How we regard and treat others is the practical heart of morality. Treating others well is the common attribute of favored virtues, preferred values, moral codes, and systems of ethics. Behavior that benefits others is the practical expectation of most of what we deem moral and ethical, good and right, fair and just. We may find it difficult to definitively determine what behavior best benefits others, either generally or in specific cases, or to even agree on the meaning of “benefit,” but to more effectively motivate children to well-intentioned behavior—behavior meant to benefit others as one understands it—could be considered a success of profound practical consequence.
We fall far short of this aim when we appeal to fear, which is often the case with traditional “character” education. Fear is the underlying motive for heeding the inhibitions and impulsions we succeed in implanting in children, and fear is not really compatible with benevolent inclination. Exhortations to care about injustice, suffering, and the environment may elicit the natural sympathy of those already inclined to it and win the overt agreement of those disposed to meet authoritative expectations, but they are unlikely to plant any seeds of benevolence.
Teaching values by trying to improve students’ ethical reasoning may make students more aware of the connection between moral behavior and self interest, but does not go much beyond that. Contrary to presumption, reason alone does not supply its own volitional force. As Jonathan Haidt points out, “Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards.” (2006, 165) Motive is a function of emotions, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind.
Motives to Treat Others Well
I propose a simple classification of the normative motives that favor treating others well: those based on the fears born of the perceived insufficiencies of ego, and a more speculative category of motives based on a particular understanding of love, which are plausibly non-ego based.
Fear of contravening normative prohibitions or failing to meet social expectations of appropriate behavior is deeply inculcated in most of us. “Don’t” is a constantly recurring refrain of childhood, as is “You should.” Such admonitions are sometimes reinforced with physical and/or emotional punishments, which continue with the sanctions of law and the reactions of our fellows into adulthood. Normative inhibitions tend to be deeply embedded and most of us cannot easily violate them, or even think about it, without incurring considerable fear. Of course, fear is considered necessary to socialization. The inhibitions implanted in our childhood mostly steer us away from harming others, and they can make us anxious to avoid failing to respond to others’ needs to some extent. Fear is thought a more reliable motive and easier to inspire and reinforce than more positive motives. Even parents who would rather not instill fear in their children face many an occasion where appeals to reason, affection, and justice are not reasonable alternatives.
But however useful fear may be to render children fit for society, it carries considerable baggage as a motivation to treat others well. Fear contracts and darkens awareness, something we can physically feel in the associated tension of our bodies. Fear is one of the more painful emotions. It distorts perception of reality and inhibits reasoning, which are among the reasons fear is favored by those who would motivate prejudice, hatred, and violence. Fear also lends itself to anger, which may be a psychological means of dealing with fear. There is a mountain of evidence that fear and anger are harmful to physical and mental health. It is a cause of self-destructive behavior. Importantly in light of our present concern with motives for treating others well, fear is an emotion of aversion, which makes it incompatible with such feelings of attraction as sympathy, compassion, appreciation, and love. It tends to block or inhibit the sense of connection with others that naturally inclines us to kindness and benevolence.
We may not be consciously aware of the fear bound into the inhibitions and impulsions we learned as children. Our responses are often virtually automatic, so the general effects of fear may not seem to come into play. But however unconscious the fear at the core of inhibitions and impulsions, it does not incline us to treat others well for their own sake.
Fear is also involved in guilt. Guilt is a very unpleasant feeling and a powerful motivator, though fear of guilt is what keeps us on the straight and narrow. Many find guilt useful in governing people’s behavior. They believe guilt justly punishes transgressions even when the perpetrator avoids other punishments. And trying to manipulate people by making them feel guilty is ubiquitous in human relationships. But there is a close relationship between guilt and fear, and guilt shares most of the liabilities of fear. Guilt can be quite debilitating when one is consumed with it, and it is quite destructive of self esteem, which many believe is necessary to extend esteem to others. It is commonly held that how one feels about oneself greatly influences how one feels about everyone else. Indeed, guilt tends to be projected, probably as a means to cope. The self-condemned sinner is apt to see the sin in others as well. It is not a reach to suspect that guilt lurks in much of the condemnation, outrage, and attack that plagues our relationships and societies.
We also heed normative admonitions and expectations out of more or less calculated self interest. The threat of punishment obviously appeals to fear, but treating others well can also arise from intent to advance self-interest. I refer here to what I call the Strategic Golden Rule: Do unto others because it is the best way to get them to do unto you. Fear plays a less obvious role in motivating people to treat others well in order to serve their own material interests. But the desire to advance such interests implies a need born of perceived lack or insufficiency, which entails fear at some level of consciousness.
The same is true of serving emotional needs. Normative satisfactions are among the more positive motives for treating others well. By treating others well, we likely hope to gain the approbation of others, and even in the absence of such approbation, we may hope to strengthen our self esteem by feeling good about ourselves. The need for approbation and building self esteem implies a lack we seek to fill, for if we felt no lack of self worth we would have no motive to seek either external or internal validation. Filling this lack can yield a pleasurable feeling called satisfaction. For most people, such satisfaction is unequivocally among the preferable, or pleasurable, feelings.
But it has some relative deficiencies. For one, it arises from easing an insufficiency of self worth that is never long sated. Insecurity is an inherent characteristic of ego. No matter how self confident someone driven to seek power, fame, acclaim, and all else that glitters in the eyes of the ego may seem, the need to seek these things speaks to a deep insecurity of self that requires constant validation to appease. The self sufficient are not driven. The emotional need for external validation of worth tends to be insatiable—it can never be satisfied for long because the sense of insufficient worth from which it rises remains and is ever freshly provoked. The sense of insufficiency can be momentarily lulled, but it always wakens to attenuate and extinguish every satisfaction the ego demands. And every ego gratification is haunted by the certainty that the barbs of emotional need will return. Unfortunately for our happiness, every satisfaction in which the ego plays a role—and it is seldom completely absent—is contaminated by the underlying fear inherent to the premise for its existence.
The satisfaction of approval also shares a property of most satisfactions: it requires the preceding pain of perceived lack of approval or fear of it. No hunger, no sating. Without the contrast of discomfort, awareness of comfort recedes. Without the need for validation, the approval of others does not inspire the satisfaction of filling a need. This at least partly explains why satisfactions “habituate” or recede from awareness. The satisfaction of desire requires dissatisfaction, because desire entails dissatisfaction with present experience; with no desire to satisfy, satisfaction of desire is unavailable.
Some normative satisfactions are not so clearly associated with the ego’s need for approval. There can be a certain pleasure in obeying rules, performing rituals, and keeping traditions for their own sakes. There can be pleasure in being virtuous for the sake of virtue. There is relative pleasure in cognitive coherence with what one believes, especially when contrasted to the fear and confusion engendered by cognitive dissonance of acting contrary to one’s beliefs. Guilt arises from the dissonance of behavior and belief. Avoiding guilt may not be pleasurable in itself, but it paves the way for preferred feelings. People can find satisfaction in coloring within the lines, so to speak. They reap normative satisfactions in performing rituals and keeping traditions, perhaps because they endow them with higher purpose and meaning.
Whatever the source, pleasure in heeding rules, commandments, rituals, and traditions as such is not, strictly speaking, a motive to treat others well for their own sake. Heeding normative strictures may serve the interests of others, but when the attending satisfaction is based more on the heeding than the serving, it falls short of benevolence. Another deficiency of the satisfactions of heeding normative strictures and traditions for their own sake is that it can all too easily turn into resentment and condemnation of those who do not heed them. The satisfaction of obeying what one believes is God’s will, obeying the law as a normative imperative, practicing virtues to feed one’s sense of personal integrity, or heeding tradition as an emotional balm all too easily give way to anger and resentment when God’s will, laws, virtues, and traditions are flouted.
And such judgment is not reserved for others. Guilt lurks to punish the laxity of those who seek satisfaction in obedience to stricture, probably more cruelly than those who place less store in such fidelity. It may be that the greater the satisfaction, the greater the guilt from succumbing to temptation. Such is the treachery of ego.
We may not have exhausted the motives to treat others well born of the insecurities of ego, but let us turn to motives that plausibly have a different source. Some philosophers held that normative satisfactions are natural responses to virtuous acts, that they are almost instinctive. Some believe the satisfactions of virtue are affective tokens of grace from God or the natural expression of spirit. Or the brain may have a mechanism for creating a feeling of pleasure for consonance between action and belief. Proponents of natural law presumed a basic inclination of human nature to virtue that is inherently rewarding, and, in assuming virtue contributes to “win-win” situations, there are evolutionary explanations as well. (Wright, 2001)
Many agree with Schopenhauer that compassion is the prime moral motive. Compassion may be thought an aspect of a virtually instinctual sympathy with others that inclines us to not only share their pain, but their joy and mirth as well. Compassion and sympathy imply a felt connection with others that does not necessarily involve the fears and needs born of the sense of separation that defines the ego. We need not insist on this to make a useful distinction between motives that aim primarily at meeting our own needs and those that incline us to serve others.
Compassion is commonly understood as sensitivity to the pain of others, implying a sharing of the pain of others to some extent. Compassion seems a relatively selfless motive to serve others as it does not in itself seem to serve a selfish interest. Sharing pain is painful, and even a mild sensitivity to the distress of others suggests affective discomfort. And compassion lends itself to guilt when we fail to act as we believe we ought. As morally laudable and socially necessary compassion is, it is not in itself an intrinsically enjoyable feeling. The affective rewards we associate with compassion seem to lie in acting to alleviate the distress of others in some way, which, in addition to normative satisfactions, promises relief from the distress of our own sympathy.
Unfortunately, we can also seek relief from the distress of our sympathy by seeing those who elicit our compassion as victims of callous or malicious perpetrators. When convinced of injustice, our compassion renders us the victims in a sense, which may explain why compassion so easily incites our indignation and calls forth a desire for vengeance. When we see or hear of people who are poor, hungry, disadvantaged, or abused, we may find some relief from our pangs of compassion by diverting them into righteous anger aimed at those we hold responsible for such suffering. Though it seems an inherently benevolent impulse, compassion in itself does not save us from the ills of condemning judgment unless it includes perpetrators as well as victims.
Judging others ill entails an inescapable affective price. Anger and its underlying fear attend such judgment. This follows from the insight that emotions are responses to the judgments our thoughts entail. This is an enormously important insight, for it points to a major cause of unhappiness. It points as well to a plausible condition for intrinsically rewarding moral motives: they must neither entail nor invite judging others ill. This observation may not sit well with those who believe that judging the sin of others is morally obligatory, but it is backed both by reason and the testimony of people trained in inner awareness.
It is said that doing good feels good, and, with sufficient awareness of feelings, it is easy to experience the truth of this. Thinking well of others gives rise to lighter, more expansive feelings and thinking ill evokes darker, more constricting feelings. We unavoidably reap what we sow in terms of our judgments. If we could experientially demonstrate this, we could tap into a potent, self-reinforcing motive for moral behavior that has been relatively neglected. This would require training students in inner awareness, particularly in awareness of feelings and the thoughts that evoke them. Such awareness is best attained through the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is essentially nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This can be achieved by means of various techniques—focus on a particular present experience like breathing or a “meta-awareness” of all that transpires within and without, for example. Mindfulness can be focused on feelings and their associated thoughts, and can include experimenting with thinking well and ill to demonstrate their affective consequences. But mindfulness is also the doorway to the Now where the fears of ego disappear and a peaceful joy thought to come from awareness of our essential being shines through. Practicing mindfulness is thus a way to experience the incomparably desirable affective rewards of escaping the fears of ego.
Fortunately, there are international initiatives to teach mindfulness in schools. Organizations such as Innerkids are dedicated to training teachers in the art, and highly useful guides are proliferating. Among recent additions are The Mindful Child by Susan Greenland (2010) and Child’s Mind by Christopher Willard (2010). Deborah Shoeberlein’s Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (2009) is excellent.
We should also address the conceptual barriers to the appreciation of others. What we believe about others determines how we see them, and how we see them determines how we feel about them. Though fear may inhibit us from objectively harming others, our treatment of them will fall far short of benevolence if we see them through fearful eyes. If we can change the cognitive filters that determine how students judge and therefore feel about people, we can foster a more appreciative regard.
Students should therefore be led on ever more extensive explorations of anger, grievance, resentment and associated feelings on the one hand and feelings of appreciation on the other. They should learn to recognize and analyze their judgments both experientially and conceptually. For example, they can be asked to pick a target of their anger, try to identify the apparent causes by noting what they feel when they think about different aspects of the person, and attempt to understand the motives of the person by imagining themselves in the person’s shoes and recalling when they acted similarly and why.
Finding the motives of others in one’s own heart is a good way to gain perspective and, hopefully, sympathy. It is among the various ways to temper rationalizations and mitigate the pangs of judgment. It is a way to become aware of the attitudinal lens through which we see others and learn to adjust it. We know a change in attitude can change both our perceptions and the responses of our hearts. A little change in perspective can change someone we regard with aversion into an inspiration of compassion. A new realization about someone can overturn current judgment and open new venues of understanding. Prejudice dissipates with the gaze of understanding, superficial images of people transform with the evidence of unsuspected depths.
Comfort with similarity and discomfort with difference is a clear predisposition of human beings, and it constitutes an emotional barrier to evoking feelings of appreciation. One means to lower the barrier is to strengthen students’ recognition of the similarities of human hearts and the human experience. It is easier to appreciate others when we recognize ourselves in them, because it is easier to understand them. Some aspects of common educational practice help promote such recognition. The shared environment of classrooms and the interaction that is encouraged there provide opportunities for broadening and deepening mutual understanding to some extent. The experience of education as a shared endeavor serves this end as well, though this is lost when competition is emphasized. Content that reflects recurring themes of the human story and shared conditions of the human experience may be thought to contribute to an understanding of what we have in common.
Hearing other students talk about their feelings and associated thoughts tends to lead to a realization of just how much one’s own inner experience accords with the inner experiences of others. Consciously bringing the inner dimension of experiences into the open to share with others can bring a real revelation. A student’s core motives become clearer the more he or she hears them described by others, for core motives are among the most universally shared aspects of the human condition. Our understanding of others is necessarily based on our own experiences, and the discovery of how similar our inner experiences are with those of others can deeply resonate.
A number of initiatives that aim to improve students’ views of each other and therefore their relationships have been implemented in schools with considerable success. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, has helped bring “social and emotional learning” (SEL) programs to tens of thousands of schools. (Lantieri & Goleman, 2008) SEL emphasizes techniques based on mindful inner awareness.
Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” inspired another promising initiative aimed at developing peaceful, compassionate relationships. The core methods of what practitioners call “relationship based teaching and learning” involve awareness and expression of feelings and needs that promotes understanding and reduces the sources of conflict. (Hart & Hodson, 2004) The program emphasizes awareness of the affective rewards of freely giving and receiving according to the particular talents of each student. Both the ends and means of the project are well-suited to fostering appreciation of others through understanding, recognition of what we all hold in common, and awareness of the rewards of the heart.
Promising means to harness the moral attitudes and behaviors of children to the motives of their hearts are ready to hand. Giving them a prominent place in schools would greatly improve the effectiveness of values education. A tall order, perhaps, but the stakes are exceedingly high. The lifelong quality of children’s lives and the health of the societies they inhabit as adults may well depend on it.
Greenland, Susan K. (2010) The Mindful Child, New York: Free Press.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom New York: Basic Books, 165.
Hart, Sura and Victoria Kindle Hodson, 2004, The Compassionate Classroom: Relationship Based Teaching and Learning, Encinitas, California: PuddleDancer Press.
Lantieri, Linda and Daniel Goleman, 2008, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True.
Schoeberlein, Deborah and Suki Sheth (2009) Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything, Somerville, Massachussetts: Wisdom Publications.
Willard, Christopher, 2010, Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed, Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.
Wright, Robert, 2001, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Vintage.