Why is there sometimes a discrepancy between having intellectual knowledge of ethics, and actually being an ethical person? The reason is that while intellect alone can discern ethical principles, it imparts no moral characteristics without the principle of care. In other words, a person must actually value ethics, integrity and a good character in order to choose the kind of actions which contribute to an ethical life. Intellect alone is a rational, left brain prison, which has created destructive technologies like the atomic bomb. Knowledge and integrity must grow simultaneously. If intellect outstrips integrity, imbalance and arrogance often follow.
There are three primary reasons why some individuals who understand ethics intellectually do not always choose ethical actions: some people don’t think that the rules apply to them, some people don’t think that there are rules, and some people are just not impressed with primacy of ethics. While the causes vary, character education on the part of both parents and schools can help create children with both intelligence and integrity.
Thinking the Rules Don't Apply to You
Consider a husband who is cheating on his wife, yet monitors her phone records to make sure that she is not being unfaithful. Such a person’s actions reveal that he does not believe that the same standards of conduct apply to everyone. It is wrong for his wife to cheat, but not wrong for him to do it.
If a child happens to be very intelligent and successful, yet lacks character education during their upbringing, then they are more likely to be an arrogant, yet intelligent adult. Let me be clear: arrogance is not a mark of intelligence.
To present a more concrete example of this phenomenon, consider disturbing trend in television news, where pundits scream arrogantly at guests, make ad homonym attacks, and assassinate the characters of others in order to make their point. Yet these same people often think that they are entitled to respectful treatment or friendly debate! Clearly, they think that the rules of polite interaction only apply to others.
Thinking That There Are No Rules
Many everyday, non-academic people are relativists by default. They think that ethics are cultural constructs which vary from person to person. Some academic philosophers believe this as well. Ethical subjectivists in academia usually fall into two broad categories, normative subjectivists and meta-ethical subjectivists. If you have read my previous posts, you may have noticed that I am an normative objectivist (not to be confused with Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism)
While some ethical subjectivists arguments are appealing, the ultimate implication is that there is no truth. Or, that the objective truth is limited to other discipline like mathematics, metaphysics and epistemology. I for one don’t buy that as it pertains to applied ethics, but I won’t go into further detail about my argument in this post. Rather I will opt for a detailed breakdown in a future post.
Thinking That Ethics and Good Character Are Not Important
Some people are so busy going through life and doing what needs to get done that they don’t bother thinking much about ethics. They just do what benefits them without much thought, even if their actions are harmful to others. They may behave ethically to the extent that it benefits their relationships to do so, but act unethically when they think they can get away with it.
How does society produce people of poor character who think that the rules don’t apply to them? Well, for one thing, character education is often lacking. In school, students are taught facts, to achieve, and to be successful. Schools reinforce and encourage competition through grading, and the most successful students are praised and rewarded. Coupled with the influence of the self-esteem movement on parenting styles in the last several decades, and many children are impressed with an inflated sense of self worth and entitlement. If a student has not also been taught the importance of having a good character by their parents, you can bet that integrity will be nowhere near as important to them as success is.
The Solution: Character Education
Character education was traditionally a fundamental part of the curriculum in classical education, and it was part of the medieval baccalaureate. According to Manly P. Hall in a lecture about education, in the European past, it was understood that a person must have a sufficiently developed sense of character and integrity before they were fit to receive higher intellectual and religious knowledge. As the Catholic Church’s influence declined over the centuries, so too did the emphasis on personal integrity in Western education.
Contemporary parents and educators alike should focus on formal character education, which does not have to be religious in nature. Students at religious schools are often taught about character and ethics in tandem with religious studies. Public schools can easily teach character education separately from religion, by focusing on traits like responsibility, kindness, and concern for others. Unfortunately, most parents are focused on the GPA’s and SAT scores of their children, and teachers on their curricula, which rarely include any character education or ethics.
Fortunately there has been a growing interest in character education, both formal and informal, over the past several decades, which seems to be a step in the right direction for creating students with good character.
“But, in the long run, in the great battle of life, no brilliancy of intellect, no perfection of bodily development, will count when weighed in the balance against that assemblage of virtues, active and passive, of moral qualities, which we group together under the name of character…”