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AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION: PHILOSOPHICAL ANALYSIS

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GUEST BLOGGER Heidi M. Ravven

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The more liberal the model of moral education in a given school, the more likely it is to emphasize social service rather than the acquisition of individual character virtues. Nevertheless, the theoretical underpinnings of that aspect of character education are largely absent or unacknowledged, and such programs of social service continue to appear within a discourse of the training of individual moral character and will in the virtues. Historically, social structural interventions focusing on the group and the community have been seen only rarely, such as in the progressive movement in education in the mid-twentieth century.

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SERIES

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

American approaches to moral education are reported in the first Chapter of an important new book critiquing Western ethics. This Series has provided the successive sections of that Chapter. This Post concludes with PHILOSOPHICAL background and critique.

Overall a main point is that recent approaches, despite thinking they are returning to Greek “virtue ethics,” misinterpret the Greek notion of character, making it into a matter of individual DECISIONS, not 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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INTRODUCTION

ARISTOTLE VERSUS KANT

PERSON AND CONTEXT

CONCLUSION

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AMERICAN MORAL EDUCATION: PHILOSOPHICAL ANALYSIS

From Heidi Ravven 2013 The self beyond itself., 41-51.

[For Notes, please consult the original printed book, where they are numbered differently. Here section Headings have been added or shortened.]

INTRODUCTION

From the beginning, moral education in America has taken an individualist free will and personal commitment perspective, emerging from the memorization of, recital of, and commitment to the Christian catechism. That Protestant model of moral education has been the bedrock to which all other experiments have eventually returned. It was everywhere in the schools and classrooms I visited, it was evident in the moral educators I talked with, and it still dominates current popular books on the subject. The central model buried deep in the American psyche revolves around individual moral choice: using one’s free will to act in conformity with principles and virtues. Even if we consider liberal models of moral education since the 1960s (values clarification, Kohlbergian cognitive moral developmentalism, and Gilligan’s caring alternative to Kohlberg), we still find that, like character education, the focus is on individual choices and decision making. All four models seem to presuppose that social problems are moral problems and are due to aggregates of bad individual choices and personal decisions. As a result, social problems are to be attacked and remedied by changing personal decision-making processes, and hence individuals’ choices. The set of shared assumptions about what it means to be moral, how a moral person develops, why a moral person acts morally, and how moral weakness can be changed to moral goodness and strength share implicit presuppositions about how social problems arise and can be remedied. In the American context, the term character points to individual morality and behavior driven by personal free choices and decisions. Insofar as social problems are seen as signaling the failure of what is variously termed character, caring, or rational choice, they are chalked up to failures of personal will, the remedy for which involves changing that will, person by person.

Both standard character education and its seeming opposite, the ethic of caring, use stories to sway individuals’ emotions—although the stories in character education are focused on illustrating and inculcating various virtues, while the focus in the ethic of caring is to illustrate and recommend cases of caring behavior. In both, however, the final stage is presented as making the right decision. Children are instructed to make a choice according to a learned and adopted value or principle illustrated in the story. From that choice or decision a moral commitment and obligation emerge. While both character and caring moral education involve both emotions and thinking, Kohlbergian moral education is strictly cognitivist or about rational choice. Nevertheless, the notion of personal commitment, which is to say some form of free will, pervades all the models as the sine qua non of ethics, for the individual will is brought into conformity through commitment (whether affectively tinged or not) with larger virtues or principles and with other wills. It is choice and decision that are thought to bring the individual into the moral arena, whether that domain is thought of as universal moral truths or, alternatively, as relation and community (Gilligan, Noddings). Both liberal and conservative versions take the form of free commitment to moral demands even though both character education and also caring moral education, in contrast to Kohlberg and values clarification, use the language of virtues and habits rather than free decision making and choice.

ARISTOTLE VERSUS KANT

Daniel K. Lapsley and Darcia Narvaez in the authoritative Handbook of Child Psychology, seventh edition, make the point that all the current kinds of moral education programs in schools today are fundamentally about individual free will, choice, and responsibility, and that makes them Kantian. The major model in the West of what it means to be ethical is Immanuel Kant’s: (1) the identification of universal moral principles of right action, (2) the discernment of how these principles can be applied in actual situations, and (3) the commitment and resolve of the free will to act upon those principles when such practical situations arise. Kantian ethics is about moral obligation to principles that set out as a duty the performance of certain kinds of actions on those principles in relevant situations. It depends on a kind of cognitive skill to determine the relevant principle in a situation, and then a resolve of the will to act upon it. Classical Greek philosophical ethics, in contrast, generally was based on the Delphic maxim “Know thyself.” For the Greek philosophers the fullest understanding possible of human nature, political institutions, and the nature of the cosmos was the basis of the ethical life. From a Kantian perspective, however, ethics is more narrowly about action: how discrete actions are chosen and what standards they conform to. The kind of knowledge involved is, therefore, narrow and focused rather than broad and open-ended. Knowledge in the modern, Kantian perspective offers precise answers, whereas for Aristotle, and for Plato before him, it is a way of life, an open-ended engagement in a quest for understanding the world and the human place within it, which is the virtuous life itself. For moderns, ethics is properly about doing, whereas for the Greek philosophical tradition, it was about the transformation of the self through gaining wisdom about what it means to be human, within the biological and cosmological natural order, within the social arena (for Aristotle), and within an underlying mathematized scientific universe and within the political community (for Plato). For the Greeks, all knowledge, not just some discrete arena of moral education, was thought to be contributory to ethics. In the Kantian notion of ethics, ethics and the broad knowledge of the world seem to have been torn apart in ways that would be completely anathema to the ancient Greeks.

The Kantian notion of ethics expresses a Latin Christian approach to our human moral nature—albeit secularized on the surface. Perhaps it is ironic that the three liberal versions of moral education so criticized by the main revivers of traditional character education share with moral character education a perspective based on free will and personal decision making. But both liberal and conservative varieties are Kantian and Christian. And this is despite the fact that character education on the face of it seems to be not about freedom of the will but instead about training the personality in habits of virtue—an ancient Greek, Aristotelian view of moral agency. Lapsley and Narvaez recognize that the term character education is, however, a misnomer, for the American movement of character education is in fact not at all the transformation of character in the Aristotelian sense as the name suggests and as it purports to be. Ironically, perhaps, character education programs do very little to train kids in particular situations; instead they present hypothetical stories and ask kids to identify the correct virtue that was chosen and acted upon in the story. They repeatedly instruct children in the identification of abstract moral principles and in action that conforms to those principles, with much rewarding of the correct answers to questions, but they do not provide much in the way of the behaviorist-style training of action that one would expect from the name. Instead, they tell and retell stories and reshape historical events and personalities so that they exhibit clear black-and-white moral principles that students then are supposed to identify and be inspired to commit themselves to choose and act upon accordingly.

The idea of habits, in contrast to decisions and free choices, implies an automatic and even unconscious way of acting, rather than the reflective and self-aware independent choices and decisions of the free will. The training of character in habits of virtue goes back to Aristotle’s ethics. The advocates of moral character education are explicitly aligning themselves with an Aristotelian notion of moral psychology and agency. But in the American context, the Aristotelian notion of personal character has been reshaped through the lens of free will, that is, through a Kantian lens. And that Kantian lens is fundamentally Christian, not Aristotelian. It owes a great deal to the Christian appropriation and transformation of Aristotle, especially by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. (I discuss the Christian origins of free will and the Christianization of Aristotle at some length in Chapter Four.) The use of the term character education muddies our understanding of how character education programs actually attempt to educate children’s morals. In practice, character educators use a (Kantian) model of choosing actions that accord with principles (or virtues) to which children have freely committed themselves, rather than a model that involves training behavior. Why, then, use this term, which is a misdescription, rather than a term that more accurately describes the process?

Character educators appear less committed to the individualist model of ethics than liberals do. But when it comes to looking at what they actually do, they are in fact more committed than are liberals to a model of society based on individual free decision making and individual responsibility. What the moral character educators seem to be signaling by their use of the term is their disdain for nonauthoritarian models of moral education, in contrast with their own more authoritarian one. But in terms of the dependence on individual free will and responsibility, both liberals and conservatives are playing the same game—a Western, Christian, Kantian game. The character educators no less than the liberal moral educators have little use for an Aristotelian conception of ethics. They do not train children in moral habits, nor, as Lapsley and Narvaez point out, do they raise the question of what kind of life brings overall fulfillment. In contrast to the model used by character educators, a (true) ethics of virtuous character (virtue ethics) has two outstanding features: (1) it makes a claim about the best human life, about what is required for human flourishing, and (2) it includes an account of how best to conduct one’s life and oneself in keeping with that notion of human fulfillment, flourishing, and excellence. Neither of these considerations is operative in standard character education as it has been conceptualized and implemented in American schools either historically or at present. In the American school setting, the term virtues is used to identify principles of right action (instead of human excellences, the classical Greek arête) that are to be adopted as morally obligatory. Their rightness is not connected to an Aristotelian account of what is biologically natural for the human species, nor is it about what uniquely fulfills our humanity. It never calls for a broad and general quest to learn about the human and the natural worlds, which Aristotle deemed essential for the discovery of the good human life. Instead, Lapsley and Narvaez say, we run up against a Kantian set of assumptions, for it is all about discrete actions conforming to principles of right action.

In most accounts of character education one cultivates virtues mostly to better fulfill one’s obligation and duty (the ethics of requirement) or to prevent the rising tide of youth disorder (character utilitarianism or the ethics of consequences). . . . [T]he point of virtues in most accounts of character education is to live up to the prescriptions derived from deontic considerations: to respect persons, fulfill one’s duty to the self and to others, submit to natural law. When the goal of character education is to help children “know the good” this typically means coming to learn the “cross-cultural composite of moral imperatives and ideals.” Rather than emphasize agent appraisal[,] the animating goal of many character educators is appraisal of actions, for, as Wynne and Hess . . . put it, “character is conduct” and the best test of a “school’s moral efficiency” is “pupils’ day-to-day conduct, displayed through deeds and words.”

Thus, against their stated intentions, character educators and the liberal supporters of a Kohlbergian approach have a great deal in common with each other and little in common with the Greek philosophical notion of ethics they claim to embrace:

Character education, for all its appeal to virtues, seems to embrace the ethics of requirement just as surely as does moral stage theory, rather than an ethics of virtue. The most important moral facts for both paradigms are still facts about obligation, universal principles and duty. The most important object of evaluation for both paradigms is still action and conduct: it is still deciding the good thing to do rather than the sort of person to become. The fact [is] that character education is . . . thoroughly deontological and utilitarian with . . . little in common with virtue ethics.

Lapsley and Narvaez propose that the difference between those who call themselves character educators and the champions of more liberal models is largely about the role of authority and hierarchy in moral education. Character educators embrace the transmission of ready-made moral principles on authority, whereas educators who are more liberal have a constructivist concern as well: they want to involve young people not only in the commitment to values but also in their formation. What I wish to call attention to here is what the different models of moral education in America share: a reliance on a notion of free will, decision making, and obligation to follow discrete moral principles as guides for action. That assumption is not universal across cultures (we just saw that it was absent for the Greeks). Instead, I argue in this book, it is highly specific to our own culture. And even the adversarial positions within our culture share a deeper and larger implicit religio-cultural framework that emerged from an ongoing cultural context and its particular Christian theological history. American moral education has inherited a past rooted in the teaching of the Christian catechism, and while it has gone in several disparate directions, it remains nevertheless beholden to theological notions of human nature and agency.

PERSON AND CONTEXT.

What makes John Dewey’s model of progressive education an alternative to both the character education championed by conservatives and the moral education promoted by Kohlbergians and other liberals is that it recommended contextual interventions into social structures rather than direct attempts to educate or manipulate the individual will. Dewey’s model builds upon the social determination or shaping of action that Hartshorne and May exposed in the 1920s and which has been confirmed by a great deal of subsequent research. That social interventions and institutional incentives shape moral action undermines Kohlberg’s moral cognitive developmentalist and the caring models just as much as it challenges traditional moral character education. Furthermore, the effectiveness in the classroom of Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental model of moral reasoning and decision making has been shown to suffer from additional problems. For the research shows that, pace Kohlberg, “only weak associations between moral reasoning and moral behavior have been detected and these associations lack practical significance among school-aged populations.” Hence neither approach to the training of the individual will, whether by authoritative transmission of values or by the development of reasoning skills in decision making, shows evidence of effectiveness. Lapsley and Narvaez suggest that the conclusion we ought to draw from the research into moral development is that it is “at the intersection of person and context where one looks for a coherent behavioral signature.” “The inextricable union of person and context,” they propose, “is the lesson both of developmental contextualism . . . and social cognitive approaches to personality.” As a result, “moral education can [i.e., must] never be simply about the character of children without also addressing the context of education, that is to say, the culture, climate, structure and function of classrooms and schools.” Lapsley and Narvaez end their essay on character education on a hopeful and instructive note, commenting that outcomes research shows that there are effective ways to ameliorate just those “moral” problems that particularly conservatives identified in youth, namely, the use and abuse of alcohol, drunk driving, use of illicit drugs, early sexual intercourse, high rates of depression and suicide, violence, gambling—but the effective interventions are systemic and structural rather than individual character- or will-based.

Schools characterized by communal organization, that is, by mutually supportive relationships among teachers, administrators, and students, a commitment to common goals and norms, and a sense of collaboration, tend to have students who report an attachment to school (an emotional bond to teachers or school and a sense of belonging), a belief in the legitimacy of rules and norms, and a high value placed on work. . . . [B]onding to school, was related, in turn, to lower levels of student misconduct and victimization.

The Seattle Social Development Research Group, for example, launched a project in 1981 in eight local public elementary schools guided by a social development model according to which it was assumed that behavior is learned within social environments rather than by adopting and applying explicit principles or values. The presupposition was that “when socialization goes well a social bond of attachment and commitment is formed . . . [which] in turn orients the child to the norms and expectations of the group to which one is attached and to the values endorsed by the group.” The Seattle Social Development project “demonstrated long-term positive effects on numerous adolescent health-risk behaviors (e.g., violent delinquency, heavy drinking, sexual intercourse, having multiple sex partners, pregnancy and school misconduct) and on school bonding.” “But is this character education?” Lapsley and Narvaez ask. They remark that the answer “depends on whether character education is defined by treatment or by outcomes.” The Seattle Social Development project has “generated [the] empirical outcomes that are claimed for character education” but has been guided by “a social development model” and not by a theoretical model “of virtue, morality, or character.” A similar project of the Developmental Studies Center in San Francisco has “documented the crucial role that children’s sense of community plays in promoting a wide range of outcomes commonly associated with character education, including altruistic, cooperative and helping behavior, concern for others, prosocial conflict resolution, and trust in and respect for teachers.” What was important about the schools in the project was that they met children’s “basic needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence.” The sense of community in the schools that took part in the project was developed through “collaborating on common academic goals; providing and receiving help from others; discussion and reflection upon the experiences of self and others as it relates to prosocial values such as fairness, social responsibility and justice; practicing social competencies; and exercising autonomy by participating in decisions about classroom life and taking responsibility for it.” Thus a sense of community in the schools was “promoted through [changes in the] structures of the classroom and the school.”

Another important structural intervention studied was community service and service learning, the latter differing from the former in the extent to which it is linked to the academic curriculum. Service projects engage aspects of identity formation in adolescents and are instrumental in transforming social and moral civic identity, according to current research. These interventions, too, showed important positive outcomes in the behavioral issues identified as important by the moral character educators. So the positive outcomes in the various areas were brought about by “a developmental systems approach” to intervention in youth behavior. Lapsley and Narvaez conclude that the evidence points to using “a developmental systems approach” to moral education rather than the current “epistemological approach” of character education, which is “preoccup[ied] with core values,” adding, “A developmental systems orientation is foundational to the positive youth development perspective that has emerged as a counter to a risks-and-deficits model of adolescent development.” Yet “not one of the youth developmental programs apparently viewed their competency-building and prevention work in terms of moral or character development.” The notion of what counts as ethics and moral training is clearly caught in a religio-cultural time warp that affects not only conservatives, who are more likely at present to acknowledge their religious roots, but also liberals, who tend at present to regard their outlook as secular. While Lapsley and Narvaez do not try to account for the conceptual bind that moral education seems to be in, they do recommend that a social systems approach that explicitly recognizes that what it is doing is in fact moral education ought to be developed out of the successful systems approach already well established in addressing just those youth social problems that ironically the conservatives argued are evidence of the effects of the paucity in American schools of authoritarian moral character education.

The conceptual framework for character education is adequately anticipated by a commitment to a developmental systems orientation. A developmental systems approach to [moral] character education draws attention to embedded and overlapping systems of influence that exist at multiple levels; to the fact that dispositional coherence is a joint product of personal and contextual factors that are in dynamic interaction across the lifetime.

It turns out, in fact, that many schools have recently adopted a more systems-oriented approach to changing the culture of their school—and they have done so because it works. The Character Education Partnership now gives public recognition, through its National Schools of Character designation, to schools that use eclectic approaches as well as to those that implement the original character education model that was a revival of early twentieth-century moral education. When I met with Merle Schwartz, director of education and research at the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C., she talked a great deal about “school climate” as well as about moral behavior. Part of Schwartz’s job is to go to schools all over the country as a consultant, helping to diagnose their problems and working with school representatives—administrators, teachers, students, staff, and parents—to devise situation-specific remedies that can help change both school climate and student behavior. I also visited several schools that had introduced mixed models, in which kids seemed engaged and happy rather than subdued and sullen, as they were in the Fillmore School. Nevertheless, the theoretical philosophical move that Narvaez and Lapsley recommend—redefining what ethics is about, what its domain is, and what moral development entails—is more a hope than a present reality.

Narvaez and Lapsley also propose adding to the structural intervention in social climate a new (or, really, the revival of an ancient Greek) approach to individual personal ethics. Rather than the pervasive model of instilling conformity to a set of objective virtues or principles, as standard character education envisions, or an open-ended discussion of the right ways to think about and determine right actions in various situations, as in values clarification and Kohlbergian rational decision-making models, Lapsley and Narvaez recommend the introduction into the moral education curriculum of an Aristotelian-type exploration of human flourishing—virtue in the real Aristotelian sense. Teachers, they say, should be asking the questions that occupied the Greek philosophers: What makes for a deeply satisfying human life? What does it mean for a given person or for people in general to flourish and thrive, and what does it take for that to happen? They suggest that the educational research on moral development now shows that the notion of thriving within a given context (the current buzzword is developmental contextualism) is the proper “basis for understanding the role of adaptive person-context relations in human development.” They conclude their essay on an Aristotelian note: “Perhaps a life course perspective on character will require additional constructs such as wisdom . . . , purpose . . . , personal goals . . . , spirituality and self-transcendence . . . , ecological citizenship . . . , and character strengths . . . to capture adequately the complexity of phase-relevant dispositional coherence and human flourishing.”

CONCLUSION

We have seen through this brief account of moral education in schools that in recent decades in America both conservatives and liberals have focused on the individual rather than the community as the site, source, and focus of morals. For conservatives the focus is the training of the individual will, an emphasis seen from the earliest moral training in the adoption of the catechism to the various more recent forms of character education, while for liberals it is the more recent rational decision-making approach and its variants, which highlight individual free will. The only structural approach in moral education was that introduced in the early mid-twentieth century by John Dewey and others influenced by him, and it is still evident in a certain tendency of Kohlberg’s to introduce democratic structures that in turn underlie rational decision making. That approach persists today in some pockets of experiment: the democratic and caring school movements, and also the many service projects that connect students to the larger society and the world. The more liberal the model of moral education in a given school, the more likely it is to emphasize social service rather than the acquisition of individual character virtues. Nevertheless, the theoretical underpinnings of that aspect of character education are largely absent or unacknowledged, and such programs of social service continue to appear within a discourse of the training of individual moral character and will in the virtues. Historically, social structural interventions focusing on the group and the community have been seen only rarely, such as in the progressive movement in education in the mid-twentieth century.

The initial thrust toward a social structural approach, at least to moral education, did not meet its demise because of the triumph of liberalism. Rather, UCLA philosopher John McCumber has put together considerable evidence that the social philosophy of Dewey and others was eclipsed because of the McCarthy era’s pointed attacks on philosophy departments and especially on those philosophers who taught and engaged in social philosophy. To write about or teach social philosophy and to address issues of ethics in terms of social structure as formative of moral action became anathema in the political climate of the 1950s; what subsequently ensued was a period of forgetting, a forgetting that now allows social conservatives to attack liberals for decimating and fragmenting the social arena when, in fact, that occurred in part as a result of a right-wing attack on Communists, Socialists, and their sympathizers in universities. Nevertheless, the fragility of social philosophy and moral education models based on it bespeaks the foundational nature of the free will perspective in America. Narvaez and Lapsley are trying in a small way to revive social philosophy as a basis for rethinking what ethics is really about and how virtue can be taught.

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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.

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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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2013 BOOK

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.

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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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