Sat, Jun 05, 2010 - Page 8 News List

The problems of moral education

By Herbert Hanreich

Social behavior has been essential for human development since the dawn of civilization. The origins of individuals choosing to help each other have been traced back by anthropologists deep into prehistoric times, as they have tried to find answers to “why we cooperate.” Likewise, a sense of reciprocal altruism, an even more committing form of social engagement among species, apparently existed in the pre-human stage of natural evolution, before care and love for those genetically close gradually developed. Our primal moral intuition seems to be based on our social nature.

Does this mean that we are good by nature? Unfortunately not. Evolutionary biologists tell us that it is the selfish gene that pulls the strings behind our “good” nature and successfully prevents us from becoming angels by tying our sense of altruism to a Darwinian program of survival. We act unselfishly because we are selfish.

Does this then mean that we are evil by nature? Fortunately not. “Good” or “evil” are terms we use to prescribe how we should or should not act, rather than tools for the consideration of what we think our nature is — nature is neither good nor bad; it is what it is.

Facts don’t tell us what we should do with them. For instance, the fact that capital punishment is supported by the majority of people in Taiwan does not mean executions should be carried out; there is always space for debate on what is the right thing to do — and leadership. Moral issues deal with questions about how things should be in comparison to what they are now. There is no need to sacrifice ideas and ideals on the altar of “reality.”

What constitutes moral action? There is no easy answer, as there are many contenders. Yet any answer has to explain what it means for an individual to act responsibly vis-a-vis others and to provide reasons why we should define such acts as good or evil. Usually, reasons given in moral discourses are condensed in the form of principles or imperatives.

One prominent ethical position holds that the same moral principles apply to all people at all times and in all places. They are universally obliging, thus compelling individuals to rationally and critically consider their actions in the light of universal acceptability. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is the most important representative of such a universal concept of morality. This outlook, however, is not very popular in Taiwan due to a prevailing Confucian ethical culture that fits better into a world of local orientation, aimed at the maintenance and reproduction of traditions from a distant past.

According to Kant, individuals are free. They can act autonomously but often choose not to do so, like when blindly following traditions. Autonomous actions are those that are guided by “pure” reason, ie, by motives that respect others as equally free individuals regardless of personal preferences. Respect for each individual’s freedom is in Kant’s view the guiding principle of any moral action. He calls this sphere of respect humanity or human dignity. It is shared by any human being and can, therefore, be universally justified. Modern human rights are rooted in Kant’s ethical thinking.

Moral actions should be guided by considerations that promote humanity and freedom instead of rules of behavior that benefit particular individuals or cultures, which — too often — are egoistic actions in disguise.

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