It is clear we raise children with notions of “ought.” We tell them they ought not to steal and they ought to treat their playmates in a certain matter. But what message are we sending to children and what are we teaching them when we really teach them ethics? Are we teaching them the “deep down” ought of what grounds morality, or are we giving them a list of do’s and don’ts and teaching them what they ought to do to avoid punishment and receive reward? Can we ever truly teach ethical intentions, or is this something that is far more innate in people?
This is a question of motives and the generalizability of the human condition. Are human beings all alike in their motives and core traits? It’ been speculated that all will pursue pleasure and avoid pain if both rational and self-interested, but it seems that there are large portions of the population that fluctuate between these conditions. Many people most of the time are entirely self-interested but there are those who routinely act out of a sense of the welfare of others. Are they as they are because they were taught (or otherwise learned) this sense of concern for others or was it innate in them?
Most likely it is a myriad of factors which define almost every dimension of our being, but because this isn’t very satisfying I’m tempted to explain why it appears who we are in relation to others is largely innate. Most if not all children are taught lessons in relating to other children and following rules. Most children comply either in pursuit of reward or to avoid punishment. But there are instances of children acting out of general goodness (concern for another’s well-being) or for some “inner reward” such as a feeling of pride when one does something challenging. These motives exist in potential in nearly all humans but they appear to exist far more so in some than in others. There are siblings that are raised in the same home and yet are radically different people; having entirely different states of mind when relating to people.
We must also look at the “rational” portion of rational and self-interested. Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist and precursor to Existentialist thought, argued that Man wants what he wants even if he knows that what he wants will cause him more pain than pleasure. We are irrational, stubborn animals deep down, and what we long for we cannot choose according to a Utilitarian Calculus.
Both aspects can be seen in Hume’s Moral Sentimentalism. Human beings are guided by the sentiments – not by reason. Sometimes these sentiments are self-interested, at other times altruistic. But they are regardless of the specifics what is at the core of our being. What was given to us at birth and reinforced and molded through our life experiences. We are slaves to these sentiments. If a child follows his parents’ directives this in no way indicates an acknowledgement of the moral “ought” that the parents wish to transfer to the child – passive obedience and acting out of self-interest is just as if not more likely.
Aristotle argues that through habituation people can become virtuous and live the good life. But someone must first be compelled to action before he can habituate himself to it. If an animal in a cave never feels compelled to step into the day light and exercise his vision he will never be habituated to the light although sight is arguably fundamental to his flourishing.
It’s a somber truth that our intrinsic desires and motivations have often little if anything to do with living a good life whether for ourselves or for others. We are driven by innate impulses that exist for evolutionary reasons. And although these impulses ensure the survival of the species, they in no way secure our happiness or prosperity individually or collectively. This is largely due to the fact that happiness is negative in character – it involves an absence of pain and desire rather than something which exists in its own right.
Most of education is descriptive rather than normative. And this shows in the Egoism of the citizenry. Whether more efforts to normative questions and affairs would alter the motives of the citizenry remains to be seen. If Aristotle and Plato are correct than moral education is what is lacking in our democracy. If Hume and Schopenhauer are right than it is largely a façade of our civilization, a false pretense and show we have and it is not moral education which is lacking but a proper form of government that is led by “gold-souled” individuals rather than through democratic means.