The people's voice of reason


I am currently teaching a course about faith in my church. I make the rather obvious point that faith is what we really believe. I’m afraid that sometimes we don’t really believe what we say we believe. We always act consistently with our faith. Jesus said, “Ye shall know them by their fruit.” But if our actions always reflect what we believe, then why don’t we always do what we know is the right thing to do?

Plato thought if a person knows what is right, he or she will act consistently with that know-ledge. Plato has a following. A Twentieth Century expert in moral formation, Lawrence Kohlberg, built his cognitive developmental theory of moral development on that premise. At first blush the Plato/Kohlberg position appears to be consistent with our contention that we always act consistently with our faith. But St. Paul said it well when he said “The good which I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Flip Wilson may have explained it all when he said “The devil made me do it.”

Learning the correct principles of moral behavior is very important. If we don’t know what is right, there is a strong probability that we won’t do what is right. We need to know what is right. However, Plato and Kohlberg were wide of the mark with their theory that if we know what is right we will do what is right. Merely “knowing” is not enough. It is not complete faith. Faith involves the emotions, as well as cognitive learning. Faith is what we believe with our whole heart. The “knowing” has to connect to the emotions. If the moral training that connects the emotions to knowledge of right doesn’t happen in early childhood, learning that occurs later in life may not cure the problem. Psychologists Sigmund Freud and Eric Erikson nail it in their psychosocial theory of moral development. They recognize the role that emotion plays in moral development. Parents and peer group install the conscience. We don’t always act consistently with correct moral principles that we “learn,” but we are quite likely to act consistently with those principles if parents and peer group embed them in our emotions.

Even when we knowingly do things that we shouldn’t do, an understanding of faith provides the explanation. We always act consistently with what we believe at the moment, even if the belief is simply that we can get away with things that we should not do. In the fleeting but permanent slice of time that we call “now,” when all action takes place, what we do always reflects what we believe, even if shame and remorse overtake us immediately afterwards.

A properly installed conscience is more than shame. It is more than fear of detection. Whatever it is within us that watches our thoughts and connects to our feelings governs behavior. It pushes us to achieve the ideal self or ego-ideal posited by Sigmund Freud. The ego ideal is the good person that we want to be.

A well-developed sense of duty is and always has been essential for human progress. It usually brings about proper behavior. Moral behavior makes the group more efficient. Moral requirements serve the needs of the group. Human survival and social evolution depend on individual conformity to the requirements of the group. A properly functioning moral system promotes human progress. The belief that we might “get away with it” does not always (or even most often), override moral convictions. Sound moral development usually produces morally correct behavior without the necessity for outside compulsion. Knowingly doing what is wrong represents inadequate moral formation. The “internal observer” (Freud’s superego?) watches over our thoughts and feelings looks at the knowledge of what is right and wrong, the possible embarrassment of detection, damage to our ideal image of our self that will result from immoral behavior, and makes a judgment about what to do.

If there is a violation of moral expectations, the group will exert moral force to try to make the individual take responsibility for any damage resulting from inappropriate conduct, The group’s greatest ally is a properly installed conscience.

[You may check the names mentioned and the terms italicized in this article on the internet for more information.]


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