Ever since Plato’s account of the tripartite division of the soul, there has been an uneasy tension between reason and emotion. Kant’s moral philosophy stressed reason as the proper focus of morality and the enterprise of moral action, leading to the prevailing modern emphasis on moral reasoning as the apex of moral development and the goal of moral education. In psychology, Kohlberg’s conception of moral development has held sway, treating development as a progression in stages of moral reasoning. In higher education, although ethics courses are taught, most are designed to teach students moral theory; even applied ethics courses typically focus on teaching students how to reason about dilemmas.
In philosophy as well as psychology, the theoretical landscape is changing. There is a renewed interest in naturalistic approaches to the study of the mind, re-consideration of the psychological capacities that underlie moral action, and recognition that effective moral education must be informed by current empirical work in moral psychology. Simultaneously, in ethics there is a renewed interest in sentimentalism (building on the work of the Sentimentalist philosophers Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith), virtue ethics, and John Dewey’s writings on ethics and education. Recent work in ethics and moral psychology blends rationality and the emotions, recognizing that both are essential for moral action.
These broader theoretical shifts have implications for the methods and goals of moral education. As rationalists realize, much of ethics and moral action involves evaluating evidence, weighing options, and forming moral judgments. As virtue ethicists realize, the goal of moral education is practical deliberation, which involves instilling dispositions, habits, and skills for moral judgment and action. As the sentimentalists recognized, our emotions and moral sentiments that form the basis of our values, preferences, and evaluations are shaped by our social interactions with others—in effect, social interactions provide a form of education or training for the sentiments. And as Dewey recognized, education is a form of socialization through informed experience, and the humanities have always been integral to developing the skills, knowledge, and sensitivity necessary for free thought, informed citizenship, and deliberative moral action. The humanities serve an important role in educating for the abilities and skills needed within a polity as well as those needed for morality; indeed, we contend, these abilities and skills are the same.
At its best, philosophy is an interdisciplinary conversation of scholars across history, for historic texts and figures are not sequestered in the past but contribute to and inform modern work. In the Moral Psychology and Education Institute, we aim to integrate historic and current scholarship, apply theory to four illuminative cases of music, literature, film, and art, and provide the necessary background in moral psychology so participants can explore how and why the humanities are—and have always been—effective for moral development and crucial to moral education. In an era when humanities programs are increasingly whittled away by budget cuts and academe is evolving from its historical purpose of a liberal education to an emphasis on job preparation, we must demonstrate the role, function, and importance of the humanities.