I read an article recently about a home improvement con
artist who swindled a 100 year-old blind woman. He rang the womans bell,
unsolicited, to offer to do any repair work needed. The woman told him that for years she
had struggled with a door that was difficult to open because it rubbed against the rug. To
fix the problem, she agreed to pay the man $8,000, to jack up her house. Most people, when
hearing this story, invariably laugh, and then say something like: "oh that's
awful." While we're quick to proclaim it wrong, somehow we all admire the audacity of
the con artist. This example illustrates the fundamental ethical conflict present in all
people. Human beings identify with lying and manipulating; it's in our nature; it
originated eons ago as part of the prehistoric mechanism of survival. The examples today
of the glorification of manipulation and deception, even outright lying, are ubiquitous.
Pretense and dissimulation are rooted in our genes. Our role models and heroes reek of it.
We expect it and even demand it. Who has not wondered at the recent rise in popularity of
professional wrestling, the ultimate fraud among all the lesser entertainment frauds, or
been struck by the celebrity of movie stars, acclaimed for how well they pretend to be
what theyre not, or been amazed by the "spin doctors" shamelessly
rearranging political reality on the nightly talk shows. People constantly pretend to be
what theyre not. Lying and cheating are believed by too many to be legitimate tools
in the quest to achieve selfish ends. The first and most important step toward
understanding ethics is recognizing this reality.
Why then, its fair to ask do we extol honesty and
forthrightness? Why do we really
believe it was "awful" for the con man to cheat the old woman, even
as we laughed and secretly admired his manipulative skills? We have, it
seems, a countervailing sense of how one should behave, and a sense that
tells us that we shouldn't succumb to the innate craving caused by the
manipulative gene. This
countervailing force too is an inheritance from a long past experience.
But, this time, it's the lesson of group life, derived from living
in close proximity, on limited territory. Also rooted in our earliest
origins as a species, cooperation has emerged as the preferred means to
achieve individual success. Although
evidence clearly suggests a genetic cementing of cooperative behavior, it
was, for the most part, culturally learned and reinforced as the lesson of
civilization, and is probably not as deeply rooted in us, as are our more
biological self-regarding urges. That a sense of fairness and honesty are
critical in a complex social setting that extends beyond kinship is a
relatively recent addition to the evolution of the human species, and has
not fully balanced the inclination to pursue pure self or narrow group
interest. But, it is also not
inconsistent with the more intuitive reciprocal behavior of primates and
other social animals.
To a large extent, ethical behavior,
which is simply finding the balance between self-interest and group
responsibility, is largely, but not entirely, learned behavior standing in
opposition to an instinct. Acting
ethically is very much like fighting an addiction. The addict is never entirely free of the struggle.
The history of ethical thought is, in this regard, a record of
attempts to promote, or to dictate, communal behavior in order to ensure
stability and harmony within the social group.
For most of recorded history, the group ethical standard has
In fact, runaway individualism is a rather recent phenomenon in American and western
culture and can in some ways be seen as a backlash against the horrors of the Holocaust.
Nazi communalism spawned the most horrific experience in the history of the western world
and convinced a generation of the dangers of blindly following a group ethical standard.
Western aggressive cultural moralism shifted heavily toward protection for human rights
and the promotion of individual freedoms. Anything even remotely resembling a communal
standard was suspect, even scorned. Anticommunism became a national obsession. We taught
our children to be individuals, to stand on their own, not to succumb to peer pressure,
and, in the process, not to worry about anything but themselves. They learned the
lesson well. For nearly half a century rampant individualism has been justified,
encouraged and even celebrated. When we combine this cultural emphasis with the natural
genetic propensities of human beings the result can hardly be wondered at. The delicate
ethical balance between individual freedom and group responsibility has clearly shifted.
Not surprisingly then, many middle and high school students today will tell you that
they themselves determine, as does every other individual, the standards of right and
wrong. Students will resist the notion that they owe anything to anyone, or that they have
any absolute obligation toward society. They recognize that wrongs can be done, but have a
very difficult time judging their own actions to be wrong. It is very important to
recognize the underlying ethical creed so common among the youth of today, namely: nothing
I do can truly be wrong because I am the final judge of what is right and wrong for me.
How do educators attack this problem?
It is best to build on the beliefs, which students already bring with them, that ethics
must be about individuals, and that the extent of individual freedom is a measure of what
is right. This ethical relativity can be transformed into a powerful positive starting
point for students; they intuitively understand that ethics must be measured on a case by
case basis. Students also expect all others to pursue and to defend their own ethical
conclusions just as they do. They see the study of ethics as a kind of game in which
everyone's opinion is of roughly equal value, and the process of defending one's own, and
defeating anothers is the major objective. In other words, there is no real search
for truth, which students largely understand only in the context of their own opinions and
interests. Students see artful argument, and the ability to "spin" the truth, as
automatic parts of the "ethics game." Doing, in the end, only what one judges to
be in one's interest is a given, as is denying personal responsibility for any failures.
In fact, denying personal responsibility is an inherent part of this mindset since if one
acts only in ways deemed best for ones self, any untoward results can only be
someone elses fault.
Students must commit to broadening their own understanding of ethical issues by seeking
to better understand the ideas of others. This is not easy since in most instances
students believe that they already have the right answers, and are therefore likely to
merely make pronouncements rather than thoughtful remarks. A successful strategy, however,
can be built on the willingness of most students to be tolerant of different opinions.
They trap themselves through their own avowed belief in the sanctity of the individual
into accepting the legitimacy of varied viewpoints. It is necessary to build this into a
sense of community within the class, and to encourage each student to participate
energetically and cooperatively. It takes time, and patience, but it is critical to avoid
encouraging simple debate, which in the end leads nowhere.
Whats Wrong with Virtue Ethics?
Few would argue that rule based ethical systems are complex and confusing. Ordinary
people don't understand philosophers like Immanuel Kant when he calls for a categorical
imperative to govern ethical decision making, or John Stuart Mill when he trumpets the
principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. These arcane philosophies with
incomprehensible names like deontology and teleology almost always lead to disagreement
and debate, thus promoting the idea that ethics is an intellectual contest where right and
wrong are determined by the best argument or the most skilled debater. Even contemporary
contributions to the "ethics game" as students call it, such as the justice
model of John Rawls for instance and his advice to act behind a veil of ignorance, are
equally as abstruse. Hence there is a very valid and seductive attraction for simpler
answers. Normative ethical systems nearly always seem to end in impasses, are correctly
viewed to be impractical and have historically had almost no impact on the moral behavior
of average people who pay absolutely no attention to them.
Virtue ethicists, on the other hand, argue that if one starts with good intentions and
is guided by habitually ingrained, and good, virtues, the actions that follow will also be
good. Martin Luther once said, in a classic statement of virtue ethics: "A good man
does good works, but good works do not make a good man." According to this idea there
is no need for complicated and often conflicting rules. To determine what is right or
wrong, one need not apply some complex standard of conduct to the action, its outcome, or
to the motive of the doer. A good man simply does good works. But, virtue ethics begs the
question, how do we identify this good man in order to know which works are
Virtue ethicists like to call character traits, such as patience, virtues, and assume
that they are good. But, to simply declare that a character trait such as patience is good
or is a virtue won't pass even the most elemental test. There is no difference, after all,
between the character trait of patience present in a parent raising a difficult child,
with the same trait in a rapist lying in wait for his victim. Obviously the character
trait of patience, or any other character trait for that matter, has nothing to do with
virtue and has no ethical value whatsoever. It only becomes what we might call good
insofar as it is associated with an action that can be judged to be good. The problem is
to know what good is, and this remains unresolved. The actions themselves, that is caring
for a child, or raping a woman, still need to be evaluated, and for this we need a rule.
Even Aristotle, the first, and perhaps, the most famous virtue ethicist of all time,
recognized this problem and relied on rules to resolve it. He answered the question of
what is good, and how we know it, by offering the idea that good was the product of a life
of moderation and balance. He called this the "golden mean." Seeking the golden
mean, Aristotle believed, would result in actions that are done with balance and
moderation and these actions would be good. But, without the apriori assumption, that man
is in essence a rational being, and that virtues flow naturally from man's reason, there
would be no way to determine what good was. And, even if we accept that virtues flow from
the actions of a good person, we have still not solved the problem that, as we have seen,
the same character traits can equally serve to promote quite despicable ends. Nor have we
avoided the high probability that by beginning from a different apriori point
concerning the nature of man, we would arrive at a wholly different interpretation.
Somewhere in his famous novel, William Golding described a hunting band of boys who
danced wildly around a fire working themselves into a frenzy until they mistakenly
murdered one of their own number. Aristotle would have condemned this as an evil that
resulted from the failure to act with balance and moderation; the boys lacked
self-control. The virtue here is moderation, but it is, at the same time, also a rule. In
other words, to assign ethical value to a character trait and call it a virtue, we must
first translate the character trait into a rule, in this case stated: it is wrong
to act out of emotion rather than reason. Then we cleverly restructure the rule
into a virtue: one who acts out of reason rather than emotion acts with moderation. Hence,
moderation is a virtue. Virtue ethics then is both ancillary and subordinate
to a normative ethical system. Without standards for right and wrong, the character traits
alone have no significance. There is no truly distinct virtue ethics at all, and to
emphasize character traits as a guide to ethical behavior is very problematic indeed given
the dependence of virtues definitions on apriori assumptions and the inevitable
accompanying drift toward extreme relativism.
Probably the most graphic example of this tendency involved the application of a virtue
ethic to a whole society perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany during the 1930's. By
contrast with Aristotle, Hitler's assumption about the nature of man was reversed reason.
According to the Nazis, people were generally not capable of careful thought, they were
inept, and could be moved only by emotion. By nature they sought membership in an organic
group and needed a leader to provide direction and to make decisions for them. This
became, ironically not unlike the ancient Athens of Aristotle, a racist group ethic, and
resulted in a radically different definition of good that gives a chilling new meaning to
Luther's contention that "a good man does good works".
Consider Hitler's own words:
The best thing is to let (the youth) pursue that to which their natural desire for
competition freely inclines them. But, they must learn self-control, and to overcome,
through the most demanding challenges, the fear of death. That is the mark of the heroic
Apparently, Aristotle and Adolph Hitler admired the same character traits, proving yet
again that one must examine the action that the trait supports before deeming it to be a
Beyond its obvious failures as an analytical discipline, virtue ethics also leads to a
problematic pedagogy and should be rejected by educators as little more than mindless
conditioning, bordering on propaganda. The Nazi example, while extreme, remains
Consider Hitler once again:
"My education is hard. Weakness must be hammered out. In my schools a youth will
be raised from whom the world will shrink in fear.
. There must be nothing weak or
soft about them. The free and noble gaze of the beast of prey must once again flash in
their eyes. I want my youth to be strong and beautiful. They must be trained in all manner
of physical education. I want an athletic youth. That is first and foremost. In that way
we will expunge the thousands of years of human domestication. I have the pure and noble
natural material before me out of which I can form something new.
Within this philosophical framework, the Nazi Reichssportfuehrer listed the educational
purpose for sport as characterbuilding:
Physical fitness demands hard repetitive daily exertion of the body. The will grows as
bodily strength and physical skill increases. A strong will, and a trust in one's own
ability to succeed is the foundation and basis for character education
The Reichsportfuehrer went on to explain how this character building education would
yield admirable virtues:
The healthy, strong, industrious person works and strives for himself, his family, his
job and for the greater good of the community. He is a selfless support for his companions
who, when called, knows how to come to the defense of his country. He responds to the
needs of his community as willingly as to his own, with attention to the abilities, as
well as with understanding of the needs, of his national brothers and sisters. His
self-confident strength is truly honored by his fellow citizens.
Lest we mistakenly conclude that these are only cobwebs of history, consider the entry
about character education which appeared recently on the California State Department of Education web
The word "character" is derived from the Greek word "to mark" or
"to engrave" and is associated with the writings of philosophers such as Plato
and Aristotle. People with good character habitually display good behavior, and such
habits are embedded, or marked, on a person. While there may be no specific consensus on a
list of desirable traits, there is considerable agreement on desirable moral values that
underlie these traits.
Throughout history thoughtful philosophers and educators have been concerned about the
cultivation of character traits and virtues such as honesty, courage, perseverance,
loyalty, caring, civic virtue, justice, respect and responsibility, and trustworthiness.
The consensus is that these traits (and others like them) are not innate and must be
acquired through teaching and practice in the home and in the schools. Traits, or virtues,
must be transmitted to be internalized. Children learning these lessons, however, should
not behave solely based on a set of principles or rules, but rather they must learn to
behave with understanding. It is an important function for educators, therefore, to help
form children into adults who behave well, who demonstrate good "external
conduct," and who understand why that sort of behavior is important.
There is something frighteningly reminiscent about attempting to
"form children into adults who behave well." And also, not unlike the Nazi
school, it seems that, the preferred pedagogy here is to "teach" these virtues
through repetitive propaganda-like techniques until they are "cultivated",
"internalized" and "habitual."
It is abundantly clear, at least to me, that because of its natural relativism this
virtues system will serve any master, and that its skill building drill strategy is
antithetical to any truly analytical or thinking skill curriculum. It is not enough to say
that these virtues will promote only the noble ends of freedom, democracy and human
dignity. This type of conditioning is the wrong way to approach ethics education in our
schools. It will deaden, not awaken the moral sense, which after all must be based on free
choice derived from an internal authority, itself rooted in essential human nature and
guided by the ability to think critically about the delicate ethical dilemmas of the day.
Martin Luther not withstanding, there is no safe short cut way. Ethics is not about
virtues, its about actions.
All of my questions about teaching ethics, as well as the paucity of answers, have
emerged from the challenges of classroom discussion. Beginning with a provocative question
intended to engage as many minds as possible, I asked: "do you have any absolute
obligation to others? Is there any scenario in which you must do good for at least one
other person under at least some circumstances?" My students, nearly universally,
said no! They did not recognize any responsibility to others of an absolute nature. So, I
challenged them with increasingly more severe hypotheticals, probing for bottom: "you
came upon a drowning man, a friend, a drowning child, your brother." Nothing
penetrated the conviction that they were free spirits unfettered by any duty. They would,
of course, rescue a friend and certainly a child or a sibling, while making it clear all
the while that it would only be done out of love and not duty. They would do it because
they wanted to, not because they had to.
It was not until I used the extreme example of a mother's obligation to her infant
child that this attitude changed. A mother had to act on behalf of her child. They all
agreed. No caveats this time. There was something about the mother/child relationship that
riveted their conviction. It was clear to me that the words were now only window dressing
for an already accepted conclusion. Because of this experience, and many others like it, I
concluded that ethics was innate and that there was indeed a moral sense. I began to
become increasingly convinced, but not in a cynical way, that the reasons people give for
making moral decisions were really rationales, and that the complex and carefully crafted
normative ethical systems of the great philosophies and religions must ultimately be about
essential, innate and instinctive behavioral imperatives. And, if they are, there should
be universality and simplicity about them. Yet, in reality, there seems to be nothing
simple about ethical philosophy, as any student of the subject will readily attest. I was
trapped between a necessary normative ethics that may be incomprehensible and unteachable,
and the propaganda technique of so-called virtue ethics, which, while simple and
effective, is too prone to a dangerous relativism to be encouraged. I was both convinced
that ethics by nature requires rules and that the rule based ramblings of the philosophers
both old and new are too abstract to be generally useful, or to be effectively
incorporated into typical, history based, secondary school curriculums.
But did this have to be so? Are the ethical systems that have emerged from centuries of
human contemplation really that abstruse, and if they are, why are they? Is it as is
generally supposed, because ethical ideas are so abstract and difficult as to require the
most exacting linguistic efforts to render them accurately? I rejected this as
contradictory to my earlier conclusion that basic ethical principles were innate and would
therefore follow the principle of parsimony, which holds that the simpler answer is the
better answer. The labyrinthine nature of ethical philosophy then could easily be the
result of big brains confusing an otherwise simple issue, hardly a novel notion, and, it
seemed to me, one worth pursuing, even if that pursuit led down a very old path.
After many years of trying to effectively teach a kind of forensic ethics through rules
and reasons in a secondary school social studies program, and in the process exploring all
of the typical moral dilemmas, discussion and Socratic seminar techniques, I revised my
thinking about the nature of ethics itself. It wasnt intellectual and divisive at
all, but rather intuitive and inclusive. The idea that "doing the right thing"
might somehow also be innate and instinctual was not new, but certainly neglected or at
least overlooked in the glorification of reason that emerged from the Enlightenment and
elevated the opinions of a Kant or a Spinoza over the countervailing and perhaps more
enlightened observations of a David Hume or an Adam Smith. I wondered what modern science
had to say about an ethical sense?
Many contemporary primatologists would agree that moral philosophies may be little more
than rationalizations. We may well be endowed with an inner sense of what is right and
wrong and the addictive capacity to construct elaborate linguistic edifices to support
these predispositions, or to spin reasons for disregarding them. This may well have been
the birth of the ethical treatise of which we have culturally become so fond. Indeed, the
study of right and wrong as played out among animals and especially among primates has
yielded valuable insights about the origins of our own, perhaps not so uniquely human,
Recent studies have consistently shown that dolphins and other marine mammals,
chimpanzees, apes, bonobos, monkeys and even dogs possess a moral sense, and display many
of the behaviors considered basic to most normative human ethical systems. Equality,
reciprocity, even altruism, have been detected and recorded among animals, as well as
treachery, deceit and manipulation. In fact, a kind of "what goes around comes
around" golden rule is fundamental to the social relationships of most primates.
Fascinating research has been done to show that the social instinct may also be rooted in
our genes as is the urge for freedom and self-interest. In the search for assumptions
about the true nature of man I believe Aristotle and Hitler both had it wrong. It seems
more likely now than not, that man is both driven by innate genetic forces and
is capable of making thoughtful assessments of what is happening.
Our biological heritage seems to predispose us to certain ethical standards. According
to ethologist Frans de Waal: "the mind does not start out as a tabula rasa,
but rather as a check list with spaces allotted to particular types of incoming
information." This, in fact, is the proposition I plan to promote in this book, that
ethical thought, as expressed by the great minds of the past is really no more than a
rationale, however sophisticated it may appear, for an already cemented genetic ethical
sense. And further, that it is fundamentally very simple and fully consistent with the
social behavior of primates and other social animals in which we have seen the existence
of both individualism and communalism.
Small wonder that the pets most loved by humans are cats and dogs, and precisely
because each appeals to one of these two conflicting sides of human nature. The dog is
loved for selfless loyalty and the cat for precisely the opposite reason. The selfish
individualism of our earliest and most independent past and the value of group life and
finally of civilization itself are both deeply ingrained in us. These are the two natural
sides of every human being, and finding the balance between them is basic to all ethical
thinking. The evolved predisposition to act selfishly on the one hand and a selflessly on
the other, while constantly seeking reasons to convince others of the rightness of our
actions, is the ethical nature of man.