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AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION: INTRODUCTION

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GUEST  BLOGGER  Heidi  M. Ravven

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An important new book, The self beyond itself, critiques Western ethics. American Jewish philosopher Heidi Ravven argues that medieval Christianity “went wrong” by adopting the punitive notion of moral Behavior as DECISIONS based on the “free will” of autonomous individuals. Ravven returns to the more positive ancient Greek view of moral Character as the cultivation of good moral HABITS based on the place of the Self in society and nature.

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SERIES 

This Post introduces a Series on AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION – attempts to teach “values,” mostly in American public schools. This topic may interest Chinese as China attempts to strengthen its own moral education.  

The Series will come from the first chapter of a new book on Western ethics, a chapter on American moral education. This Post introduces the Book and its Author, Argument, and Problematique. Subsequent Posts will provide the first Chapter itself. 

Overall, a main point is that recent American approaches to moral education, despite thinking they are returning to Greek “virtue ethics,” misinterpret the Greek notion of Character, making it into a matter of individual DECISIONS instead of social HABITS. 

Another main point is that this individualist-volitional account of moral agency PERSONALIZES and DEPOLITICIZES moral discourse, blaming individuals for misbehavior and social ills while diverting attention from societal issues of power and justice.  

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BOOK

AUTHOR

ARGUMENT

PROBLEMATIQUE

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                          AMERICAN  MORAL  EDUCATION:  INTRODUCTION

                                       About Heidi Ravven 2013 The self beyond itself.

 

BOOK:  WESTERN  MORAL  PHILOSOPHY

 

Current American public culture, both conservative and liberal, assumes an ethic of individual responsibility. People are supposed to know right from wrong and, on the basis of their own “free will,” make DECISIONS to act rightly, almost regardless of circumstances. That distinctive American moral culture derives from the rest of Western Christianity, particularly historical American Protestantism. An important new book – The self beyond itself, by American Jewish philosopher Heidi Ravven – critiques the entire Latin Christian ethical tradition. Ravven bases her critique on both historical-philosphical and modern-scientific grounds.

 

Historically, Ravven argues that Western Christianity  “went wrong” in Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages when it adopted and enforced the punitive notion of “free will.” Ravven advocates instead a return to the more positive ancient Greek view of moral character as the cultivation of good moral HABITS through striving to understand the place of the Self in society and nature. Individuals are strongly embedded in society, and society is responsible for fostering natural “human flourishing.” That ancient tradition was last advanced in the 1600s by the Dutch Jewish philosopher Spinoza, whose insights into the natural emotional component of healthy human functioning have been largely ignored by rationalistic Westerners.

 

Scientifically, there is now increasing evidence that Aristotle and Spinoza “got it right.” Studies of animals suggest that “normativity” evolved naturally as part of society. Studies of human infants suggest that, from the beginning, they are highly social. Studies of the determinants of  moral or immoral behavior show that social context matters more than individual character or “will.” Above all, recent studies of the human brain reveal that the human “self” relies heavily for its identity and functioning both on non-conscious habits and on a supportive society. Ravven argues that rationalistic “free will” is a distinctively Christian cultural myth. Nevertheless, individuals still strongly identify with their own actions and can assume responsibility for them.

 

Ravven, a Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Central New York, is a leading proponent of empirically-based ethics. In this book, she writes accessibly for the general reader, covering a huge range of topics in plain English and with a light touch. Chinese should benefit both from her revealing Christian assumptions that underlie Western “modernity” and from her explaining the relevance to philosophy and politics of natural and social science. Chinese may wish to compare Western emphasis on individualism with Chinese recognition of sociality. Chinese may even be provoked to reconsider Chinese approaches to moral education, historical and current.

 

AUTHOR:  TOWARD  EMPIRICAL  ETHICS

 

Heidi M. Ravven (born 1952) is a neurophilosopher and specialist on the philosophy of the seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. She was the first to argue that Spinoza's moral philosophy is a systems theory of ethics. Ravven was also the first philosopher to propose that Spinoza anticipated central discoveries in the neuroscience of the emotions. Ravven has published widely on Spinoza's philosophic thought, on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, on G.W.F. Hegel and feminism, and on Jewish ethics and Jewish feminism.

 

In 2004 Ravven received an unsolicited $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a book rethinking ethics. That book, The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will was published by The New Press in May 2013. It is an extended and multidisciplinary inquiry into MORAL AGENCY: why we are moral, why and when we are not, and how to get people to be more moral. Ravven concludes with her own theory of moral agency inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, which she updates to reflect contemporary understandings of how the brain/mind works in moral thinking and action. The book is accessibly written for a generally educated audience rather than just for specialists.

 

Heidi Ravven is Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College where she has taught Jewish Studies since 1983. She holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1984), she attended Smith College, and is a 1970 graduate of the Commonwealth School, Boston. Ravven is a founding member of the Society for Empirical Ethics, an organization devoted to promoting dialogue among philosophers, neurobiologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other social and natural scientists about ethics. She has been active in the Academy for Jewish Philosophy, the International Neuroethics Society, the North American Spinoza Society, and is a member of the American Philosophical Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, and the Society for Jewish Ethics.

 

Heidi Ravven has written extensively on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. Her articles appear in a number of journals and several have been republished in anthologies. Ravven believes that Spinoza’s philosophy is the best starting point for trying to integrate the evidence emerging from the new brain sciences into a viable model of the basic moral brain, the optimal route to its development, and the implications of such a view for how social, legal, political, and other institutions and practices might to be redesigned. Ravven is now engaged in writing a book accessible to a generally educated audience on the relevance of Spinoza, called The Return of Spinoza.  (For further Reading, see the Wikipedia article on Ravven, from which the sections here on Author and Argument are excepted.)

 

ARGUMENT:  FREE  WILL  AS  CULTURAL  CONSTRUCT

 

In The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will  Heidi Ravven challenges the idea of free will. Attributing free will to human beings means that human beings have the capacity to rise above both nature and nurture and even current situation to be good people and choose to act ethically. This capacity to choose our actions—to rise above our genetic inheritance whatever it might be, above our upbringing no matter how terrible it was, and above our present situation despite its social pressures—is what is meant by “free will.” We do moral acts for moral reasons, for no other fully determining reasons, and out of no other fully determining causes—such as brain modules, group pressures, or upbringing. And that is why we can be held morally responsible.

 

Ravven argues that this view is false and also that it is a cultural belief particular to the Western world. She traces the belief in free will to a theological myth and notion of human nature, and exposes the origins of the idea of free will in the Christian theology of the Latin West originating in the Church Father St. Augustine. She describes how that theology became secularized so that many today are unaware than free will presupposes a human person beyond nature and environment who can intervene as if from above (like an all-powerful God).

 

Ravven turns to search the new brain sciences to discover new ways that moral agency could be rethought without free will. She concludes that there are three factors that together determine action: nature (biology, etc.), nurture (biography, history, culture, language (etc.), and present situation (social belonging and its demands, incentives, and disincentives, and the like). So the most effective way of changing individual behavior is to intervene in social and cultural and familial systems at every scale. Promoting and bolstering diversity and whistle blowing within all these systems is vital to combating the tendencies to Groupthink that human nature makes us all too prone to. For we are social and contextual beings--our brains have evolved that way. Nevertheless, as Spinoza anticipated, an arduous path of the education of desire can lead to independence of mind from the tyranny of the immediate local world for those who undertake it. We can learn to be good even if we cannot freely choose to be good.

 

PROBLEMATIQUE:  HUMAN  MORAL  NATURE  [Introduction to Chapter One]

 

Why are some people ethical and others unethical? How do people become ethical or unethical? Do people sometimes act in ethical ways and at other times act in quite unethical ways? How can that happen? Are there situations and times when people tend to act in ethical ways and other times when they tend to act unethically? How can we get people to be more ethical and more consistently ethical? How can we get ourselves to be better people and act more ethically more of the time? These are the questions I address in this book. Philosophers refer to these questions and related ones as the problem of “moral agency.” This book is about moral agency. I look at the problem of moral agency—how we become moral (and immoral) and why we act morally and immorally—from many different perspectives. I circle around it, exploring different ways of thinking and rethinking what our experience of being ethical is all about—especially where our ethical capacity comes from, how it develops, and finally how to strengthen it and put it to best use.

 

One fairly popular idea among some scientists and philosophers looking to discover where our moral sense comes from is to search for an ethical module in the human brain. These brain scientists set out to discover and locate a special innate ethical capacity in the brain. They conjecture that some of us inherit a more effective ethical brain than others—that is, some of us are born with a strong moral brain capacity and others with a weak one. Other scientists and philosophers conjecture that perhaps some of us use and develop our ethical capacity better than others. These folks ask what certain people do to become better at being ethical than others. So some scientists and philosophers regard the variation as primarily between individuals because of an innate difference, while others chalk up the difference to how people are brought up. Still others raise the question of the effects upon moral agency of present context and situation, proposing that our moral capacity may be more about context and group behavior than about individuals.

 

The most common assumptions in the United States and the West more generally about the human moral capacity differ from the innate moral module view (nature) and also from the individual or social training view (nurture) just outlined. The view most prevalent among people all around us (and also nearly universally held by philosophers till very recently) is that we have free will. The free will view goes like this: we might have a brain that has certain biological tendencies toward good or bad, and we might have a biography replete with all kinds of terrible moral models and have suffered painful and harsh conditions and even abuse, and we might be in fairly coercive political and social situations and institutions, yet we all know what doing the right thing is, and we can and ought to do the right thing no matter what. We can rise above both our nature and our nurture and even our situation to be good people and choose to act ethically. This capacity to choose our actions—to rise above our genetic inheritance whatever it might be, above our upbringing no matter how terrible it was, and above our present situation despite its social pressures—is what we mean by “free will.” On this account, we are all capable of being good, and we are all equally capable of it because we are all human. Being human means that we can freely choose the good over the bad no matter what hand nature or nurture has dealt us. The choice is completely our own. Our actions have no other origin, no other ultimate causes, than ourselves as free agents. Even if we are somewhat shaped by our hardships, by our luck, or even by our brains, nevertheless we still have a sacrosanct core of free will that we can use to rise above all of that and be moral beings. We do moral acts for moral reasons, for no other reasons, and out of no other fully determining causes—such as brain modules, group pressures, or upbringing. And that is why we can be and ought to be held morally responsible for what we do and for what we fail to do. This free will story, about how and why we are moral and also at times fail to be moral, is everywhere around us. It probably seems and feels absolutely obvious and obviously true as you read my account of it here. But the evidence from the new brain sciences is amassing that the free will account of the nature and origin of our ethical capacity, of our moral agency, is in fact false, or at least highly unlikely; at best it may work that way in some rare individuals, who are probably philosophers.

 

In this book I argue that it is not obvious that human beings have free will, as we like to believe, in the way that it is obvious that we have hands and feet and noses; instead, free will is a cultural assumption. And it is an assumption that turns out to be false. I make the case that, rather than serving as a description of human beings in general, free will is a particularly American and Western way of conceiving human nature. Even though it feels natural to us, the belief in free will is actually conventional and provincial. While we generally believe that this way of thinking about our moral nature is universally human, an account of human nature—everyone knows that we have “free will,” that all human beings experience this inner freedom and lay their claim to moral virtue or sin and to the right to praise or blame upon the basis of that freedom—it turns out that most other cultures have no notion of free will. They base their understandings of human moral nature on different cultural assumptions. They conceive both human nature and the human place in the universe quite differently from the way we do. The belief in free will is actually part of a larger story, a story we take for granted or have even forgotten. Other cultures have different stories. We are as culturally provincial as they are, for ours is just one way among many of thinking about the human moral capacity and human nature generally. One of the aims of this book is to expose the free will account of moral agency as a mere cultural assumption and inheritance. I argue that when we interpret our moral agency in terms of having freedom of the will, we are not discovering in our inner experience of ourselves something all human beings share, but instead are discovering cultural assumptions that deeply and implicitly shape the ways we envision our place in the universe. The notion of free will is based on a theological story whose religious origin and meaning we often tend to be unaware of and which some of us even explicitly reject. Nonetheless, the standard Western theological vision of the human place in the universe still has an implicit and quite pervasive hold over us. The belief in free will, I recount at considerable length in Chapter Four, has a unique history that more or less began at one time—in early Latin Christianity—and was widely disseminated through authoritative thinkers who worked to make it sacrosanct and to delegitimize and even outlaw other points of view advocated by other individuals and groups. The presupposition of free will has been embodied in our institutions, practices, and laws and transmitted for hundreds of years by systems of education. These practices and institutions, with their implicit notion of human moral agency, still govern our lives to a great extent in the West and especially in the United States. And that is why they feel natural and universal when they are really, instead, the products of a particular cultural point of view and hence peculiar to ourselves.

 

Once we have uncovered our own standard and ubiquitous cultural presuppositions about our moral capacity, we can begin to discover where they come from. We can also question their validity by looking at the new brain sciences to see if they are borne out. And we can turn to explore other ideas from other cultures to open our minds to different ways of thinking about why people act ethically and why they don’t, and why and when they think they can hold both themselves and others morally responsible. Can we learn anything from other cultures? How can we revise our own cultural conception of moral agency to reflect new and better understandings of how the brain works? Our first aim here, in this chapter, is to expose our deep presuppositions about how and why we come to act ethically and unethically. Then in the next chapter we shall turn to test cases, those of perpetrators and rescuers in the Nazi Holocaust, to determine whether the standard assumptions we hold about free will moral agency can explain either the evil of the perpetrators, the virtue of the rescuers, or the passivity of the bystanders.

 

In order to tease out our standard beliefs about moral agency, I begin, in this first chapter, with an investigation of moral education in America from colonial times to the present. I chose this starting point for my research on moral agency because I thought that how we as a society teach our children to be moral will expose our basic assumptions about our moral capacity, how we generally believe we can get our kids to become good people. Here we have our own cultural answer to Socrates’s famous question in the Meno: can virtue be taught? Americans have always believed that virtue can be taught, and taught in school as well as in church and at home in the family. I discovered that from our early beginnings to today, the ubiquitous assumption is that our moral capacity rests on free will, albeit a free will that needs some training in the classroom and in the home. I began with the present. The widespread introduction of (moral) character education into public schools since the 1980s makes it the predominant contemporary form in which children are instructed in ethics in the United States. I met with several of the leading proponents of the movement; I read lots of the books and articles pertaining to this movement; and, with the help of professional advice, I selected several elementary, middle, and high schools to go to so that I could observe their programs in character education. What I discovered was fascinating.

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GUEST  BLOGGER

Heidi M. Ravven is a Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Central New York. She is a leading proponent of basing ethical philosophy on empirical studies of how human beings actually function, particularly as revealed by current neuroscience.

Ravven has published widely on Jewish philosphers Spinoza and Maimonides and on Jewish ethics and Jewish feminism. Ravven’s 2013 book The Self Beyond Itself explores Moral Agency: why we are moral, why and when we are not, and how to get people to be more moral. 

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