Moving toward a morality of human relations.
Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.
In a previous article, I argued that contemporary morality in the United States is organized primarily an ethos or rights, that is, a concern for freedom, autonomy, fairness, and equality. While individual rights are foundational, a morality of rights — either for individuals or for groups — a single-minded focus on rights alone limits our capacity for moral personhood.
This is because moral beliefs involve our relations to other people. They arise, develop and gain their legitimacy in our relations with others. Without some system of shared (and contested) moral meanings, there can be no public basis for approving or disapproving of any particular course of action[i]. Thus, although we have the right to freedom of choice, choice without moral direction is blind. And the inverse is also true: while no one can legitimize a moral rule by oneself, moral direction without personal autonomy is oppression.
The 1960’s brought much that is good. These include movements toward civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights and the rights of the disabled. Our movement toward right — both the rights of individuals and groups — has come at the expense of shared virtues and social values. The more we privilege the rights of individuals, the more suspect we are of sources of value that arise from sources beyond the individual. But there are consequences of the severing of selfhood from shared social values. As our faith in government, religion, traditional norms, media, science, and culture have declined, we have lost our sense of connection to each other. The rise of individuality has come at the expense of community. We have found it increasingly difficult to believe in anything beyond ourselves and our freedoms to choose our own personal destinies.
In what follows, I call attention to the consequences of severing selfhood from public virtue in three basic areas — in parenting, in sexual relations, and in the civility and productivity of public discourse.
Improper Deference: Child-Centered Parenting
Parents (and educators) are often told that they should be “child-centered”[ii]. The child centered movement was a reaction to traditional “adult-centered” or authoritarian parenting. Traditional authoritarian parenting placed a high value on obedience; parents set the rules and children were expected to simply obey. In contrast, child-centered parents organize their childrearing around the needs and interests of the child. From this view, too much parental direction threatens a child’s inherent curiosity, creativity and self-direction. Borrowing a metaphor from the student-centered teaching movement, child-centered parents tend to assume the role of a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”.
Parents resonate to child-centered parenting for different reasons. Some child-centered parents want to foster children’s autonomy, initiative and creativity, and that parental direction robs children of the opportunity to direct their own behavior. Other parents do so out of a belief that self-esteem – feeling good about oneself – is a pre-requisite for success in life. These parents tend to praise their children’s successes and protect children from the emotional effects of failure. Still other child-centered parents think of children as “little adults” with rights similar to adults. Such parents tend to see their children more-or-less as equals. As a result, they believe that directing a child means imposing values onto the child and infringing upon the child’s right to make his or her own choices.
Hundreds of studies in developmental psychology have shown that each of these beliefs are harmful to children. First, parents who are both demanding and emotional responsive – that is, who have clear values and seek to support their children’s attempt to meet them[iii] – tend to have the most intellectually, emotionally and socially competent children[iv]. Parent direction per se is not harmful; it is coercive direction that harms children[v]. Second, self-esteem is not so much a pre-requisite for success as it is its outcome. Self-esteem develops as adults responsively guide children through the various tasks of life. At that point, self-esteem can carry forward into future behavior. Lavishing praise on children is more likely to produce a sense of self-focus and entitlement than to motivate success[vi]. Praising children’s abilities – rather than helping them meet high expectations – teaches children to value “native ability” over hard work and perseverance[vii].
The work of psychologist Jean Twenge shows that there have been meaningful shifts in social behavior over the past half-century. In comparison to earlier generations, contemporary college students show higher levels of narcissism, self-focus and entitlement; higher levels of anxiety and depression; a poorer academic work ethic; lower need for social approval; increased difficulty with emotional coping – yet higher levels of self-esteem[viii]. These findings are in line with what one might expect in the context of a general shift in American identity from one that includes virtue, values and character to one more closely focused on self-fulfillment.
Our moral identities – our sense of who we should be – act as a kind of moral guide for behavior[ix]. They identify the ideals that we use to evaluate our selves and our behavior as good or bad, right or wrong, worthy or unworthy. Creating an identity is like acquiring a skill. For example, learning to play basketball requires the cultivation of many skills over time. Basketball itself is a cultural activity that has evolved over hundreds of years. As a result, the desire to become a basketball player cannot be something that arises from within the child. This is because, as a cultural something, the game of basketball exists initially outside the child; it is not something that can be found by looking inward. A person who wishes to become a basketball player is someone who identifies with the values, practices and goals that define the game of basketball. A person becomes a basketball player when she masters those skills, makes them her own, and perhaps even gives them her own special stamp.
Learning to become a good person is much the same. Our sense of what it means to be a good person does not spring spontaneously from within. It is cultivated over time through the careful and sensitive guidance of others. This does not mean that there is no choice involved; becoming a good person is a life-long process that involves much struggle, deliberation, and therefore choice. However, the capacity to make responsible choices about the types of persons we should become is a developmental outcome – not a starting point[x]. How would the identities that our children create differ if, instead of teaching children to ask “What can I do today that would make me happy?” we encouraged the question, “What can I do today to become a better person?”
Beyond Consent: The Morality of Intimate Relations
The sexual revolution brought about massive changes in sexual relations[xi]. Traditional values not only upheld strict prescriptions against casual and premarital sex, they also stipulated different expectations about the roles of men and women in romantic life. Women were expected to be virtuous and defend their virginity; males were expected to act as “gentlemen”, courting women while respecting sexual boundaries. Negotiations about sexual activity involved verbal and nonverbal rituals involving male advance and female resistance.
These gendered rituals expressed an obvious double standard. Women who succumbed to male sexual advances were regarded as loose and immoral. While also subject to opprobrium, men’s sexual exploits were more accepted as part of the unofficial rules of manhood. Women who engaged in casual or premarital sex experienced social shaming. Happily, as a result of the Women’s movement, our society has made progress toward eliminating the double standard built into traditional gender roles. Women are able to control their sexual and nonsexual lives in ways more commensurate the freedoms typically enjoyed by men[xii].
However, the decoupling of sex from reproduction and traditional relationships has also produced other more questionable outcomes. Given the availability of effective birth control, people became increasingly freed from the fear of unwanted pregnancy. As long as pregnancy (and, more recently, sexually transmitted diseases) could be held in check, sex could be regarded primarily as a morally uncomplicated vehicle of pleasure: as long as no one is hurt, what happens between consenting adults is morally acceptable.
The result has been a normalization of casual sex among large segments of the population – and particularly young people[xiii]. In recent decades, “hooking up” and “friends with benefits” have become increasingly common among youth[xiv]. For many, “catching feelings” after a random sexual encounter is something to lament[xv]. Tinder — a website used largely to seek free sexual encounters – has become widespread. Technologies like Snapchat and Kik allow teens – including those under 16 – to routinely engage in sexting and exchanges of sexualized photos[xvi]. Concurrently, rape and sexual assault have become contentious issues on college campuses. Depending upon how “rape” and “sexual assault” are defined, research suggests that as many as one in four women in college have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact; estimates of the prevalence of rape on college campus range from less than one percent to twenty percent[xvii].
To address these problems, colleges have implemented “no means no” and “yes means yes” policies[xviii]. Unless partners explicitly indicate that a sexual advance is wanted, allegations of sexual misconduct can arise. Such practices, however, reduce the process of engaging in sexual activity to a kind of contract[xix]. Each partner agrees to grant the other access to his or her body as a means of gaining or giving sexual pleasure. In the context of an explicit desire to sever sexual activity from interpersonal feelings, sex becomes reduced to an exchange relation barely distinguishable from barter.
These trends result from viewing sex as through an ethos of personal choice unencumbered by broader moral concerns. While the decision to engage in sexual activity is an undeniably personal one, it nonetheless generates moral and interpersonal concerns that extend beyond the issue of consent[xx]. The “hook-up” scenario is based on the idea that it is both possible and desirable to approach sex as an act of pleasure divorced from interpersonal feeling. However, a few moments of reflection are sufficient to show that sexual desire is more than the desire for bodily pleasure: if so, there would be no need for another person.
Sexual desire is thus not only about pleasure. Something else is involved — and that something is another person. Sexual desire is about intimacy; it is a desire for another person — and not simply the other’s body[xxi]. Even at its most base level, sexual desire is a quest for a type experiential union through the coupling of the body. The empty and hollow nature of casual sex is something young people – more often women than men — often report after a series of encounters with “hooking up”[xxii].
Sex is thus far from morally uncomplicated. The moral issues surrounding sexuality include but extend beyond consent and respect for individual rights[xxiii]. They involve concerns about intimacy, obligation, jealousy, acceptance, rejection, vulnerability, exposure, and identity. In sex education with children, we have no compunction about explaining sexual mechanics, sexual boundaries, or ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, we fail to raise the most important issues – namely those about the value and meaning of sexuality in our interpersonal lives[xxiv]. Encouraging young people – regardless of gender[xxv] — to embrace intimacy as a core value could help them view sexual life as a quest for meaning rather than mere momentary pleasure.
Dealing with Difference: The Importance of Care
We are living, however, in a time of deep ideological polarization. Our polarization takes the form of entrenched political positions and affiliations; partisan antipathy; immoderation; racial tension; geographic clustering of partisan populations; and unwillingness to compromise[xxvi]. Partisans routinely regard each other as “crazy”, “out of touch”, “evil” and so forth. In place of constructive engagement, there is gridlock as disputants retreat into a series of isolated and self-contained positions[xxvii].
Democratic societies tend to adopt three basic strategies for dealing with difference. The first is the tolerance or celebration of diversity. In this view, often proffered by advocates of multiculturalism, diverse practices are neither better nor worse, but merely different. The second approach is debate. In the marketplace of ideas, persons or groups seek to convince each other of the superiority of their respective beliefs. The third– confrontation, challenge and war — results when the first and second fail.
Although these strategies seem to be strange bedfellows, they share a common assumption – namely, the privileging of separateness over engagement. Tolerance involves the co-existence of separate groups holding diverse positions. Debaters are divided into separate “us” versus “them” factions. War occurs when the other is seen as unmovable or irrational. Conflict, however, is rarely settled from the standpoint of separateness and opposition.
The resolution of conflict is not typically achieved through the discourse of rights and justice alone. Genuine resolution of conflict tends to require an ethos of care and engagement as well[xxviii]. Collaborative problem solving provides an alternative to the win-lose mentality of a debate[xxix]. Instead of viewing social conflict as a zero-sum battle over competing positions, it is possible to approach it as a shared problem to be solved. Instead of seeking to distance oneself from the other, one seeks to engage the other in an act of shared problem solving[xxx].
Restoring Public Discourse around the Virtue of Care
The values of collaborative problem solving differ from those that structure a debate. Debates are focused on convincing others about the correctness of one’s positions. In collaborative problem solving, interlocutors look past each other’s “positions” and seek to understand the interests, goals, fears and vulnerabilities that motivate those positions[xxxi]. In many situations involving conflict, parties find that while their initial positions may conflict, their genuine interests do not. When this happens, it is possible to jointly form novel solutions to shared problems that neither party could have produced in isolation.
Collaborative problem solving, while effective, is not easy[xxxii]. It requires a different way of thinking, feeling and approaching the task of resolving differences – moral or otherwise. It not only requires a steadfast commitment to advancing one’s core values and interests without giving in, but also to actively care about the interests, fears and pleas of the other – even when the other adopts positions we might hate. Collaborative problem solving works because it does not attempt to convince the other; instead, it uses a care as a foundation to forge solutions to the problem of clashing perspectives.
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