Is moral change possible?

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Whether we can change morally is a question that is not asked often, but it is a relevant one. After all, if this was not the case, ethics would become a meaningless discipline. Of course, at first sight the question about moral change seems to be open door, but if moral change means that we not only can revise our opinions, but also our intuitions, this question becomes a difficult one. Here, I assume that our moral intuitions are ‘evaluative schemes’ formed within a social environment. If the values ​​within that environment change, for example because standards are adjusted or new laws are introduced, then evaluative schemes may change with them. I will also claim here that you can deliberately change your own intuitions by speaking to yourself from the viewpoint of somebody else or from a theoretical moral system.

A while ago I had a primary school reunion. What was striking was that the adults differed little from the children they once were. The same conduct, characteristics, concerns and reactions. People are surprisingly stable.

Characters hardly change, if at all. If you use the big five of our personality dimensions to categorize a toddler, you shouldn’t be surprised that the same person scores the same as an elderly person.

Another example. You feel the duty to correct a child if it doesn’t do what you think it should do. But that doesn’t make sense. The character of that child is already finished and a child simply responds the way it is grounded.

Not that all education is useless, certainly not. Because children receive values that ensure stability throughout their lives. These values ​​form a stable basis that is cherished and that we try to preserve as much as possible.

If our character and values ​​are constant, can we actually change morally? Also because our moral actions are primarily motivated by intuitions and emotions. Of course, we sometimes change our mind, but do we really change?

Earlier I argued that our moral judgments amount to sensory experiences: we instinctively use ‘evaluative schemes’ that organize the world into ‘good’ and ‘not good’. What is good gives us a pleasant or nice feeling, what is not good is unpleasant or dirty. These schedules are not innate, but they are formed over time. The stable values ​​that I have just mentioned are nothing more than those evaluative schemes, which are almost hard-wired in our brain.

But many of those schemes are not that nice. Psychological experiments show that we tend to be racists by instinct and have a general inclination to distrust strangers. Fortunately we have learned that we should not just follow those instincts, as these are undesirable. But that doesn’t change much about our gut feelings.

How have we learned that we should not always follow our instincts? By thinking, by talking to each other, by setting moral limits on what is desirable or undesirable. Even though we actually feel it differently.

The most salient manifestation of these limits are laws, which are rules about what is considered undesirable behavior and that are as such forbidden, like smoking in cafes. You may find such a rule nonsensical or patronizing, still you obey it.

But there are other moral boundaries that are gradually emerging, shifting or disappearing, namely the social norms that apply within a culture. Like changes in fashion, these norms are also volatile. What we once found to be completely normal, not at all that long ago, inequality of women, pedophilia, blackface, has now become unacceptable.

By adjusting our social norms and our laws, we create more civilization. But isn’t that just a thin layer of veneer? Will we become cavemen again once you scrape this off?

No, that’s nonsense. Civilization actually changes us morally. You only belief in the ‘veneer model’ if you think that values ​​are only a lubricant of social intercourse without having any further function. However, people are thoroughly social and moral beings, that is not just a layer, but the essence of what makes us human.

As stated above, the values ​​that guide us are taught by our social environment: our parents, friends, our community. We see what is considered important and adhere to it. That usually involves the unconscious imitation of others, while sometimes there is punishment, which can be a reminder or just a disapproving look. This may be enough to adjust our moral schemes.

According to Robert Solomon we strive for ‘maximizing our self-esteem’, which is revealed to us by our emotions. A punishment is a violation of self-esteem that is expressed, for example, in the form of shame or anger. These emotions motivate us to change, by becoming red or angry, but ultimately also by refining our moral schemes so that these emotions can be prevented in the future. We prefer to receive praise and be encouraged that we are on the right track, so we ensure that we achieve that approval by internalizing the norms that apply within a community.

It takes quite an investment to make all these social norms into our own and hence we do not just give up on them. That is why we want values to be stable.

Yet social norms are changing, slowly but surely. That often goes without us realizing it and without being part of a deliberate process. It just happens, in interaction with a changing world.

Changing laws is a deliberate process of course. But the law is not that emotionally charged. Rather, it is a theoretical construct that has been established on the basis of rational decision-making processes. In general, law does not affect us so deeply, even if it involves punishment. We comply with new laws, but that does not have to be based on an inner moral motivation. Sulkingly you accept the smoking ban, it is just what it is.

This does not necessarily mean that we follow the law for fear of punishment, but that our main moral motivation is that you simply have to follow laws in general, not a law in particular.

Of course, norms and laws are not necessarily separate worlds, they often merge into one another as norms become laws and laws become norms. People used to smoke everywhere at all times. It made most people feel happy and the others who did not, didn’t know any better. Nowadays, we all find it a disgusting habit, even the smokers among us. Our evaluative schedule has changed and considerably so.

Our standards and laws are changing and with that our evaluative schemes. So yes, we can change morally. But can we go further than that? If we really think moral change is so important, can we then consciously change our personal intuitions. In other words, can we civilize ourselves?

I think such a change is possible, although it takes quite some effort. In addition, I think the condition for this change can be found in our ability to talk to ourselves.

This ability is a fairly curious phenomenon. First of all, we have the nagging voice that seems to come from within. It is this little voice that comes closest to our intuitions. Unfortunately it is about intuitions of the worrying kind: can I still pay my rent, will I pass my exams, do they like me, what is that rash on my skin?

But no matter from how deep that voice seems to come and no matter how impossible it seems to stop it: we are not powerless. You can make the voice talk very slowly and low or very fast and high. If the little voice shouts that the plane will crash, it becomes a lot less stressful if this voice is that of one the chipmunks. I don’t know what the evolutionary added value of that could be, but that is how it works.

Also strange: sometimes you do not think by means of language at all. For example, when you’re struggling with a problem, and you stopped thinking about it for a while, the answer might pop up spontaneously and unexpectedly.

Fortunately your head more structured at other times. You can actively reflect on your own moral beliefs and that allows you to change yourself morally.

Reflection is nothing more than taking distance from yourself. Like the way you are looking at yourself in the mirror and you see your own face as that of someone else, but then you look at your own thinking as if you are somebody else.

That is possible because of the only thing that really makes us unique as a species: language. You can make your thoughts, feelings, and reactions into the subject of your own thinking by dedicating your inner dialogue to it. This is possible in two ways. You take the perspective of another, you speak to yourself as another speaks to you. Or you take an Archimedean perspective, something that is not tied to any person, but you think in terms of a theory, a formula, a rule.

These two ways correspond to the two aforementioned sources of moral change: social norms and laws. In the first case, you comment on yourself as someone else would (or as you think someone else would). You correct yourself If your primary response is one that you know is socially undesirable. Changing social norms involves an emotion that arises from confrontation with someone from your community. You mimic this process if you speak to yourself from someone else’s point of view.

In the second case you apply a rule based on a theoretical construct. Based on analysis, not on feelings. If you try to ascertain to what extent your ethical thinking corresponds to a theoretical system, you are actually mimicking something that most closely matches the way we follow laws. You believe or even know that you are doing the right thing, but it still doesn’t feel that way.

It takes effort to speak to yourself. You have to recognize a situation in which a certain rule applies and then point out to yourself that you should not follow your feelings, but your mind.

For example, you get angry with something or someone and you realize that this is wrong. You can decide that if you fall out again, you realize that you do. The emotion does not diminish, but you correct yourself. If you do that often enough, you will eventually become emotionally convinced about the morally correct reaction.

This is something else than a Calvinistic feeling of guilt, in which an urge is soon seen as a sign of moral weakness, in opposition to God’s command. Instead, the moral system that you try to internalize has come into being based on your autonomous thinking.

We can change, we can even change ourselves. Moral progress is possible both within a society and within an individual life.

This means that we should not automatically assume that the little voice in our head or that our social norms represent a higher moral order than rules that are created on the basis of dialogue and reflection. This is a tendency that we often have, especially derived from the romantic idea that what we feel deep down must be really true, while everything else is non-authentic rumbling.

But yes, I also really feel that I am going to win every time I buy a ticket. Just like all those others who buy a ticket. It just does not add up. Moreover, that feeling seems to be deep inside, but it will be clear by now that it is far from being unchangeable.

If we can change morally in a deliberate way  the duty arises that we have to change if we think it is necessary. That does not mean that we have to ignore our inner voice or that we have to give up our social norms just whenever it suits us. After all, these ensure stability and identity, so that we know who we are as individuals or as a community. In particular, it means that we must enter into a dialogue, with ourselves and with each other, to determine which evaluative schemes are the right ones and then adjust our own schemes accordingly.

Further reading:

Doris, J. M. (2015). Talking to our selves: Reflection, ignorance, and agency: OUP Oxford.

Solomon, R. C. (1993). The passions: Emotions and the meaning of life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Strohminger, N., & Nichols, S. (2014). The essential moral self. Cognition, 131(1), 159-171.


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