The Dimming Light of Morality
A few years ago, thirty-three parents, including a childhood idol, Lori Loughlin of Full House, were accused of paying up to $500,000 to illegally get their child into prestigious universities. Many were horrified by the deep dishonesty required to perpetrate such a crime. But Americans can’t be surprised. The generalized view, on either side of the political aisle, is that America’s morality is slipping. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 81 percent view American morality as fair or poor and 77 percent said morals are getting worse.* If we look at honesty as an indicator of morality, the reality of current levels of dishonesty is staggering, “While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, today between 75 and 98% of college students report having cheated in high school.”* There are many theories about why dishonesty and other immoralities are now commonplace, but I would like to examine the place of parents in this crisis. Am I, like my fellow mother Lori Loughlin, to blame for the degeneration of morality?
Whenever we go camping each of my five kids wants their own headlamp. I head to Walmart and get them each a $1 headlamp (Thank-you capitalism). The first few hours the kids play around in the dark with their bright lights, but then as the night goes on the light slowly dims. In the space of about four hours, the light is too weak to be useful. Is this the same trend we see in modern-day morality? In today’s age of political maneuverings and justification, honesty and ethics are rare commodities. Ronald Reagan famously said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.” The morality of previous generations is fading; we are now straining to see by its light. Are we witnessing an extinction of morality? And if so, does the blame lie with parents who didn’t change the batteries?
The Morality of Nutella
A few years ago, I went with all five of my children to the store, the oldest being 8 at the time – not my favorite pastime. After receiving several of the standard “you have your hands full” comments, I succeeded in wheeling my groceries and kids out to the car. As I finished loading up the trunk and reached to unload my fussing baby, I noticed a stray jar of Nutella in the cart next to her (don’t judge me, Nutella is the nectar of the gods). “Darn it!” I said as my kids looked on, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this!” I looked back at the store; it looked 100 miles away and packing the kids up and taking the trek back in seemed ridiculous. As I held the Nutella in my hand I had a flash of realization, “It is important that I return this”. This was followed quickly by my well-developed practice of rationalization. “They overcharged me last week. Walmart makes billions of dollars a year, what is one jar of Nutella? The kids are tired, I will pay for it next time I am here.” I buckled my baby and drove away. On the drive home my eight-year-old, who is extremely observant, said “Mom, you didn’t pay for that jar!” He was quite upset. I explained to him that it was too hard to go back; I would pay for it next time. He didn’t seem quite satisfied but I changed the subject. As I drove, guilt weighed upon me. I heard my disappointed mother’s voice telling me to turn around.
My mother is a very spiritual and moral woman. I have absolutely no doubt she would have paid for the Nutella. She would have packed up all seven of us kids and made a lesson out of it. She would have said, in jest, “I’m not going to hell for a jar of Nutella!” Her sense of morality was much larger than her selfish and “natural” desire to stay in the car. I realized that if I kept driving, my children would never remember my excuses; they would only remember that I stole the jar of Nutella. What would my display of immorality do to them? Perhaps, in twenty years, when they were with their kids and found an unpaid-for jar, they would skip the rationalization and take it without further thought. Why? Because the woman who taught them morality was herself a Nutella stealer. I put my own selfish nature above morality. And as for my grandkids, witnessing the thieving of their forebears, they will just go ahead and rob the Nutella factory. I turned around.
“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”G.K Chesterton
While we can never be morally perfect, I do think there was some truth in my excessive imaginings. If morality is not nurtured in children, then the voice of their conscience weakens, drowned out by the noise of their own desires. When there is no voice of conscience in a generation of children, great shall be the fall of our civilization, brought down by a storm of self-interest. Inculcating morality in our children is a big ask for parents. But what really is our duty? Are we the ones responsible for instilling morality in our children and keeping the voice of their conscience loud enough? If we look at science and theology, the answer is no and yes.
Conscience from Birth
When I held that jar of Nutella, my initial thought was that it was important to be honest. The thought was not my own voice, or even my mother’s (my mother’s voice came later in the guilt-stage). No, the initial thought was my conscience (or the Spirit). Although, “thought” doesn’t seem to be the right word. When we hear our conscience it often doesn’t come as a thought but more like a light or truth opened to us. But where does that come from? Is it my job as a mom to provide truth-revealing headlamps for each kid? That seems daunting. But I don’t want my kids to be psychopaths.
We have a light inside each of us. It goes by different names – our conscience, or the spirit, C.S. Lewis calls it the moral sense; I will use the term conscience. Science and theology teach us that children are born with an innate moral compass. They are able to recognize good from bad from the earliest months. Morality is not simply a generational issue, morality is found and can be lost, inside each of us.
In the article, “As Babies We Knew Morality”, it says, “It turns out that babies, who are too young to have learned about morality, have an innate moral sense. On top of that, they show a basic disposition to goodness.” They show as evidence such things as toddlers opening the door for a stranger they view as scary, or comforting someone who is hurt. I have certainly seen evidence of this “goodness” in my own children. Just yesterday my four-year-old put down the tennis racket she was wielding long enough to comfort her bleeding brother.
C.S. Lewis does a brilliant job of explaining the reality of the Moral Law, or Conscience. He explains the fact that the Moral Law goes beyond the scientific belief that our conduct is simply a result of impulses. Rather morality is found in the force (conscience) that guides us in our choices between impulses. I find it somewhat strange for a materialist scientist to claim that a toddler is “good” because she helps a stranger open a door. His ideology would argue she is merely obeying an environmental impulse for sociality. Impulses cannot be judged as good or bad. It is not the act itself that demonstrates her morality (that could be explained away as an evolutionary instinct) – but her choice to follow the Moral Law.
“Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think…of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”C.S. Lewis
For the purposes of this post, I recently did an experiment on my two-year-old daughter, Juliet. She is always famished after her afternoon nap, whining for a snack. Rather than feed her, I decided to make her wait. I wanted to get her so hungry that her “self-preservation” instinct was in full force. Great mom, right? Finally, I gave in to her demands and presented her with a bowl of ice cream. (Told you I was a good mom.) She sat down excitedly; I sat next to her and handed her the spoon. Before she had a chance to take her first bite, I pleaded, “Juliet, I am so hungry!” And I really was, tormenting a child can make you hungry, “Can I have some, please?” In that moment, I saw it happen. I saw that brief moment of choice flash in her eyes, her conscience at work. She chose to give me a bite.
C.S. Lewis further explains, “Men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.”
Juliet’s inner light told her that sharing with her hungry mother should take precedence, even over her grumbling stomach. This is the miracle of human nature.
Thus far, we mothers seem to be off the hook. It seems our babies are preloaded with morality software. No need to buy the headlamp; they have a light shining within them. But for all of us who have encountered a child or an adult for that matter, we have discovered they can also be little devils. So why is that? It is important to understand the nature of our body’s demands (impulses) vs. our soul’s directions (conscience) to see where our job as parents truly lies.
The Reality of the Soul
We now live in a time where our childhood quintessential ideal of a “good woman” – Aunt Becky of Full House – cheated her daughter into USC and up to 98% of youth admit to cheating in high school. Despite the powers of conscience, our collective selfish natures seem to be winning. How do we teach our kids to live directed by their moral soul in such a society?
The great British theologian George McDonald said, “Never tell a child, ‘you have a soul.’ Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body. The body is but the temporary clothing of the soul.” While the ideas of soul, mind, conscience, consciousness, will, and body are complicated and can be understood in many ways – for our purposes, we will simplify these concepts. Our moral self, I will call it soul, while separate from our natural self, is not itself the “conscience” or morality. Our soul speaks and listens to the language of morality – the tune spoken of by C.S. Lewis. When asked about the “soul”, Dr. Peterson explained, “A soul is that aspect of human being that is akin to Divinity, that is made in the image of God. That is a very important concept, I don’t think a society can survive, I don’t think you can have a relationship with yourself…or another person, and I don’t think society can organize itself in a productive and sustainable and peaceful manner, without that idea as the core idea. The core idea is that there is something of irreducible value that characterizes each human being, and it is of the highest value…that is the soul.”
What is so wonderful about our soul is that it has unique spiritual capabilities that are unrestrained by the physical laws our body must obey, such as time and space. The truth urging me to return the Nutella was not heard by my physical ears but by my soul. The body can simply see, but our soul can discern. When I was a child driving with my father, he had a sense he should change lanes, which he did. Immediately, the semi-truck we had been following lost its load of concrete barriers, crashing down on the now-empty roadway. The soul has powers that put the body to shame.
Parental Duty: One of our roles as parents, hoping to create a moral generation, is to recognize our own conscience and follow it. We also must teach our children that they are a soul, and that the conscience can instruct their soul to do things, which their instincts and body may not and cannot. Christ explained to his disciples that physical abilities and spiritual abilities are not always in sync. “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” If our children only learn and understand through their physical self, they are not learning or understanding all they can. Theodore Roosevelt said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
We need to help our children recognize the difference between the emotional and urgent call of impulse and the “still small voice” of the spirit. We need to focus on what we can do to help our children recognize the voice of conscience, and when the time comes, make the right choice. Relating to our children our own experiences hearing and following our conscience can help them begin to label their own similar experiences. Jordan Peterson discusses the conscience’s potential influence in our lives if we simply live to obey it.
My son, Calvin, told me one day that during recess he was chosen to pick his team for basketball. He said he really wanted to win, but felt he should pick a certain short unathletic kid first. He said the kid seemed so happy to be chosen. Despite a loss, Calvin said he was glad he chose him. My son’s physical eyes examined the size and shape of the boys, but his spiritual eyes discerned who he should pick. John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth…”
Parental Duty: We need to teach our children to rebel against our culture of degeneracy and to have the courage to choose the moral voice over the selfish voice. When I turned the car around to return the Nutella, I explained to my children my moral lapse and the remorse I was feeling. I explained the peace I felt in correcting my mistake. As we point out how the conscience feels compared to how selfishness feels, children are more likely to choose the good.
The Path to Lasting Morality
So how can we help our children choose the better of two voices? We have to choose the path of conscience ourselves. We also have to allow them to take the wrong path, and feel the sorrow of yielding to selfishness.
During Holy Week, we remember the story of the ultimate example of a life lived in perfect morality and truth, Jesus Christ. We also have the example of Peter, who, despite having deep faith in the Savior, ignored the promptings of conscience and instead yielded to the fears of his nature. Christ knew of Peter’s faith, but also knew of his selfish nature, saying, “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Christ warned Peter, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou has denied me thrice.” When Peter was faced with the impulse of self-preservation, despite his knowledge of the soul and moral truth, he fulfilled Christ’s prophecy and denied Him three times. As the rooster crowed, “Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him…And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Just as the voice of my mother revealed to me the unrighteousness of my Nutella-thieving, the rooster came as morality’s final attempt at rescuing Peter from the weakness of the flesh. Peter had the perfect example before him, Christ, the creator of the world. Christ accepted degradation and death rather than yielding to temptation. Christ knew Peter would betray his conscience, but he also gave him the opportunity to redeem himself. See John 21:15-17 Peter never again strayed from the truth, and with the courage of his convictions, was martyred for it.
As parents, we are not responsible for implanting morality into our children, but for nourishing it. We are charged with helping our children recognize that they are a soul, and that they should obey the voice of conscience over the demands of the flesh. However, as Lori Loughlin and myself demonstrate, the calls of the natural self are hard to ignore and they can overpower the soul’s best efforts. As parents, we need to be prepared for the opposition to morality and the increasing demands of selfishness in today’s world.
Part 2 next week will be: “Morality: When Nature Fights Back”
Postscript: The primary purpose of this blog is to get deep into the philosophical issues facing society, and mothers particularly. My greatest frustration in attempting to produce a valuable piece is the inevitable discovery of more depth and tangents on the chosen issue than I can include in a reader-friendly post. There are many aspects to the topic of Morality that I did not include (free will, evolutionary theory, culture). I will hope to write more at a future date.
I typically attempt to write in a way that is useful to atheists and Religious alike. I have come to a better understanding of how morality works in the lives of an atheist. However, I became frustrated in my attempts to make this applicable to those who don’t believe in the reality of a soul. I could not come up with the proper formula for teaching children morality, while at the same time, denying the reality of any kind of order or truth beyond that of our instincts and biology.
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Please watch this video, along with the one above, for an insightful breakdown of the origins and evidence for the Moral Law 13:04
As Babies We Knew Morality, The Atlantic. *https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/as-babies-we-knew-morality/281567/
https://slasherpastor.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/how-does-c-s-lewiss-moral-argument-stand-up-against-evolutionary-explanations-of-moral-development/ (interesting piece on C.S. Lewis’ belief in the Moral Law)
Sitting by Candlelight, Petrus van Schendel.
Little Girl, William Adolphe Bouguereau
Peter’s Denial, Carl Block
3 thoughts on “Morality: The Soul’s Defense (Part 1)”
I don’t recall JBP ever saying anything about Kohlberg’s stages of morality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development), but I’d be curious as to what he thinks of them. My thought is that he might endorse them, at least somewhat, given the fact that the final stage of development is directed towards the use of universal ideals to make moral decisions. I haven’t finished Maps of Meaning yet, but from what I have read so far, I think Kohlberg’s theory could dovetail well with the material there.
I had the tremendous good fortune to attend one of JBP’s lectures in Manhattan this past week. He did a Q&A at the end, and one of the questions was something along the lines of, “How do we manage the dark side of empathy (i.e., the devouring mother)?” He raised the points that mercy has to be tempered by justice, and that too much mercy can lead us to feel resentful. So, being moral is perhaps not always the same as being kind–if you are letting injustices slide and/or lashing out randomly due to resentment, perhaps you are not acting morally.
I am not a mother yet, but I am really enjoying this blog, especially your use of art with the articles. Keep up the great work!
Fascinating I will look into Kohlberg. And I completely agree about the unmorality of excess compassion. Check out my post in the Devouring Mother – I try to get into it in that. My conscience has directed me in the past to leave kids alone where my instincts directed me to nurture them.