The Role of Culture in Moral Development

Daniel Pekarsky, PhD
Professor, Educational Policy Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison


The title of this discussion, "The Role of Culture in Moral Development", points to two different, albeit inter-related, questions: first, what role does culture play in moral development?; and second, what is the proper responsibility of a culture in guiding the moral growth of its members? This paper does not systematically explore what the proper role of a culture is in the area of moral growth, and it recognizes that precisely what this role should be is rightly subject to debate. At the same time, it takes it for granted that because, as I will discuss, the social universe that children encounter inevitably, and for better or for worse, influences their moral growth, a community needs to view itself as responsible for the moral growth of its members. This paper argues that while this communal responsibility cannot be adequately discharged through special-purpose institutions like schools, such institutions, if thought of in the right way, may be capable of playing a significant role in the process of moral growth. The reasons for this view will emerge through our inquiry into the role that, intended or not, culture does play in the moral development of its members. Before embarking on this inquiry, and because terms like "culture" and "moral development" are far from self- explanatory, let me preface my remarks with a few comments concerning how I will be interpreting these terms in the context of this paper.

I will be using the term "culture" in a fairly intuitive and very broad sense to denote the totality of the social environment into which a human being is born and in which he/she lives. Culture in this sense includes the community's institutional arrangements (social, political, and economic) but also its forms of art and knowledge, the assumptions and values embedded in its practices and organization, its images of heroism and villainy, it various systems of ideas, its forms of work and recreation, and so forth.

I turn now to the concept of moral development. By "moral development" I will be referring to the process through which a human being acquires sensibilities, attitudes, beliefs, skills, and dispositions that render him or her a morally mature or adequate human being. Of course, this definition is, at best, a mere shell, empty of content; for it tells us nothing about what those sensibilities, attitudes, beliefs, skills, and dispositions are that mark one as a morally adequate human being. There are two reasons for leaving this matter open. The first is that it may be presumptuous to present a positive account of this matter too quickly in the face of what we all know, namely, that the character of this moral content is a subject of rich debate across the whole of human history down to our own time. The second is that, for present purposes, it may be unnecessary to offer a positive account of the content of a desirable moral character. That is, much that I intend to say here does not require settling, even tentatively, on an account of a morally desirable or adequate character. At the same time, lest this account be affected in ways I don't recognize by the moral concerns at work in my own thinking on moral development, let me intuitively identify some of these concerns. Briefly, these concerns grow out of reflection on two matters: the Nazi Holocaust and kindred phenomena, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, social psychological and other research suggesting that the perpetrators of the atrocities our century has witnessed may not be as different from "the rest of us" as "we" might want to believe. Attention to such matters has led me to attend to those features of moral growth that are associated with two kinds of sensibilities, attitudes, principles, and dispositions: those that enable us to resist dehumanizing other human beings in thought and conduct in precisely those situations when there might be a disposition to engage in such dehumanization; and those that enable us to view ourselves as responsible for preventing such dehumanization when we see it going on. While this account of the moral domain is neither fully clear nor complete, it may help to illuminate the background the informs my approach to problem of moral growth and cultural context. Though I am doubtful that the approach would be substantially different were my interest in the subject grounded in other kinds of moral concerns, this possibility needs to be allowed for.

Against this background, my purpose in this paper is to use a powerful classical perspective on the role of culture in mediating our moral experience and development to highlight a difficult human problem. I then proceed to sketch out what might be called a classical American response to this problem, a response, strongly associated with John Dewey, that gives pride of place to educating institutions. While this response is not, to my mind, as compelling as the problem it addresses, I conclude by suggesting that, despite its possible shortcomings, we should avoid prematurely dismissing it. I turn now to the characterization of the problem.

Ancient Wisdom on a Perennial Problem

Both Jerusalem and Athens - the culture of the ancient Israelites and the culture of the ancient Greeks, each of which has substantially influenced contemporary Western civilization - speak instructively concerning the role that culture plays in the moral life of human beings. Commenting in Hellenistic times on the Biblical verse, "Noah was a righteous man, and perfect in his generation," Rabbinic commentators intimate two very different interpretations:1

"In his generation, R[abbi] Yochanan pointed out, but not in other generations. However, according to Resh Lakish, the verse intimates that even in his generation Noah was a righteous man, all the more so in other generations."

On the first of these interpretations, Noah is only relatively righteous; that is, relative to his perverse contemporaries, he looks very good, but this does not mean that he would be judged good by any absolute standard. This interpretation coheres with other rabbinic commentaries which emphasize that Abraham was, morally speaking, far superior to Noah.2

The other interpretation, however, is more germane to our topic. According to Resh Lakish, if Noah was capable of remaining righteous in the midst of the unbridled perversity that surrounded him on all sides, how much more so would he have been in a community in which morally adequate conduct was the norm! At work in Resh Lakish's observation is the insight that our moral outlook and conduct are, in the normal course of events, strongly influenced by the culture that surrounds us; and that, therefore, the person who is capable of arriving at moral insights that go beyond - and indeed defy - what is the norm in his or her culture, or who is able to maintain integrity in the midst of a perverse community, is a most extra-ordinary human being -- much more so than the one who behaves well in the midst of a community in which the norm is good conduct.

Interestingly, Plato expresses a very similar idea in a famous passage of the Republic:

Is not the same principle true of the mind, Adeimantus: if their early training is bad, the most gifted turn out the worst...Or do you hold the popular belief that, here and there, certain young men are demoralized by the instructions of some individual sophist? Does that sort of influence amount to much? Is not the public itself the greatest of all sophists, training up young and old, men and women alike, into the most accomplished specimens of the character it desires to produce?

Whenever the populace crowds together at any public gathering, in the Assembly, the law courts, the theatre or the camp, and sits there clamouring its approval or disapproval, both alike excessive, of whatever is being said or done....In such a scene what do you suppose will be a young man's state of mind? What sort of private instruction will have given him the strength to hold up against the force of such a torrent, or will save him from being swept away down the stream, until he accepts all their notions of right and wrong, does as they do, and comes to be just such a man as they are? And I have said nothing of the most powerful engines of persuasion which the masters in this school of wisdom bring to bear when words have no effect. As you know, they punish the recalcitrant with disenfranchisement, fines, and death.

How could the private teaching of any sophist avail in counteracting theirs? It would be great folly even to try; for no instruction aiming at an ideal contrary to the training they give has ever produced, or will ever produce, a different type of character -- on the level, that is to say, of common humanity....[Y]ou may be sure that, in the present state of society, any character that escapes and comes to good can only have been saved by some miraculous interposition.3

It is noteworthy that in this passage Plato identifies three critical variables that jointly give rise to the moral character of a human being: native traits (or what we might call genetic endowment or pre-dispositions); early childhood experience; and, finally, the surrounding culture. For our purposes, Plato's reference to innate traits that bear on our moral development, while interesting, is not immediately relevant. More relevant are the points pertaining to early childhood experience and to the power of the surrounding culture.

Let us begin with the power of the surrounding culture. Much like Resh Lakish, Plato offers the social psychological insight that the overwhelming majority of individuals will prove incapable of resisting the voice of the culture that surrounds them: in the typical case, their values, their beliefs, indeed, their very perceptions will tend to mirror those of the surrounding culture. To be sure, some individuals may at times find themselves in social contexts (like certain educational or religious settings) that enable them to take a step back from the culture's norms and to apprehend and affirm moral values that diverge from the culture's drift; but such counter-cultural values are unlikely to survive in a meaningful way when these individuals re-enter day-to-day life in the culture.

Viewed against the background of Nazi Germany and some of the other horrors of the twentieth century, Plato's suggestion that an individual is unlikely to maintain his or her value- commitments and moral givens in the face of a surrounding culture that represents and rewards different values rings all-too-true; and it may threaten to engulf us in pessimism concerning the human future. For this reason, it is important to note that Plato's perspective is not as pessimistic as one might think at first. Note, first, that along with its darker implications Plato's insight concerning the power of culture to shape our outlook and conduct also carries the more comforting implication that if the culture surrounding us embodies and rewards conformity to desirable social norms, it will tend to call forth conduct in the individual that is coherent with these norms; it can lead us to behave much better than we otherwise would, stilling or in any case muting less desirable impulses that might, in the absence of the culture's pull, lead us to reprehensible conduct.

It is, secondly, noteworthy that Plato qualifies his claims concerning the power of culture over the individual in an important respect which is worthy of careful attention; for he intimates that there is one kind of person who may be capable of withstanding the culture's pull! Who is this exceptional individual? It is the person who, having been born with the right native endowment, has also been properly brought up. A sound education in childhood offers, Plato suggests, a measure of protection in adulthood against the countervailing power of the culture!

This sounds like a very promising qualification of Plato's general view; but, as we shall see, it proves much less hopeful than one might initially think. The reason for this is that, for Plato, a proper up-bringing is impossible in the absence of a morally adequate cultural environment. And this brings us face-to-face with the problem of early childhood education as understood by Plato.

For if it is true that adults are powerfully influenced towards conformity with the culture that surrounds them, all the more so young children! In their case, the surrounding culture does not challenge and overpower their pre-existing values and dispositions, for these do not yet exist; rather, the culture creates these values and dispositions! Hence, Plato's insistence that the culture that surrounds young children in the form of real and fictional role-models represent ideals of conduct that are proper to a human being.

Then we must compel our poets, on pain of expulsion, to make their poetry the express image of noble character; we must also supervise craftsmen of every kind and forbid them to leave the stamp of baseness, license, meanness, unseemliness, on painting and sculpture or building...We would not have our Guardians grow up among representations of moral deformity, as in some foul pasture where, day after day, feeding on every poisonous weed they would, little by little gather insensibly a mass of corruption in their very souls. Rather we must seek out those craftsmen whose instincts guides them to whatsoever is lovely and gracious; so that our young men, dwelling in a wholesome climate, may drink in good from every quarter, whence, like a breeze bearing health from happy regions, some influence from noble works constantly falls upon eye and ear from childhood upward, and imperceptibly draws them into sympathy and harmony with the beauty of reason, whose impress they take.4

Thus, Jerusalem and Athens speak with one voice on the question of the role of culture in the moral life: culture is enormously powerful, tending to shape individual human beings in its image. Embedded in this view is a sharp critique of those who hold that "moral education", understood as formal classes designed to promote moral growth, has the power to nurture moral attitudes, dispositions, and sensibilities that improve on what day-to-day life in the culture encourages. How quickly, says Socrates, will the learning acquired at the hands of a teacher dissolve in the face of the allure and the threats presented by the crowd (the culture!). Do not, then, expect much help from courses in ethics designed to stimulate moral growth; and do not expect much from listening to, and even being temporarily moved by, the stirring insights of a moral sage. Such influences do not amount to very much so long as they are incoherent with the moral messages being forcefully and continuously communicated by the cultural environment.5

It follows from this analysis that rather than trying to strengthen direct instruction in the schools, our efforts should be directed towards weaving around the children of the community a cultural totality that will nurture them with images of moral goodness which will seep deeply and enduringly into their souls. When we do this, says Plato,

rhythm and music sink seep into the recesses of the soul and take the strongest hold there, bringing that grace of body and mind which is only to be found in one who is brought up in the right way. Moreover, a proper training in this kind makes a man quick to perceive any defect or ugliness in art or in nature. Such deformity will rightly disgust him. Approving all that is lovely, he will welcome it home with joy into his soul and, nourished thereby, grow into a man of a noble spirit (Plato, 1966, p. 90).

Unfortunately, this solution is itself seriously problematic: for it would appear to be naively unrealistic to think that we have the capacity to reshape the larger culture in such a way that the child is surrounded and nurtured by a worthy moral ideal; for better and/or for worse, we are far from knowing how to re-shape cultural attitudes and dispositions in accordance with our wishes. Indeed, those who seek the kind of cultural transformation that is being suggested as a condition of adequate moral education often turn to education to launch this transformation.

We have, it would appear, a chicken-and-egg problem: education is the key to the transformation of the culture's attitudes regarding morality; but, if Plato is right, the effectiveness of such education depends on a culture that supports the message delivered by educational institutions. Is there a way out of this vicious -- a term particularly appropriate, give our subject-matter -- circle?

An Approach to the Problem

To my way of thinking, there may -- and I use the word "may" deliberately to signify something short of full confidence -- be a way out of this dilemma. This way out is grounded in the insight that schools and families are not just vehicles of "direct instruction", but are themselves cultures. That is, they are social institutions in which are embedded a rich array of norms, customs, and ways of thinking. While it may true that schools, thought of as vehicles of direct instruction, are not in a position to compete with the beliefs and values that suffuse the larger culture, it may be that the culture of the school, if organized around a moral vision that improves on what is available in the larger culture, would prove a worthy competitor.

This distinction between schools as vehicles of direct instruction and schools as cultures and the suggestion that the power of schools as educating institutions lies largely in their influence as cultures are forcefully articulated by John Dewey in his classic book Democracy and Education. Commenting on the desirability of bringing about a culture in which work is so organized that 1) a better fit obtains between aptitudes and interests, on the one hand, and occupational role, on the other, and 2) workers experience work as an arena in which to grow and to contribute to the life of the community, Dewey turns to education as the path towards this ideal. But in doing so, he explicitly disavows the suggestion that education can accomplish this mission via direct instruction. He writes:

Success or failure [in achieving a more adequately organized society] depends more upon the adoption of educational methods calculated to effect the change than upon anything else. For the change is essentially a change in the quality of mental disposition - an educative change. This does not mean that we can change character and mind by direct instruction, apart from a change in industrial and political conditions. Such a conception contradicts our basic idea that character and mind are attitudes of participative response in social affairs. But it does mean that we may produce in schools a projection in type of the society we should like to realize, and by forming minds in accord with it gradually modify the larger and more recalcitrant features of adult society.6

What this means concretely for Dewey is that it would be futile to attempt to nurture, say, the spirit of social cooperation or the expectation that work is an arena for personal growth through any kind of direct instruction. There is, however, some likelihood of success if such values are woven into the very fabric, or organization, of day-to-day life in the school community, so that students encounter and absorb them as a matter-of-fact by-product of participating in the life of this community.

More generally, so long as the power of education to shape basic moral beliefs and dispositions is identified with isolated efforts to impart skills, understandings, and insights, there is little reason to think it can compete with the larger culture that surrounds the child -- especially if the cultures of educating institutions themselves don't cohere with the contents of direct instruction. But the moment we begin thinking of educating institutions as themselves forms of culture in which the child is immersed, the situation changes dramatically. Of course, one should not be naive about our ability shape the ethos of a school-culture in accordance with our aspirations; this too, as many an educational innovator and reformer will attest, can be most difficult. Nonetheless, it is significantly more manageable than the effort to directly transform the culture of the larger community. And if the culture of the school-community can thus be shaped, there is reason to hope that it will influence the young in ways that will endure even in the face of a larger culture that is at variance with the school-based dispositions and attitudes that they are acquiring.

"There is reason to hope" -- but hope is not the same as certainty or even great confidence. Imagine a school-community that successfully embodies a culture that is at one with our highest moral aspirations, and that throughout the life of this school -- in the teachers, in the curriculum, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, on the bulletin boards, etc. -- these moral aspirations live as social reality. It remains an open question whether a child who goes through such a school but continues to inhabit a larger culture that is at variance with the school- culture will be decisively influenced by the school-culture, rather than by the larger culture; and skeptics may also wonder whether whatever good is accomplished in such an environment will rapidly wash-out when graduates enter an adult world that is unsupportive and punishing of the attitudes and dispositions encouraged by the school. Such doubts are important and serve to caution us against the kind of naive optimism that might lead us to hold that the school can solve our problems.

But if, as just suggested, it is appropriate to avoid a dogmatic conviction that schools are adequate to the challenge of nurturing moral sensibilities and dispositions that challenge what is the norm in the larger society, it is also important to avoid assuming in advance that because of the concerns just raised schools are necessarily powerless in this arena. There is no strong empirical basis for such a view, and it is a view which discourages the very educational experiments that have the potential to give us data that will speak to this question.

There is also an additional (and very different kind of) consideration that augurs well for the power of the school relative to the larger culture. The suggestion that the larger culture will overpower whatever the child learns through the culture of the school may be built on an assumption which, though not identified and challenged in this discussion, is, at least in our own society, questionable. This is the assumption that the "the larger culture" is singular rather than made up of multiple voices. While this may be reasonably true of some cultures, it is arguable that in an open, multi-cultural society like our own the child encounters a multitude of cultural voices in the course of growing up, many of which are at cross-purposes. Because the effect of these voices may be, if not to cancel each other out, at least to weaken each one, the voice of the school-culture, if it represents a compelling moral outlook in a consistent way over many years, may prove very powerful -- in the same way even a small minority coalition may powerfully affect the course of a society if various other and possibly much larger political parties cancel each other out.7

But even if this question concerning the power of educational institutions relative to that of the larger culture can be satisfactorily addressed, it must be noted that there are other significant questions in need of addressing that I have largely bypassed in this discussion. For example: 1) is it even possible to develop an educational environment that is radically at variance with the larger culture of the community? And assuming it is possible to develop a few demonstration-sites of this kind, is it realistic to imagine such institutions on a mass-scale in a country like the United States? 2) Even if principle we agree that schools can and should be created that are organized around a moral ideal that is different from what is accepted in the larger culture, what is this moral ideal -- and who in a democratic society that is grounded in the Constitution and that is home to heterogeneous groups representing a diversity of moral outlook should be empowered to determine educational policy in this area? Though the beyond the scope of this paper, such questions are important and need to occupy an important place in our communal and educational agenda.


1 Hayim Nachman Bialik, and Yeshoshua Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), p. 27.

2 "Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9). R[abbi] Judah said: The phrasing may be understood from the parable of a king who had two sons, one grown up ad the other a child. To the child he said, Walk with me; but to the adult, Walk before me. Likewise to Abraham whose [spiritual] strength was great, he said, "Because you are whole-hearted, walk before me" (Gen. 17:1). But to Noah, whose [spiritual] strength was feeble, Scripture says, "Noah walked with God." Cited in Bialik and Ravnitzky, ibid., p. 27.

3 Plato's Republic, trans. by F. M.Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 199-200.

4 Plato's Republic, ibid., p. 90. In his commentary on the Republic, Allan Bloom offers a contemporary statement of the Platonic view:

"Men's views about the highest beings and their choice of heroes are decisive for the tone of their lives. He who believes in the Olympian gods is a very different man from the one who believes in the Biblical God, just as the man who admires Achilles is different from the one who admires Moses or Jesus. The different men see very different things in the world and, although they may partake of a common human nature, they develop very different aspects of that nature; they hardly seem to be of the same species, so little do they agree about what is important in life...If poetry is so powerful, its character must be a primary concern of the legislator." Allan Bloom, "Plato's Republic: An Interpretive Essay," in The Republic 0f Plato, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 351.

5 Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss contemporary discussions of the influence of culture on the development and expression of our character, it is noteworthy that the perspective I have identified with Jerusalem and Athens is generally at one with the findings of contemporary child development and social psychology.

6 John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan Company, 1916), p. 370.

7 I am indebted to Francis Schrag and Amy Shuffelton for calling my attention, in an earlier draft, to the fact that American culture is more plural than my account suggested; and this paragraph is intended to call the reader's attention to this point. While this is an important point to consider, I want to suggest that within the diversity of cultural influences a human being encounters in American society, there may nonetheless be certain voices representing particular values that speak very loud across these differences. To this extent, it would not be the case that the presence of multiple cultural voices in American society would operate to increase the strength of the school-culture.

Copyright © 1998 Daniel Pekarsky.

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