. Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self (New York: Free Press, 1992).

7. J. Grusec & J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parent Discipline Methods on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology 30 (1994), 4–19; G. Kochanska, “Beyond Cognition: Expanding the Search for the Early Roots of Internalization and Conscience,” Developmental Psychology 30 (1994), 20–22.

8. K. Aunola & J.-E. Nurmi, “The Role of Parenting Styles in Children’s Problem Behavior.” Child Development 76 (2005), 1144–1159.

9. G. Ezzo & R. Bucknam, On Becoming Babywise (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1995).

Additional Resources


• Humphrey, Sandra Mcleod. If You Had to Choose, What Would You Do? Prometheus, 1995. A well-conceived attempt to present the youngest children with situations requiring moral decision making. Twenty-five short scenarios are presented in which a child grapples with questions of right and wrong in a commonplace setting. Each parable is followed by the basic question “What would you do?” along with a few corollary questions. Parents can and should scan the stories to find those best matched to his or her own child’s level. Some are eyerollingly simple, others more complex and interesting—including some that can even get the parent headscratching. Do you turn in a good friend for petty shoplifting? At the age of 6, my son had a quick answer—“yup”—until I suggested the shoplifter was Sean, his dearest friend in the world. He offered to rat out half a dozen less precious acquaintances, but not Sean. The ensuing discussion was rich and rewarding, finally resulting in a nuanced solution of his own making (Sean gets one last warning before my boy drops a dime)—followed by an insistence that we read another of the stories, then another, then another.

In another story, two sisters gather pledges to participate in a walk for the World Hunger Drive. Niki sprains her ankle halfway through and pleads with Leslie to go with her to the doctor. Leslie must decide whether to refund the money she collected from her friends and neighbors or to send it on to the World Hunger Drive, even though she hadn’t finished.

Now that’s a brow-knitter worth pondering, a wonderfully complex, multidimensional, real-world situation that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of a commandments approach to morality. Ages 6–12.

• Barker, Dan. Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers. Prometheus, 1992. A good, well-presented introduction to principles-based morality for kids. Ages 8–12.

• Berry, Joy. A Children’s Book About Lying, from Grolier’s Help Me Be Good series, 1988. Ages 4–8.

• Borba, Michele, PhD. Building Moral Intelligence. Jossey-Bass, 2002.

[N. B. See Additional Resources in Chapter 5 for more morality/values resources.]

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