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Colleges and universities often expect their curriculum to engage with the moral formation of their students. In this essay Richard T. McClelland notes that four scientific arguments converge to suggest that this project is unlikely to succeed: the evolutionary origins of human moral systems, the ontogeny of the average human brain, closing the gap between our dispositions to behave and our actual behavior, and the origin of most moral judgments in automatic processes operating on culturally transmitted intuitions that are not subject to change by traditional curricular methods. Furthermore, mechanisms for changing intuitions risk either alienation of the institution from the cultural surround or fraudulent identification with it. Mr. McClelland is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gonzaga University.

Many institutions of higher education conceive of themselves as essentially and centrally involved in the moral formation of their students. This is notably so in the case of religious institutions who identify with any of the main traditions of classical theism, especially Christian theism. And this is by no means surprising. The wisdom literature of ancient Israel makes much of the moral education of the young. Many of the early chapters in the book of Proverbs, for example, open with an encomium on the moral education of the young (for example, 2:1-5; 3:1-6; 4:1-9;6:20-23; 7:1-4), and this issue also arises regularly in the later chapters of that book.1 The impulse to care about the moral formation of the young is a concern found across all human cultures. It was a time-honored concern of religiously based higher education in the nineteenth century.2 And it remains part of the rationale for courses in ethics at many religious institutions today (in Catholic ones, often as part of a two-course requirement in philosophy). The very phrase “moral pedagogy” recalls the tradition of a senior slave who was appointed especially to look after the sons of the well-to-do in ancient Greek city-states and in particular to look out for their moral behavior. Religious institutions who retain marked evangelical tendencies or commitment to missionary work may find special further reasons for regarding the formation of the characters of their students among their central tasks. It is difficult to see how a religious tradition, especially understood in Alasdair MacIntyre’s sense of that term, could survive over time without a sustained and serious commitment to the moral formation of the young.3 Character-education, then, is expectable in schools that represent and seek to perpetuate particular religious traditions.

There is no particular reason, however, why such an enterprise should be confined to religiously based institutions. Even secular institutions of higher education have a stake in the moral formation of their students. No viable human society can simply forego such formative efforts, and with them the transmission of a common set of moral values, beliefs, and practices (howsoever minimal or contested) to the next generation. Thus, we might argue that moral education of the young is a basic societal, and as I shall argue, a biological imperative. Moreover, colleges and universities, religious or secular, may reasonably be taken to be institutions that can use their curricular powers to especially good effects, to form not only the minds of the students who pass through those curriculums but also their characters. And it is primarily through the curriculum that such formative efforts are usually focused.4 That is, often we think that our curriculum is not only in the business of forming the intellectual habits of our students but also forming the more explicitly moral habits of our students. Surely, we may be tempted to think, if we can teach our students how to think seriously about the mind-body problem, and generally inculcate in them good habits of critical thinking, we can also inculcate in them moral knowledge and habits that will make them better citizens, even in a secular society.

It may be objected that such an enterprise is no longer viable in higher education (even religiously based higher education) because it is paternalistic, because it trades on an outmoded notion of universities and colleges standing in loco parentis to their students, or because it represents a kind of oppressive colonialism practiced at home. No doubt substantive arguments along these lines could be developed and require answering to defend the viability of the basic project. It is not my concern here to entertain those arguments or possible replies to them. But I do wish to cast doubt on the viability of the project, especially in higher education, whether religiously based or secular. It seems to me that contemporary scientific findings combine to call into question the plausibility of this project, at least as it is commonly understood in higher education today. I have in mind three broad lines of argument, the first of which has to do with the evolutionary history of our species and its relationship to human morality.

The Phylogenetic Argument

In his well-known 1999 Paul Carus lectures, Alasdair MacIntyre presented and defended a version of what we might loosely call the “continuity hypothesis.” According to this view, human beings are fundamentally a certain kind of animal, possessed of the characteristic causal powers that belong to the natural kind they instantiate. They exist, then, on a continuum with other animal species and have many of their causal powers in common with those animals closest to them on the continuum. On this view, then, it is not surprising that many other kinds of animals should share with us many of our cognitive abilities, as well as more basic biologically fixed capacities such as locomotion, metabolism, reproduction, sensory system functions, and the like. MacIntyre acknowledges readily that human animals have many distinctive abilities as well, some of which certainly are tied to our vastly more complex linguistic skills, and especially our ability to use linguistic skills for reflective purposes: “But this does not remove from us what we share with other animals species. Our kinship to the dolphin and the chimpanzee cannot be discarded and this is a kinship not only with respect to the animality of the body, but also with respect to forms of life.”5 For those of us who belong to the neo-Aristotelian traditions of philosophical and scientific naturalism, such a continuity hypothesis is itself very natural. Among the forms of life in view here are also our moral lives.

There has grown up in recent decades a very rich literature arguing that major aspects of human morality, especially as it is manifested universally across human cultures, are also to be found in the lives of our close primate relatives. There are a variety of ways in which this fundamental thesis can be formulated. Alan Fiske, for example, has identified four underlying models of social cognition that he finds at work in human culture, three of which have direct bearing on forms of the moral life.6 One such model, for example, involves what he calls “communal sharing, ”which gives preference to kindness (especially towards biologically close kin), broad sociability with close kin, and especially empathy. Primatologists like Frans de Waal have found ample evidence for similar practices and values among chimpanzees and bonobo monkeys.7 Darcia Narvaez and Daniel Lapsley identify three basic “ethics” which they take to derive from the evolutionary history of our species. Here is a brief summary of their theory:

The Ethic of Security is focused on self-preservation through safety and personal or in-group dominance. The Ethic of Engagement is oriented to face-to-face emotional affiliation with others, particularly through caring relationships and social bonds. The Ethic of Imagination coordinates the [phylogenetically] older parts of the brain, using humanity’s fullest reasoning capacities to adapt to ongoing social relationships and to address concerns beyond the immediate.8

Narvaez and Lapsley call their approach to the evolutionary history of human andother primate morality “triune ethics,” because they root the emergence of these systems of moral values and practices in Paul MacLean’s famous hypothesis about the triune brain. According to MacLean, the human brain is the result of earlier development of a reptilian brain (mainly comprised of the brain stem and the cerebellum), the paleo-mammalian brain (mainly comprised of the limbic system and its regulatory areas in the mid-brain, areas implicated especially in human emotional functioning), and finally the neo-mammalian brain, which involves the cerebral cortex, especially its frontal areas.9

I am not concerned here with settling which, if any, of these evolutionary hypotheses about the origins of human morality is the best. What does concern me is simply this: if any of these theories is even approximately correct, then human moral functioning is determined partly by the long evolutionary history of our species. Moreover, only such theories can make much sense (certainly from a naturalistic point of view) of the evidence the study of animal behavior gives us for the continuity hypothesis. Further, it follows from such theories that human morality is at least partly innate. And by that term we mean that partly it is fixed genetically by our basic biological make-up, but that the expression of such genetically conditioned features is also dependent partially on experience. That is to say, the most basic brain-based scaffolding of human moral systems belongs to the evolutionary development of the brain, but that much of the specific details of how that scaffolding appears in human affairs is due to the regulating influence of individual (and corporate) experience.10 Human morality, in other words, is a matter of both “nature” and “nurture.”

But, if all this is even approximately correct, then human moral development is in broad outline the epigenetically programmed unfolding of an evolutionarily determined sequence of brain systems and the values and practices that they support.11 And that development is not touched by any influence of the curriculum of institutions of higher education. On the contrary, in this view, our students come to us with a vast array of moral intuitions, emotions, values, and practices already well and truly in place, and not alterable by any means used typically by educators. Indeed, we should understand that the mere prospect of having our students be responsive to moral arguments, moral dilemmas, moral cases, or moral theories (for example, utilitarianism, Kantianism, Aristotelian eudaimonism, or what have you), depends vitally on a formation that largely is completed by early adulthood and that is part of their evolutionary heritage. Whatever influence we might have on their moral development will have to be consonant with that evolutionary heritage and can, at best, hope to be part of a life-long influence of cumulative experience, an influence that merely trims and adjusts the outward and culturally sensitive expression of the underlying scaffolding.12 In the nature of the thing, the scaffolding itself is not subject to change merely by running students through a given curriculum, especially one in which formation is supposed to be accomplished by linguistically mediated means. We cannot hope to turn our students into different kinds of animals, or to somehow magically re-do the evolutionary history of their species, least of all by merely talking to them.

But our topic is character formation through higher education. And character has to do with the dispositions of an individual human being. Here is one common way of defining it:

One’s character is an indelible mark of consistency and predictability. It denotes enduring dispositional tendencies in behavior. It points to something deeply rooted in personality, to its organizing principle that integrates behavior, attitudes, and values.13

It may be true that moral personality in its turn is rooted deeply in the phylogenetic history of the species, yet that individual character might be so experience-dependent that curricular methods of altering it can still avail. But this seems doubtful for other reasons, as I hope to show next.

Two Ontogenetic Arguments

The Argument from Brain Maturation

We know a lot now about the characteristic development of the human brain. And whatever else we may think about the nature of the mind in animals of our type, it is a function of the brain from which it emerges and on which it depends.14 The earliest development of the human brain involves a finely tuned sequence of cell proliferation, migration and maturation, resulting in a brain with approximately 100 billion neurons at birth. And yet this is only about one-quarter to one-third the size of the adult brain. So, we know that development continues apace through infancy, childhood, adolescence and into early adulthood. Later development is conditioned heavily by a combination of four processes: continued increase in absolute size of the brain; genetically programmed cell death (apoptosis); synaptic “pruning,” whereby connections between neurons are reduced at different rates in various brain areas systematically; and continued laying down of insulating lipids along the communicative parts of neurons (myelination). Myelination increases the speed with which signals traverse neuronal connections by up to one hundred-fold. And that process continues to completion at about age thirty.15 There is some reason to believe that cell death and synaptic pruning both belong to larger processes whereby brain regions are, from time to time, re-organized into more efficient structures. Phylogenetically older parts of the brain (generally speaking located lower down and further towards the back of the skull) mature first, and phylogenetically younger parts mature later. Late-maturing regions are also among the earliest to degenerate in conditions like Alzheimer ’s disease or advanced aging. Those late-maturing regions include areas of the cerebral cortex (chiefly frontal and prefrontal regions) that support many of our “higher” cognitive functions, the so-called executive functions of affective regulation, impulse control, and planning.16

The literature on human brain maturation suggests very strongly that most of this complex process is completed by around age seventeen. It is true that myelination, in particular, continues into the third decade of life and is usually complete only by about age thirty. And it is also true that late stages of myelination support increased efficiency of the cerebral cortex and its associated cognitive functions. The experience that we commonly have of relatively poor impulse control, insecure affect regulation, and weak planning skills in adolescents belongs to this history. However, what occurs between ages seventeen and thirty does not bring with it new cognitive skills or functions. It merely brings with it increased efficiency and security of operation of cognitive functions already available to the late-adolescent brain. And this is the first in a series of ontogenetic arguments relevant to our topic. Most of our students (I am speaking here of typical college- and university-level students) are seventeen to twenty-five years of age. Therefore they come to us with their brains developed almost as fully as they are going to be. Moreover, such development does not represent a net increase in the density of neuronal material in the brain. Neuronal and synaptic density peaks at approximately sixteen and a half years of age on average.17 The further development of the brain up to age thirty supports gains in efficiency and reliability of higher cognitive functions. But the frontal lobes do not suddenly come online in our twenties. Their cognitive functions are readily available to children, as evidenced by, for example, inhibitory control of impulses by three- to five-year-olds.18 Moreover, a recent study of brain development in very young children shows that total brain volume (TBV) reached 80-90% of adult volume by twenty-four months of age, and that the general pattern of adult myelination is also reached by twenty-four months of age.19 And that development is not affected, so far as any reliable evidence shows, by anything that happens in higher education.20 At most, education will alter the manner in which brain functionality is expressed in overt behavior, as compared with what it would otherwise have been in the absence of further education (or equivalent experience, if there be any such).

But, once again, it may be objected that character and its development has less to do with underlying brain functionality and more to do with those modes of expression in behavior; that is, more to do with personality and less to do with biology. And just here we need to take into account an important gap that yawns between dispositions to behave and actual behavior.

Closing the Motivational Gap

Everyone knows that human animals do not act with total consistency, especially in unusual or very stressful situations. We may think that character has to do with consistent patterns of behavior, and that seems fundamentally correct. But it is one thing to have a disposition to act in such and such a fashion, and yet another thing to actually behave consistently in that fashion across a wide range of particular situations. We know, that is, that there is a gap between any given disposition and actualization of that disposition. We also know that in some situations it is possible to get humans to behave contrary to their stated or otherwise known character. This is the point that Gilbert Harman and John Doris have made on the basis of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments with the infliction of (apparent) pain on experimental subjects.21 Now, it is my view that both Harman and Doris have been fairly answered in the philosophical literature (and also that they have misunderstood Milgram’s experiments and related experimental findings).22 But the basic point remains: dispositions do not automatically or infallibly lead to actual behavior. No one can reach adulthood without a rich experience of just this fact, both about herself and about her fellow human beings (not, that is, without a massive exercise of ongoing self-deception or other dissociation). Indeed, many of us have been quite shocked at our own behavior, despite it being sometimes quite contrary to what we (or others) understood to be our character. What causes the “gap” between disposition and behavior to close now but not then, here but not there, now in this fashion but then in another fashion? It seems to me that modern neuroscience has some answers to offer here, but that those answers may solve this problem only to raise another for the project of character formation through processes typical of higher education.

Together with what we know about the general maturational history of the typical human brain goes also a good deal of knowledge about the origins of the self.23 Those origins have especially to do with the regulation of emotions, especially those “basic emotions” that appear to be hard-wired to the neonate brain. What we know is that everyone who is neurobiologically intact comes into the world with a suite of such basic emotions (including, for example, fear, sadness, shame, guilt, joy, excitement, curiosity and the like). But no one comes into the world with a developed capacity by which to regulate those emotions. Regulation has to do with appropriate onset of emotion-type, intensity of emotional condition, temporal duration of the emotional state, and offset of the emotion-type. This we have to learn. And now we know a good deal about how it is learned. Emotional (or affective) regulation is acquired through the long series of affective exchanges that occur between the developing infant and its primary caretakers (which in many cases will be especially the biological mother, but need not be restricted to her). I say “exchanges” deliberately, for we know now that sometimes it is the caretaker(s) who takes the lead and sometimes it is the infant who takes the lead. In a classic study having to do with the intense looking at one another that is characteristic of these encounters, T. Berry Brazelton and his colleagues found that overtime the mother’s intense looking at the baby and looking away from the baby was tightly synchronized with the baby’s intense gaze at her and the baby’s looking away from her.24 Recent work on prosody of the mother’s voice and the inherent musical qualities of infant vocalizations, by Colwyn Trevarthen, shows a very similar pattern: baby and mother interact in a complex dance, with now one partner leading and now the other.25 It has to be emphasized again and again that these exchanges are independent of, and entirely prior to, the appearance of any linguistic ability in the infant. They are “spoken” in the language of emotion and communicated by facial expressions, tone, cadence and prosody of the voice, and gesture. Here is a recent summary of this view of early affective regulation:

Optimal attachment communications directly affect the maturation of (1) the central nervous system (CNS) limbic system that processes and regulates social-emotional stimuli and(2) the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that generates the somatic aspects of emotion. It is important to stress that a growth-facilitating emotional environment is required for a child to develop an internal system that can adaptively regulate arousal and other psychobiological states (and thereby affect, cognition, and behavior). The good-enough mother [or other primary caretaker] offers her securely attached infant access to her after a separation; she tends to respond appropriately and promptly to his/her emotional expressions. She also allows high levels of positive affect to be generated during co-shared play states.26

This entire process, which is extraordinarily rich and varied, goes on in the mutual life of the growing infant and his/her primary caretakers on a daily basis. Eventually, the growing infant is able to internalize a working model of the regulatory patterns provided for it originally by its caretakers, and around the end of the second year of life is able to affectively self-regulate.28 The entire process is mediated largely by the early maturing right hemisphere of the infant’s brain (this is one reason why maternal communications are given so often to the left ear of the infant while it is cradled in the mother’s left arm, for the left ear transmits its signals to the right hemisphere).29

As many readers of this journal will know, there has been a revolution in the philosophical treatment of the emotions in recent decades. The explosion of literature in this area is continuing. Many writers have gravitated towards the view that emotions themselves are cognitive in nature, where “cognitive” is to be understood in a fairly broad sense as information processing.30 This same philosophical literature has begun to intersect with contemporary brain sciences. The prospect before us is for the emergence of a very rich and scientifically realistic understanding of the nature of the emotions and their roles in human cognition and behavior. Of special importance here is the motivational power of the emotions.31 It is accepted widely that emotions are, in some sense, inherently motivational; they have the power to move us to action. It is arguable, given their regulatory history, that this inherent power is also subject to the vicissitudes of early development and especially of early-developing patterns of attachment.32 And here is the best candidate, in my view, for what closes the gap between dispositional states and their actualization in this or that situation.33 (Parallel arguments can be given for similarly affective but non-rational cognitive processes—that is, those not dependent on step-wise symbolically represented cognitive transitions—such as moods, attitudes, insights, and intuitions.) Evidence for this view is not hard to find.

In his seminal 2001 paper, Jon Haidt argues that there is a weak causal relationship between moral reasoning and moral behavior, but a strong causal relationship between moral emotions (as regulated) and moral behavior.34 This explains why it is that psychopaths, whose intelligence and general ability to reason is intact and may even be high-functioning, can behave with gross immorality; it is because their emotional expressiveness and responsiveness to their external environment is deficient. Similarly, patients with substantial damage to important portions of the prefrontal cortex tend to develop similar patterns of reactivity and behavior (so-called “acquired sociopathy”); here, too, intelligence and general rational abilities are intact but emotional capacities are compromised severely.35 But we can go further, for it is not just any emotions that play the key roles in this entire ontogenetic history of the individual moral agent. Guilt, sadness, shame and empathy are among the most powerful of the “moral emotions.” They also appear relatively early in human development, with shame typically being in evidence before the end of the first year of life, guilt by around thirty-six months of age, and empathy being foreshadowed by reflexive distress (roughly: the child’s distress at the distress of another, whether child or adult) at around one year of age but fully developed only between eighteen to twenty-four months.36 Of these, empathy is by far the most important, for without it the growing child is unlikely to develop a full set of pro-social behaviors. Indeed, the main deficit in psychopaths, acquired sociopathy and other severe forms of psychopathology, including autism, is diminished capacity for empathy.37 On the other hand, in the normally developing child, reflexive distress gives way to full-blown empathy, by around age two years, and with it a rich capacity for cooperative, pro-social behavior.38 It is not possible here to trace the many vicissitudes of such normal development (both in humans and in our closest primate relatives), but suffice it to say that normally empathy inhibits aggression and unlocks the developmental progression to fully functional moral agency: in sum, empathy leads normally to altruism.39

This is not, of course, to argue that there is no place in the moral development of human agents for moral reasoning. Haidt’s model of moral judgment, in particular, makes ample room for such processes (especially in those who are highly trained in them, like philosophers), while holding that most of the time we do not make use of those processes to arrive at our moral judgments. But it is to argue that early development is primarily affective in quality and not primarily dependent on moral reasoning abilities. Something similar continues to be the case through-out the human life-span; most of our moral decisions or judgments do not arise from symbolic, step-wise, effortful moral reasoning, but from the quick and effortless influence of emotions and other non-rational cognitive processes (to one of which I will return later). If this view of the ontogeny of human moral agency is roughly correct, what we also know is that the continued course of moral development into the adolescent years and beyond is unlikely to be heavily influenced mainly by reasoning processes. But it is reasoning, and especially reasoning about moral problems or issues, that the standard curriculum of higher education specializes in, not least in our courses in moral philosophy, whether theoretical or applied. This explains very well why it is that such curricular efforts to inform, enhance, or correct the moral formation of our students (or their analogues in the corporate world) have such little actual effect. Indeed, to the developmental eye, efforts to correct the grossly immoral behavior of corporate executives, for example, by running them through courses in business ethics, is a virtual waste of everyone’s time and energy.

But does this mean that higher education has no power to affect the moral formation of its members? That is not my argument. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case; higher educational institutions do have rich resources for engaging in effective moral formation of their members. The parameters of such genuinely effective formation, however, turn out to be rather surprising, once the phylogenetic and ontogenetic arguments are accepted. Before we get to that, however, a further feature of normal moral development needs to be taken into account: the role of culture.

The Cultural Formation Argument

Much of the ontogenetic story that was told earlier in this paper occurs automatically, such that no conscious acts of will or guidance are needed to control the processes involved. Rather, perceptual, affective, and other cognitive processes automatically go on within the developing agent and between the child and its primary caretakers. For a long time now, major schools of psychology have insisted that such automaticity is the norm rather than the exception in everyday life. John Bargh and his colleagues have argued steadily for some time that such automaticity extends to “higher” cognitive functions that govern even very complex social interactions, evaluations and judgments.40 Such automaticity also applies to the application of trait concepts and stereotypes, especially in ordinary moral judgments. To reject these findings would mean rejecting a very great deal of well-confirmed social scientific evidence, together with well-confirmed accounts of the functioning of the neurobiological substrata for these processes. A very recent study carried out by a team in Cambridge, England, gives especially vivid empirical support for such automaticity, especially for coding moral dimensions of narratives without requiring intense forms of effortful, step-wise and symbolically mediated reasoning.41 It appears, rather, that most of our ordinary moral judgments are reached by intuitive means, which are relatively effortless, do not require step-wise or symbolically mediated reasoning, and give every evidence, upon empirical investigation, of being automatic.

We can go further by specifying the sources of most of the intuitions that are accessed by these automatic processes. Haidt appeals to the notion of “custom complexes” for this purpose: “Cultural knowledge is a complex web of explicit and implicit, sensory and propositional, affective, cognitive, and motoric knowledge.”42 Such knowledge is mediated to growing children primarily through theirs ocial peer groups, and not through their parents.43 It is by means of these socialization processes, most influential in later childhood and adolescence, that long-term potentiated intuitions get “into” the child. Thus it is not surprising to discover that social learning makes use of some of the same neural circuits in the basal ganglia (regions of the brain stem, one of the most evolutionarily ancient parts of the brain) that are commonly used also for motoric learning (movement).44 It is not the case, of course, that automatic access to culturally mediated moral intuitions drives every moral judgment. Neither is it the case that we never make use of effortful, step-wise and symbolically mediated reasoning to solve moral problems. When “hot,” fast, relatively effortless intuitive processes do not deliver (or deliver contradictory results), we will make use of the slower, more effortful cognitive systems available to us. Similarly, the self-evident moral propositions that we derive from our enculturation can be augmented, corrected, extended, or extinguished, by those same cognitive systems. But most of the time we function the other way. The gains in speed and efficiency of decision making (even at some cost of accuracy) are considerable and clearly adaptive for such complexly and comprehensively social animals as ourselves.

Moral intuitions are indeed subject to change. Haidt argues that the most effective way to change them is to immerse the moral agent in an alternative custom complex. That is, one must find a social setting which operates according to a different set of moral intuitions (or perhaps a different pattern of their expression) and thus generates an alternative form of socialization. This is one of the great benefits of living in a country that one is not native to, especially for long periods of time. This is also one of the potential benefits of finding new peer groups, especially during the sensitive periods of late childhood and adolescence.45 One needs a new source of implicit knowledge, in particular, including motoric knowledge, patterns of social interaction, patterns of affect regulation, and the like. For similar reasons, once we adopt new moral intuitions, almost invariably we seek out new social partners and networks. In sum, one needs a counter-culture if one is at all likely to alter the fundamental psychological roots of the great mass of our moral life. Mutatis mutandis, and ceteris paribus, effective formation of character may also demand immersion in a “total environment” that is shaped by particular different moral intuitions. Such reformation of character is possible in the setting of higher education. But the parameters for such reformation are severe and the costs can be very great.

Concluding Dilemma

Already I have introduced reasons for thinking that much “character-education” is a case of “too little, too late.” The evolutionary history of human morality cannot be re-done as if it were an experimental procedure. And the basic dynamics of individual moral development, as well as the underlying maturational processes affecting the brain and central nervous system, are such that most of our students come to us already fully formed. Further, if my cultural argument is correct, then the reformation of moral agency is unlikely to be effected by the typically verbal and propositional character of most curricular representations in higher education. We are not going to be able merely to talk our students into better moral fitness. It remains the case that colleges and universities could conceive of themselves as alternative custom complexes seeking to immerse their students in a total environment that mediates to them—by a wide range of implicit and explicit learning processes—an alternative set of moral intuitions that could, over time, replace previously existing intuitions that have hither to played the leading formative role in their moral lives. Indeed, if the social scientific and neuroscientific literature reviewed above is even approximately correct, then anything less than such an environment is most unlikely to have any serious impact on the moral formation of our students. But suppose colleges and universities did conceive of themselves as such alternative custom complexes and did attempt to engage in an ontogenetically and phylogenetically realistic moral pedagogy. What would be the upshot?

Once he had worked out major features of his own theory of the moral development of children, Lawrence Kohlberg headed up a movement to start what came to be known as the “just community school” in Cambridge, Massachusetts.46 The school was marked by a serious commitment to democratic egalitarianism. Participatory democracy became the norm for both teachers and students, with both having equal rights and equal input into the governance of the school. An emphasis was placed on conflict resolution through considerations of fairness and justice. Moral discussion took pride of place in the curriculum. In sum, a serious and sustained effort was made to build into the implicit and explicit learning processes ofthe social environment of the school the basic commitments that Kohlberg took to be characteristic of the highest level of moral development in his theory. Unfortunately, there seems to be no hard data on whether Kohlberg’s school was successful or not, and no evidence as to whether it was ever replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless, I take the experiment to be very suggestive.47 Colleges and universities could work out a network of patterns of social interaction, methods of governance, participation in guiding one’s own learning (on the part of both students and teachers), and so on, with a view to becoming the alternative custom complex needed to make real change of character possible. However, the costs of such an enterprise could be very high.

First, and perhaps foremost, such an institution of higher learning would have to already have a defensible and elaborate critical understanding of the dominant culture in which it exists. It would have to be able to establish a critical distance between itself and its own methods, structures, mores, values, and purposes, and those of the dominant culture from which its students are drawn. The risk here is that the culture would respond by withdrawing its support for the institution. This could extend readily to donors withdrawing their financial support from the institution. Regulatory agencies and accrediting bodies also have to be satisfied if degree-granting powers are to be retained and exercised lawfully. Negotiating a modus vivendi with the dominant culture and its own bureaucratic and other institutional norms would be essential but deeply problematic. Such an institution would also risk sustained opprobrium in the social networks and media of the dominant surrounding culture. It might well be that such an undertaking could only be practical for the exceptionally well-endowed institution that could afford to be relatively detached and even aloof from its cultural moorings. An alternative strategy would be to try to become relatively independent of that culture by practicing self-sufficiency. Perhaps all the work done on campus could be done by the students and the faculty working together. Perhaps the college could produce most of its own food. Perhaps it could become energy efficient and go off the grid by suitable adaptation of existing technologies.48 It is difficult to tell whether these costs and risks could be navigated successfully. The chance of failure would seem to be very high.

The alternative, however, carries with it costs and risks of its own. I take it that the alternative is for institutions who understand themselves as engaged in character education not to offer their members an alternative custom complex, thereby defaulting to the custom complex of the dominant pre-existing culture. Similarly, traditional curricular devices (chiefly linguistically and propositionally mediated communications, emphasis on symbolically mediated reasoning, and so on) would be the norm. Little or no attempt would be made to engage processes of implicitand/or motoric learning. Governance, architecture, student services, and methods of instruction would remain much as they are in most colleges and universities today. The risk here is simply that we end up demonstrating that the college is not willing to engage in a morally serious pedagogy, and that its stated commitment to such pedagogy is really just lip-service. Indeed, the implicit message of such an institutional ethos would be this: We, too, do not really believe in what we are espousing. Such institutions will face little hostility from the surrounding dominant culture, but will undermine decisively their own stated mission and present themselves to their (critically minded) students and other constituents as profoundly fraudulent.

I take it that this is the fundamental dilemma that faces colleges and universities who claim to engage in character-education. Upon the manner in which the dilemma is resolved by individual institutions (or networks of related institutions; for example, the whole set of Jesuit colleges and universities in North America, or those evangelical Protestant institutions belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the CCCU) depends upon the ultimate fate of the character of those very institutions.49

Cite this article
Richard T. McClelland, “Moral Education: Too Little, Too Late?”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 439-455


  1. For discussion of similar material from later chapters of Proverbs, see B. Waltke, The Book ofProverbs Chapters 15-31 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 203-206. And for the book as a whole, see K. Dell, The Book of Proverbs in Social and Theological Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18-50.
  2. See G. Marsden and B. Longfield, eds., The Secularization of the American Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and G. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press,1996).
  3. A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), ch. 15; and A. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), passim.
  4. The power of service learning to effect changes in the basic values and moral orientation ofstudents should not be underestimated, but cannot be pursued here. See D. Lapsley and D.Narvaez, “Character Education,” in Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. IV, eds. A. Renningerand I. Siegel (New York: Wiley, 2006), 275-276.
  5. A. MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Humans Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 58. For a deep metaphysical framework concerning the relation between causal powers and natural kinds, see B. Ellis, Scientific Essentialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); for a broadly “property” theory of causation see R. McClelland and R.Deltete, “Divine Causation,” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 3-25.
  6. A. Fiske, “Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations,” Psychological Review 99 (1992): 689-723.
  7. F. de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univer-sity Press, 2007); F. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); F. de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); F. de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Random House, 2009).
  8. D. Narvaez, “Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of our Multiple Moralities,” New Ideas in Psychology 26 (2008): 95-119; D. Narvaez, “Triune Ethics Theory and Moral Personality,” in Personality, Identity and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology, eds. D. Narvaezand D. Lapsley (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 136-158.
  9. P. MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleo cerebral Functions (New York: Springer,1990).
  10. J. Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814-834; J. Haidt and C. Joseph, “The Moral Mind: How Five Sets of Innate Intuitions Guide the Development of Many Culture-Specific Virtues, and Perhaps Even Modules,” in The Innate Mind, Vol. 3: Foundations and the Future, eds. P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, and S. Stich (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 367-392.
  11. Genetic information is not a simply deterministic “code” fixing these matters apart from the complex interaction of genes with environment. See S. Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); and S.Oyama, P. Griffiths, and R. Gray, eds., Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  12. This is not to deny that human culture itself may be a force in human evolution. See R. Boyd and P. Richerson, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) and K. Laland, et al., “How Culture Shaped the Human Genome: Bringing Genetics and the Human Sciences Together,” Nature Reviews Genetics 11 (2010): 137-148. Even so, such effects occur over timespans vastly larger than normal curricular processes.
  13. Lapsley and Narvaez, “Character Education,” 250.
  14. See W. Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) for an attractive solution to the mind-body problem along these lines. However, emergentist theories of mind face substantial problems of their own. C. McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999) may well be justified in doubting that humans have the capacity to solve this problem at all.
  15. A. Toga, P. Thompson, and E. Sowell, “Mapping Brain Maturation,” Trends in Neurosciences 29 (2006): 148-159; N. Gotay, et al., “Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development During Childhood Through Early Adulthood,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (2004): 8174-8179; E. Sowell, et al., “Mapping Cortical Changes Across the Human LifeSpan,” Nature Neuroscience 6 (2003): 309-315; C. Tamnes, et al., “Brain Maturation in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Regional Age-Related Changes in Cortical Thickness and White Matter Volume and Microstructure,” Cerebral Cortex 20 (2010): 534-548.
  16. See D. Stuss and M. Alexander, “Is There a Dysexecutive Syndrome?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B 362 (2007): 901-915 for a general review of executive functions in the frontal lobes.
  17. P. Huttenlocher, “Synaptic Density in Human Frontal Cortex—Developmental Changesand Effects of Aging,” Brain Research 163 (1979): 195-205; P. Huttenlocher and C. de Courtan, “The Development of Synapses in Striate Cortex in Man,” Human Neurobiology 6 (1987): 1-9.
  18. G. Kochanska, et al., “Inhibitory Control in Young Children and its Role in Emerging Internalization,” Child Development 67 (1995): 490-507.
  19. R. Knickmeyer, et al., “A Structural MRI Study of Human Brain Development from Birth to 2 Years,” The Journal of Neuroscience 28 (2008): 12176-12182. The same study shows that TBV increases 101% in the first year, but only 15% in the second year; that volume of the cortical hemispheres increases 88% in the first year of life, but only 15% in the second year; that volume of subcortical regions increases 130% in the first year and only 14% in the second year. The growth curves are virtually flat from two years onward.
  20. Most college and university students, of course, are pre-selected to be high-achievers with respect to executive functions (especially delayed gratification, planning, affective regulation, and impulse control), relative to the general population of late-adolescents and early-adults.
  21. G. Harman, “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99 (1999): 315-331; G. Harman, “No Character or Personality,” Business Ethics Quarterly 13 (2003): 87-94; J. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  22. See the replies in R. Kamtekar, “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character,” Ethics 114 (2004): 458-491; J. Kupperman, “The Indispensability of Character,” Philosophy 76 (2001): 239-250; L. Besser-Jones, “Social Psychology, Moral Character, and Moral Fallibility,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 76 (2008): 310-332. For a different take on Milgram’s original experiments, see M. Nissani, “A Cognitive Reinterpretation of StanleyMilgram’s Observations on Obedience to Authority,” American Psychologist 45 (1990): 1384-1385. And for a recent transformation of Milgram’s original methods, see M. Slater et al., “A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments,” PLoS One (2006): 1-10.
  23. The literature is now very large, but foundational are A. Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum,1994); P. Fonagy, G. Gergely, E. Jurist and M. Target, Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self (New York: Other Press, 2002); P. Hobson, The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); and J. Gross, ed., Handbook of Emotion Regulation (New York: Guilford Press, 2007). For the neurobiology of theself, see G. Northoff and J. Panksepp, “The Trans-Species Concept of Self and the Subcortical-Cortical Midline System,” Trends in Cognitive Science 12 (2008): 259-264; and G. Northoff,F. Schneider, et al., “Differential Parametric Modulation of Self-Relatedness and Emotions inDifferent Brain Regions,” Human Brain Mapping 30 (2009): 369-382. For a biologically realistic model for the self, see T. Feinberg, “Neural Hierarchies and the Self,” in: T. Feinberg and J.Keenan, eds., The Lost Self: Pathologies of the Brain and Identity (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 2005), 33-49. I have pursued some of these issues in “Normal Narcissism and Its Pleasures,” Journal of Mind and Behavior (forthcoming).
  24. Reproduced in J. Weil, Early Deprivation of Empathic Care (Madison, CT: International Universities, 1992), 21; and I. Kumin, Pre-Object Relatedness: Early Attachment and the Psychoanalytic Situation (New York: Guilford, 1996).
  25. C. Trevarthen, Untitled paper presented to conference on joint attention, Bentley University, Waltham, MA, October 1, 2009; cf. S. Malloch and C. Trevarthen, eds., Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis for Human Companionship (New York: Oxford University Press,2009); and C. Trevarthen, “Harmony in Meaning: How Infants Use Their Innate Musicalityto Find Companions in Culture” (Paper presented to a symposium on music and universa lharmony, University of Crete, 10-11 March, 2006).
  26. A. Schore, “Attachment Trauma and the Developing Right Brain: Origins of PathologicalDissociation,” in Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond, eds. P. Delland J. O’Neil (New York: Routledge, 2009), 110.
  27. “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)… All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” L. Vygotsky, Mind in Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1978), 57.[/efn_nte] Such success is the mark of a securely attached child, one who will throughout his or her life have a sense of a “secure base” from which to explore the world in all its grandeur and complexity.27J. Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (London:Routledge, 1988). For a general survey of attachment theory, including the vital contributions of Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main, see R. Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  28. C. Chiron, et al., “The Right Brain Hemisphere is Dominant in Human Infants,” Brain 120(1997): 1057-1065; and for discussion, see Schore, “Attachment Trauma,” 110.
  29. This literature, also, is much too large to encompass here. I follow A. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam, 1994); R. Roberts, Emotions:An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); J. Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), among many others in the same “cognitivist” tradition.
  30. See Roberts, Emotions, 157-170; and B. Helm, Emotional Reason: Deliberation, Motivation, and the Nature of Value (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 161-198; R. Lazarus, Emo-tion and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 92-104.
  31. Debates about externalism and internalism, in this area, then, might be resolved best in terms of “a little of both.”
  32. An anonymous reader suggests that perhaps a combination of libertarian free will and neural plasticity might also do the job. This may well be, but as that reader admits, affective regulatory structures and processes probably will still be needed. The whole issue of free will is much too large to pursue here. For recent surveys of the problem, see J. Fischer, R. Kane, D.Pereboom, and M. Vargas, Four Views of Free Will (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007); R. Kane,A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005; and D.Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1984).
  33. 4Haidt, “Emotional Dog,” 823-824.
  34. On acquired sociopathy, see Damasio, Descartes’ Error, passim; Schore, Origin of the Self, 353;for a comprehensive review of psychopathy, see J. Blair, D. Mitchell, and K. Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and C. Patrick, ed., Hand-book of Psychopathy (New York: Guilford, 2007).
  35. On the regulation of shame and its role in moral development, see especially Schore, Origin of the Self, chapters 27-28; D. Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self (NewYork: Norton, 1992); and P. Gilbert and B. Andrews, eds., Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Cf. also N. Eisenberg, “Emotion, Regulation, and Moral Development,” Annual Review of Psychology 51 (2000): 665-697.
  36. For autism, see P. Hobson, Autism and the Development of Mind (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum,1995); M. Lombardo, et al., “Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism,” PLoS One 9(2007); J. Hobson, et al., “Anticipatory Concern: a Study in Autism,” Developmental Science 12(2009): 249-263; for both autism and personality disorders (notably Borderline Personality Disorder), see J. Decety and Y. Moriguchi, “The Empathic Brain and its Dysfunction in Psychiatric Populations: Implications for Intervention Across Different Clinical Conditions,”BioPsychoSocial Medicine 1 (2007): 1-22; for alexithymia, see G. Taylor, M. Bagby, and J. Parker, Disorders of Affect Regulation: Alexithymia in Medical and Psychiatric Illness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and H. Guttman and L. LaPorte, “Alexithymia, Empathy, andPsychological Symptoms in a Family Context,” Comprehensive Psychiatry 43 (2002); 448-455. An attractive account of the underlying neurobiology of empathy is provided by J. Decety and P. Jackson, “The Functional Architecture of Human Empathy,” Behaviorial and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews 3 (2004): 71-100; see also Decety and Jackson, “A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on Empathy,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 (2006): 54-58.
  37. U. Liszkowski, M. Carpenter, and M. Tomasello, “Twelve-Month-Olds Communicate Helpfully and Appropriately for Knowledgeable and Ignorant Partners,” Cognition 108 (2008):732-739; A. Vaish, M. Carpenter, and M. Tomasello, “Sympathy Through Affective Perspective Taking and its Relation to Prosocial Behavior in Toddlers,” Developmental Psychology 45(2009): 534-543; H. Moll and M. Tomasello, “Cooperation and Human Cognition: The Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B362 (2007): 639-648; W. Roberts and J. Strayer, “Empathy, Emotional Expressiveness, and Prosocial Behavior,” Child Development 67 (1996): 449-470. A comprehensive discussion is in M. Tomasello, Why We Cooperate (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009).
  38. It may be objected that empathy is, strictly speaking, neither necessary nor sufficient for altruism. I do not make either claim. But the connection between empathic ability and altruistic behavior is very deep and belongs to our mammalian evolutionary heritage; see F. deWaal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Crown PublishingGroup, 2009) for this important adjunct to the continuity hypothesis.
  39. J. Bargh and M. Ferguson, “Beyond Behaviorism: On the Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes,” Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000): 925-945; J. Bargh and T. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54 (1999): 462-479; J. Bargh, M. Chen,and L. Burrows, “Automaticity and Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construction and Stereotype Activation on Action,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 230-244. For some useful philosophical analysis, see D. Wegner, “An Analysis of Automatism,” in The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 99-144.
  40. F. Murphy, G. Wilde, et al., “Assessing the Atomaticity of Moral Processing: Efficient Coding of Moral Information During Narrative Comprehension,” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 62 (2009): 41-49.
  41. Haidt, “Emotional Dog,” 827.
  42. J. Harris, “Where Is the Child’s Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development,” Psychological Review 102 (1995): 458-489.
  43. M. Lieberman, “Intuition: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Approach,” Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000): 109-137. Cf. J. Woodward and J. Allman, “Moral Intuition: Its Neural Substrates and Normative Significance,” Journal of Physiology-Paris 101 (2007): 179-202. For therole of the brain stem in early infant development see R. Geva and R. Feldman, “A Neurobiological Model for the Effects of Early Brainstem Functioning on the Development of Behavior and Emotion Regulation in Infants: Implications for Prenatal and Perinatal Risk,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 49 (2008): 1031-1041.
  44. Not all new social settings will promote positive moral growth and development, of course. Some will have quite the opposite effect. Where moral progress is possible, so is moral regress.
  45. L. Kohlberg, “The Just Community School: The Theory and the Cambridge Cluster SchoolExperiment,” in Collected Papers from the Center for Moral Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 1-77. See also the discussion of “caring school communities” in Lapsleyand Narvaez, “Character Education,” 272-275.
  46. For similar ideas, see I. Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper Collins, 1989) and P.Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum Books, 2000).
  47. My own American undergraduate college, Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, in its early years, called regularly on students for uncompensated labor to maintain buildings and grounds. Berea College, in Kentucky, charges no tuition but requires students to work regularly in college facilities, grounds, kitchens, and the like. Deep Springs College, near BigPine, California, places considerable emphasis on student labor, egalitarianism and self-governance (of the college, that is) and also charges no tuition (but only has 26 students at anyone time). I thank an anonymous reviewer of this paper for calling my attention to the Deep Springs example.
  48. Many members of the CCCU, in particular, understand themselves as pursuing the first of the two strategies outlined here, but without suffering the consequences I suggest for it. I am not convinced that these institutions succeed in establishing a sufficient critical distance from the dominant culture in which they are embedded. However, defense of this claim would go well beyond the bounds of the present essay. In the interests of full disclosure I acknowledge that I taught in a member institution of the CCCU from 1985 to 1992.

Richard T. McClelland

Richard T. McClelland is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gonzaga University.