'Running in the Halls' and Moral Trivia

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Moral trivialization, linked closely to moral indifference, may be a more serious threat to our present society than moral ignorance.

I have been listening to 4th grade children explain what it means to be moral. Being moral, they say, means being a "good person." And what is that? "Be nice, be kind, don't run in the halls, raise your hand, don't chew gum, don't pass notes, don't talk loud, don't be late, don't fight." This sort of value-lumping is hardly surprising. One expects children to merge the shoulds and shouldn'ts of their lives and not to have a highly refined hierarchy of values--some moral, some not. More surprising is that when I ask teachers the same question, they too fuse important, but vague, values, such as "be kind," with idiosyncratic rules deemed necessary for managing children at school; no running in the halls is a favorite.

Now it is of course true that running in the halls causes excessive noise and possible accidents. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to forbid it. Rules that compel children to walk in a line, not stop until they reach their destination, lower their voices in corridors, and keep their hands to themselves may also be perfectly reasonable. But to call these rules "moral" stretches the term and not harmlessly so. Some would make the stretch: They argue that since morality concerns how we deal with, and demonstrate respect for, one another, running in the halls, with its potentially harmful consequences, is a moral violation. Or, that since the rule against running is legitimate, even though merely a traffic regulation, the disobedience to the rule is itself immoral. I argue that turning rules-of-convenience into moral mandates cheapens morality, thereby lowering its inspirational and aspirational pull, and makes it unlikely that the moral dimension will become central to a child's personal identity.

By lumping "running in the halls" with "being nice," or subsuming running into "being nice," we overextend the meaning of morality and thereby trivialize it. Moral trivialization, linked closely to moral indifference, may be a more serious threat to our present society than moral ignorance. The problem is not that children don't know right from wrong--they know the distinctions full well; it is that they don't care. Indifference is a tough nut to crack. What is the appeal one makes to a child who, when criticized for a moral indiscretion, say cheating, replies with a shrug, "Sure it's wrong but so what, everyone does it"? One would rather avoid, and not have to remediate, moral indifference.

When a child disconnects the wrongness of an act from its prohibitedness, she removes the fundamental meaning of morality--its prescriptiveness. To say something is a matter of morality is to say it obliges behavior. Lying and stealing are not matters of preference to be practiced when convenient, rewarded, or self-serving. Moral values are not matters of taste and preference--you like jazz, I like rock--where personal discretion and interests may prevail; they are supposed to be binding imperatives. To feel a personal obligation, particularly in a culture that stresses personal choice, requires weighty and worthy objectives that merit abiding commitments.

One way we encourage children to be moral is by exposing them to great exemplars, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, for example. We explain that they were great because they had a magnificent cause--the (to us) self-evident, eternal truth that all people are created, and must be treated, equally; they were great because they attacked wrongdoing nonviolently; they were great because they could and did love even those who would destroy them; and they were great because for their cause they put their very lives at stake. We do not tell children they were great because they didn't run in the halls, pass notes, or chew gum.

What transforms moral knowledge into moral bindingness is a moral identity, and that requires moral objectives worthy of incorporating into one's self-image.

Genuine morality is a hard sell. It demands self-denial, persistence, courage, and risk-taking. Almost by definition it means acting counter to our inclinations, making others' interests equal to our own. It means telling the truth when telling a lie would be more advantageous. It means refusing to go along with wrongdoing when the consequence may be loss of popularity. It means giving up opportunities for self-aggrandizement and pleasure. Moreover, the benefits of morality--purpose, direction, commitment, a deep sense of well-being, integrity, self-confidence, and self-fulfillment--tend to be neither obvious nor immediate. So why should a child bother?

In the short run, a child will bother because he fears punishment and seeks approval. In the long run, a child will bother only if he sees your interest as a form of self-interest, only if doing good translates into feeling good. What transforms moral knowledge into moral bindingness, in other words, is a moral identity, and that identity requires moral objectives worthy of incorporating into one's self-image. Thin gruel such as not running in the halls, chewing gum, or talking too loudly is not likely to be seized as constitutive of a self-image.

Lets get personal. I jaywalk. I'm not proud of doing so. I recognize the risk to my own and others' safety. I think it's wrong. I would stop jaywalking were I penalized with a stiff fine or, worse still, with the stares and disapproval of other pedestrians. I did, in fact, stop jaywalking when I lived in Berkeley, Calif. But giving up the habit then did not make me feel more worthwhile, or perhaps only slightly so. I certainly did not get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, "I am really becoming a good person." Not being a jaywalker did not become part of my identity. So when the sanctions were lifted, the bad habit resumed.

Similarly, a child might be pleased with herself when she walks, rather than runs, in the halls; nonetheless, her self-respect may remain inviolate if she reverts to running or raising her voice, even when reprimanded for so doing. We do not expect, and I dare say do not want, a child's moral identity and moral pride to have as its core obedience to local traffic rules. When we ask a child, "What sort of a person do you want to become?," we would not be satisfied if she said, "A person who does not run in the halls." Again, that is not to say the rule is inappropriate or even trivial, but it is a rule of convenience relevant to a particular situation, not a moral rule.

Children (ourselves as well) will make good and tough moral decisions, take pride in moral accomplishments, feel shame at moral lapses, and continually aspire to moral growth only if the moral act satisfies their self-definition. Lacking a moral identity, they will have little motive to resist daily moral threats and temptations, at least as long as discovery is unlikely or punishment minimal. Consider the following: An adolescent finds herself at a party with alcohol flowing freely. Plans are laid to trash another kid's yard because he is a "geek." The leaders proclaim that anyone who refuses to participate is a "jerk." Our student refuses. Why? Not from fear of discovery and punishment; she agrees that they will not be caught. Not because she is a friend of the victim; she, too, doesn't like him. It is simply that to commit the act defies her sense of self.

Those offering moral guidance to children have mother nature as an ally. Psychologists generally agree that we come into the world with a moral sense, with the capacity to empathize and act generously. The culture, then, enlarges and shapes that capacity or lets it die on the vine. It also selects the ends to which the capacity gets attached, defining what will move us to care, prompt our generosity, and provoke our shame. Out of this process comes a moral identity. Possibly the moral sense could get connected to school traffic rules, but I think it unlikely. Children at a very early age, it has been shown, are able to distinguish conventional from moral rules. Without being explicitly taught, they know that not running in the halls is trivial compared to treating another decently. They see traffic rules as alterable and less binding than moral rules. But even if they did not naturally make the distinction, surely it would be foolish of us to squander their moral sensibility by attaching it to minor rules rather than to our most prized and fundamental values: justice and benevolence. Furthermore, these lofty and difficult goals are more likely to be the stuff of a self-image.

There is a good chance that our adolescent who did the just act and paid the social price will look in the mirror and think, "I am proud to be a person who tries to act justly." That deepest of personal gratifications will override the costs.

Joan F. Goodman is a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 37, 52

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as 'Running in the Halls' and Moral Trivia
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