Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1995 Issue »

    Moral Perception and Particularity

    by Lawrence A. Blum.
    Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 273 pp. $59.95, $ 18.95 (paper).

    If we are serious about wanting to end violence, then we must be clear about the alternatives we claim to offer young people. Nonviolence is not simply the absence of aggression, abuse, hatred, or exploitation, but the positive fulfillment of a way of being that is both attainable and which we, as a society, should support. In addition, we must understand what allows for the growth of nonviolent, compassionate, responsive, and caring ways of being if we are to foster them as alternatives for youth.

    In Moral Perception and Particularity, Lawrence Blum extends a critical line of thinking on the development of healthy moral responsiveness with an interdisciplinary approach that connects contemporary moral philosophy with a psychology of moral agency.

    Professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Blum critiques the abstract and impractical nature of much contemporary moral philosophy. He argues that

    moral philosophers have been too focused on rational principle, on impartiality, on universality and generality, on rules and codes in ethics. The importance of the psychological dimension of the moral life — that is, on moral life and experience themselves — has been masked, implicitly denied, or at least neglected. (p. 3)

    Insights into the psychological dimension of moral life should be of central importance to violence prevention in schools, whether in designing violence prevention programs that are not abstract and out of touch, or in considering disciplinary measures for those engaged in violent behavior that will not simply alienate them further. Unfortunately, many school officials, having uncritically appropriated this philosophical bias toward strict adherence to a set of rules and an alleged objectivity, often relate to students in a top-down style of management, focusing impersonally on the infraction of the rules to the near exclusion of understanding the students involved and their particular life stories. Aside from being a limited and limiting philosophy, this impersonal approach is also fairly ineffective for social control, where increasing discipline to compel adherence to rules handed down from above often leads to greater resistance, noncompliance, and a fracturing of the school community.

    Blum illustrates how a psychologically informed approach to understanding moral behavior requires an emphasis on personal relationships and relational knowledge incompatible with a distanced, anonymous relationship between educators and students. One implication of this for the school community is that if school size makes personal relationships impossible, perhaps school size needs to be seriously reconsidered, or perhaps institutional responses to infractions need to be created by people who do know the children well — a creative partnership with the community and the children themselves.

    It is commonly recognized that if children do not experience compassion, concern, fairness, and respect in their closest relationships, it is far less likely that they will learn to be compassionate, concerned, fair, and respectful with themselves and others. There are important implications of this insight for both educators and philosophers, acknowledging that moral interaction, such as violence and nonviolence, has as much to do with the ability to be compassionate and responsive as it does with any philosophic choice to be "good" or "fair." Exploring these insights, Blum identifies motivation, identity, perception, and relational orientation as aspects of human experience relevant to moral behavior and, therefore, as needing to be addressed by moral theory.

    Paraphrasing philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, Blum says that

    moral philosophy should have something to tell us about how to make ourselves morally better. It should recommend a worthy ideal and have something to say, grounded in a well-informed view of human nature, about how to direct ourselves toward that ideal. (p. 4)

    Blum's relational approach to moral philosophy is important, I believe, because we cannot speak meaningfully about how to assist youth who have become perpetrators of violence without first understanding clearly how other people develop other ways of being nonviolent, responsible, respectful, caring, and compassionate. Blum argues that contemporary moral philosophy has not felt pressed to explore what it is like to be a person who lives according to its various normative theories, nor how one gets to be such a person (p. 183). The development of an ethical way of being, he concludes, is not simply grounded in learning rules and standards, or even in more sophisticated manipulation of principles, both of which engage only part of a person's attention and way of being in the world:

    What it takes to be sensitive to actual injustice as manifested in particular situations in one's life is not the same as what it takes to see the character and validity of principles of justice. It is not as if the principles themselves already fully contain the sensitivity needed to recognize their applicability, violation, and the like. This is true of any moral virtue or principle, not only ones involving care or compassion for particular persons. (p. 51)

    As a corrective to this often myopic view, Blum explores the connections between cognitive, emotional, and relational aspects of moral experience that contribute to moral behavior. For example, Blum argues that moral agency — that is, the ability to make sense of and act on your moral concerns — is inextricably linked to your sense of relatedness to other people. He argues that how children perceive themselves and others in terms of similarity and difference, which is often argued to be the basis for a sense of moral connection to or distance from others, is basic to identity formation, thereby making identity formation a site where moral agency can be supported.

    Blum notes that children sometimes recognize differences between themselves and other children without such observational knowledge carrying weight for them in a moral sense, such that it prevents them from empathizing with or helping those other children. For example, they might note that another child has a different color hair or wears different kinds of clothes. Blum asserts that, by themselves, even differences in skin color do not lead to a distancing between children, except in contexts where skin color has been communicated to the child (by parents, peers, etc.) as signifying differential value or as requiring distance:

    Children's delight in commonalities between themselves and others (having Luke Skywalker dolls, wearing a red shirt, or the like) can involve a greater (though perhaps only momentary) sense of likeness or connection; but I would suggest that the sense of likeness or connection which allows for empathy must lie at a deeper level. The issue here partly involves whether the achievement of identity on the child's part involves a fundamental separateness prior to any sense of relatedness. Perhaps what is needed is a notion of identity formation that builds into it a sense of relatedness to others. (p. 194)

    This last point is particularly important in light of the fact that so much violence is traditionally explained in terms of alleged differences between perpetrator and victim: ethnic and racial violence, gendered violence and abuse, and international and ideologically motivated violence. Blum's critique suggests not only that parents and other educators must pay attention to their own teachings about difference and what "different" means, but that identity formation — how it is that children learn to identify themselves in relation to others — is at the heart of this issue of relating across difference.

    Picking up on various themes in philosophic and feminist thought, Blum challenges traditional notions of individualism as philosophic absurdities that lack psychological reality. Given that children develop in relationship with others, even at the fundamental level of how they define themselves, it is not reasonable, he argues, to conceptualize children as autonomous, disconnected moral decisionmakers. Blum advocates a different conception of a child as a moral agent, one that does not assume "a kind of radical separation between self and others" (p. 195).

    In theorizing about people's moral sense, Blum explores the literature on empathy and moral development, compassion and virtue, and delineates a conception of "responsiveness" in children that is very much a moral issue:

    Responsiveness in children is one developmental forerunner of the adult moral virtues of compassion, kindness, helpfulness, sympathy, and the like. . . . The claim of developmental connection can only be established empirically, but it does involve supplementing one influential view of moral development, namely that moral development consists primarily in the child's moving from a stage of egoism to one of social morality or conformity to social rules. Such a view is shared by theories of moral development as different as Kohlberg's and Richard Shweder's. (p. 196)

    This conceptual framework is compatible with and shares many assumptions and concerns of recent feminist work in philosophy and psychology. For example, Blum cites Carol Gilligan and Iris Murdoch in advancing the view that achieving knowledge of a particular person toward whom one acts is an often complex and difficult moral task that draws specifically on one's moral capacities. Drawing out the implications of these discourses, Blum articulates a link between one's moral stance toward the people in a situation, and one's ability to understand what's going on in that situation. He argues that understanding the needs, interests, and welfare of another person, and understanding the relationship between oneself and that other person, requires a stance toward that person informed by care, love, empathy, compassion, and emotional sensitivity — a distinctly moral stance. It involves the ability to see the other as different in important ways from oneself, as a being existing in her own right, rather than viewing her through a simple projection of what one would feel if one were in her situation. Blum contrasts this with Kohlberg's view, and the presumptions of a good deal of current moral philosophy that ignore the relational dimension of moral understanding, thus assuming that knowledge of individual others is a straightforwardly empirical matter requiring no particular moral stance toward that person (p. 218).

    Blum's views about the role of emotion and the centrality of relationships in moral life has major implications for those desiring to end violence between people. To illustrate some of these implications, Blum explores cases of "moral exemplars" who demonstrated extraordinary moral responsiveness, such as Oscar Schindler and other less-known persons who rescued Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Other, more commonplace examples involve young children doing things to relieve other children's pain and anxiety, protecting them from harm, and other spontaneous responsive behaviors. Weaving ethical considerations with real life stories, he provides a philosophic backdrop for a moral psychology capable of addressing such diverse topics as moral agency, perception, friendship, community, virtue, compassion, altruism, conceptions of morality, emotional responsiveness, and the justice-care debate in moral psychology.

    Moral Perception and Particularity, while written as a philosophical work, is nonetheless readable and down to earth. Blum provides insight for anyone wondering how best to conceptualize people's moral experience so as to support the positive development of their moral responsiveness and sense of agency.

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    Summer 1995 Issue


    By Stephen Andrew Sherblom, Jane Davagian Tchaicha, and Paula M. Szulc
    A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky
    Sexual Harassment in School
    The Public Performance of Gendered Violence
    Nan Stein
    Reconstructing Masculinity in the Locker Room
    The Mentors in Violence Prevention Project
    By Jackson Katz
    Cultivating a Morality of Care in African American Adolescents
    A Culture-Based Model of Violence Prevention
    By Janie V. Ward
    Preventing and Producing Violence
    A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence
    By Pedro A. Noguera
    Life after Death
    Critical Pedagogy in an Urban Classroom
    By J. Alleyne Johnson
    Violence, Nonviolence, and the Lessons of History
    Project HIP-HOP Journeys South
    By Nancy Uhlar Murray and Marco Garrido
    Youth Speak Out

    Book Notes

    Raising a Thinking Child
    By Myrna B. Shure, with Theresa Foy Digeronimo

    Ending the Cycle of Violence
    Edited by Einat Peled, Peter G. Jaffe, and Jeffrey L. Edleson

    Edited by Scott Cummings and Daniel Monti

    Culture and Imperialism
    By Edward Said

    Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party
    By Russ Bellant

    Teaching Young Children in Violent Times
    By Diane Levin

    By Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub.

    Dating Violence
    Edited by Barrie Levy

    Vulnerable Children, Vulnerable Families
    By Susan Janko.

    The Merry-Go-Round of Sexual Abuse
    By William E. Prendergast.

    Juvenile Delinquency
    Edited by Paul M. Sharp and Barry W. Hancock.

    Anger Management for Youth
    By Leona L. Eggert.

    Assessing Dangerousness
    Edited by Jacquelyn C. Campbell.

    Changing Childhood Prejudice
    By Florence H. Davidson and Miriam M. Davidson

    Practicing Virtues
    By Kim Hays

    By Daniel J. Monti.

    The Violence of Literacy
    By J. Elspeth Stuckey.

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.