A (New) New Science for Moral Education: The Importance of Exemplars of Virtue for Human Flourishing

William Damon
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Recent studies in psychology and economics, known as the “new science” school of moral psychology, emphasize the role of emotions, intuitions, social pressures, and self-interest in determining everyday moral choices. As a consequence, the prevailing view of moral behavior in science and the popular media has become reductionist, deterministic, and relativistic, leading to a growing cynicism in the public perception of human nature. But this recent trend offers only a partial and distorted glimpse into the human moral sense, and it ignores the motivational power of ideals and moral virtues. For this reason, the so-called “new science approach provides a poor basis for moral education.

This presentation discusses a just-completed study of six public leaders who spanned the 20th century, and who championed moral causes ranging from world peace to social justice and human rights. The presentation uses these cases to illustrate how some people consistently make choices guided by their moral convictions. Not only do the six cases demonstrate the existence of conviction-driven choices, they also show how every person can learn to rise above emotions and pressures in order to follow his or her conscience. The six leaders represent a tiny fraction of people who, through education and development, become motivated by ideals and virtues when they make key life choices. As representatives of this far larger population, these six exemplars illustrate ways that people can draw on the best within themselves in their social behavior. This kind of moral commitment is an essential component of the psychology of our species, it is the key to human flourishing, and it is available to everyone through education and character development. The address advocates a new new science that can support such educational efforts.