Moral development is a life-long process

by on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 Comments

I teach in a School of Philosophy. I do not teach ethics, but I sometimes have to meet with questions related to this field. Students have been trained to reason in a very abstract way, and they like to come up with logical dilemmas, with problems seemingly impossible to solve. I have much difficulty in making them understand one very simple truth: in real life, you usually do not meet with abstract, logical cases, you muddle through situations that are multifaceted and require you to go through a process of discussion, discernment and progressive adjustment. There is rarely one logical answer to a given moral problem as actually experienced. You have to look for the minutiae of the case, to ask for your friend’s and your peer’s advice, and to come up with an answer that has to do with practical wisdom as much as with logical inferences.

Of course, it is good that students come up with such questions. It corresponds to one stage of moral development. You search for rules and principles, you exercise your capacity for judgment and consistency, and you do not satisfy yourself with easy arrangements: your conscience wants you to decide and to act according to clearly defined standards.

Still, other capacities are to be developed in order to live a truly ethical life. As rightly emphasized by feminist studies, empathy is one of them. Ethical judgment is concerned with real people and with needs to which you have to answer. And needs, especially the needs of the people who are the most vulnerable, are always special. If one truly wants to answer such needs, respect and care progressively appears to one’s conscience as the primary requisites. So, sense of care will develop along with empathy. Ethics will be lived less in terms of “principles” than in terms of “relationships.” Truth and life will come together, never separated from each other. Abstract truths can become deadly truths – or deadly lies. Conversely, a life lived without reference to the quest for truth will rapidly become meaningless, tasteless and obscured by insensitivity.

Ethical “sensitivity” will generally be acquired step by step. As we enter into complex, ever-evolving relationships, openness to others will challenge both our general principles and our self-absorption. Later in life, what we have learned throughout these relationships might blossom into a new set of standards and a larger vision. After having moved from general principles to specific relationships, we will be focusing again on universal concerns. But, at this stage, our convictions will have been nurtured by experiences slowly ruminated: care and empathy will have opened our heart and our mind to both universality and the infinite world of human differences.

Most of us do not move smoothly along the way. We may experience moral regressions as well as sudden awakenings. Other people will challenge our thought habits and prejudices – sometimes gently, sometimes less so -, and how we react to such challenges will prove to be essential in the process of moral development. The most important point is to recognize that living an ethical life is both a decision to be taken and a process to be nurtured – that is to say: both a decision to be periodically reaffirmed and a process that will end up only with our life.

Photo: C.P.


Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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