I am giving a local talk on this topic next month and have just started gathering thoughts. I got to thinking about it in earnest recently after a conversation with a mom who complained about her preteen son’s incessant lying: “He just looks me straight in the face and lies about anything and everything to get what he wants.” She was distraught, and had no idea why her son was like that when, she said, she and her husband tried their best to instill a sense of morals in their kids.
With her on my mind, I started jotting down some of Plato and Aristotle’s ideas on what morality is and how to cultivate it in children. . .
1. Morality is equally about doing best for oneself as it for doing well by others.
2. Virtue is as much about our feelings as our reason, and must be instilled by habituation to what Aristotle called “proper pleasures”—i.e., those that support ethical choices rather than undermine them.
3. Moral behavior must be consistently modeled for children, both in real life and, equally importantly, in art.
4. Virtue is essential to happiness and must be shown to be its own reward.
These are all dense concepts on which Greek philosophers thought deeply. I won’t be able to cover them all in my talk, much less here, but a couple of thoughts to get started. . .
First, morality is not fundamentally a zero sum game in which one sacrifices one’s own needs, wants, and good for those of other people. If that’s what it’s about, what kid on earth would sign up? The Greeks would have no idea what we were talking about if we were to say, in the spirit of Judeo-Christianity, that altruism is at the heart of morality, and that teaching ethics is teaching self-sacrifice.
Instead, the Greeks assumed that all creatures naturally seek their own best interests, and that the trick was to help children define their interests in a way that was socially aware. Why? Not to induce altruism, but to respect that fact that, as Aristotle put it, man is a “social animal.” We cannot live a successful or happy life if we consistently disregard our social nature and the rights, needs, and claims of others. Living ethically involves finding the right balance between self and other, where neither side eclipses the other. That is how our soul becomes harmonious and exhibits beauty, said Plato. Those who behave in soul-disruptive ways exhibit a deficit of self-love.
Unlike some modern moral theories that understand ethics as a series of rational calculations, the Greeks also assumed ethics needs to be seated in one’s kishkes. There is definitely a rational aspect to moral decision-making, but it is about having a passion for the good, an attraction to it. Truly ethical people embrace moral choices, they do not suffer them. To grasp this, think of an ethically outstanding person that you know. Does this person do the right thing begrudgingly as a matter of fulfilling her duties and fighting against her contrary desires and inclinations, or does acting morally flow from the kind of soul and character she has developed, where acting immorally would be, for her, going against the grain?
So, the goal is to attract children to the good so that it becomes second nature for them to desire it, not a matter of employing reason in the face of conflicting passions. How does this attraction form? That is matter of habituating them to those “proper pleasures” and of setting the right example, both in our own behavior, and—critically—through literature, art, and music. Breaking Bad and Cum On Feel the Noize would not be what they had in mind.
Finally, there is the question of rewards. Plato was not merely naive when he asserted that the “wrongdoer is worse off than the person wronged.” In the Republic, he gave an example of a fellow, Gyges, who chanced upon a ring that made him invisible whenever he wished to treat others wrongly with impunity. Would Gyges be truly happy? He may satisfy some of his baser desires for wealth or power, but in the end, Plato argued, the cheater cheats himself. His soul is a disharmonious cacophony of conflicting passions, and he operates at a subhuman level. His “happiness” is poor and illusory.
Back to my acquaintance with the dishonest son, I’m not sure how old he is, but Aristotle felt that we have a definite window in which to train children and adolescents to find the good attractive and beautiful, and to experience the peace and well-being that only the exercise of virtue affords. After the habits of vice have set in over the years, they can be difficult, or impossible, to reverse. My advice to this woman was to approach her son not from the angle of more lectures and punishments, but rather in a more visceral way, to attempt to open his heart and sentiments—relying heavily on the arts—to the rhythms and harmony of goodness that draw moral people to the right path much like moths to the flame.