None of us is perfect in our everyday lives — and certainly not in our morality, that inner voice that either moves or holds our moral compass to a compassionate setting. As a people, as a society, there have been eras where we have shown unthinkable inhumanity and others where we have gone to great length to care for others.
For centuries, scholars studying biology through psychology and sociology embraced a variety of theories: survival of the fittest, for one, and the now-popular “new science,” which asserts that we are solely guided by self-preservation and outside sources, rather than by an internal moral compass. And, it seems, the cynical media makes that view seem more credible than it may be.
In The Power of Ideals, William Damon and Anne Colby, two renowned scholars out of Stanford, dig deep into the theories said to buttress this new science of morality, unearthing areas of irrelevance and the issue of limited study participants. In so doing, they put to rest many of these ideas by revealing their fundamental weaknesses.
Damon and Colby believe that we do in fact have the capacity for authentic and learned ideals and principles. They posit that people make choices based on moral convictions that continue to change throughout a lifetime.
To oppose the “every man for himself” view of things, the authors examine moral causes such as world peace, social justice, and human rights through the lens of three virtues: inner truthfulness, humility, and faith.
In defining these three virtues, Damon and Colby demonstrate how it is possible for all imperfect humans to learn and evolve. They write that we can eventually abide by moral convictions that lead or contribute to compassionate and just social causes — and that we are driven not only by personal motive, but by broader social motives, too.
To look at how moral choice works, the authors analyzes “the words, deeds, and life histories of six men and women widely known for moral leadership during the twentieth century.” In particular: Jane Addams, Nelson Mandela, Dag Hammarskjöld, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
By zooming in on these individuals — called “exemplar research” — Damon and Colby attempt to illustrate that the qualities of moral leaders are likely present in everyone. Just as people can be self-serving and uncaring, the authors write, “they also can feel empathy, a desire for fairness, loyalty to others, and unforced respect for rules and authority.”
The six leaders in the book, one might notice, are from various countries and continents. But how do conflicting cultures achieve a greater universal morality when values broadly differ? One way is compassionate compromise, and recognizing that we do have the ability to look at our own ideas and challenge them.
“It’s understood in the fields of human development and education that the most complex behaviors appear to be automatic, fast, and unreflective once they become habitual,” Damon and Colby write. “But those who study human development, and those who practice education, know that habitual behaviors often begin as consciously driven choices, and at any time, people can decide to follow, question, refine, or oppose their own habits if their judgment leads them to do so.”
There is hope, then, the authors seem to be saying. We are not controlled only by some biological imperative, but have the ability to strengthen our morality.
The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice
Oxford University Press, May 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages