A Realistic Moral Education

“Virtue is as little taught as is genius.” -Schopenhauer

In the book “Influence,” Robert Cialdini explores the various ways that human beings persuade, manipulate, and coerce each other. Referring to these skills as “social jiu-jitsu,” he explains how people apply them to the vulnerable parts in human nature, like our desire to remain consistent, confirm our beliefs, or fit in with the group. Particularly interesting were the remarkable similarities between the rites of passage between the Tonga tribe of Africa and most fraternity “hell weeks.” They both use beatings, exposure to cold, thirst, eating of unsavory foods, punishment and threats of death. Strangely this adversity makes the fraternity much more attractive because it is being selective and representing membership as a scarce resource. The hazing makes pledges value membership more because each sacrifice that they endured was a confirmation of their decision, and quitting would not just prove them cowardly, but also prove them inconsistent, as if they didn’t really know what they wanted. This “survival” is an accomplishment of self-assertion and self-consistency. Their torturers are also witnesses to their bravery and accept them, affirm them as being brave enough. This is a tried and true method of maintaining group loyalty. However, history has taught us of the inherent dangers posed by our natural tribalism. We are now trying to extend Peter Singer’s “moral circle” beyond all distinctions of race, tribe, nation, or any “in group.” What we have patently failed to do, however, is provide a suitable replacement for the traditional right of passage, which has existed in every human culture. Instead, we leave teenagers to discover their own rites of passage that often involve drugs, reckless stunts, street fights or other harmful tests of their courage. Moreover, our education system fails to awaken wisdom in our kids, opting instead to prepare them for standardized tests or to be good little worker bees. This is all the more tragic because it squanders the enormous leaps that the social sciences have made in understanding human nature and motivation. However, a true moral education cannot effectively consist of lectures on human nature and morality, and perhaps this explains much of why our education system fails to even bother addressing moral development academically; opting instead to rely on a “liberal arts” education to produce character as some kind of natural byproduct.

Teenagers are magnets for any information on how to obtain power, in its various forms. Two strategies that are probably the first to pop up in this search are physical coercion and verbal coercion (rhetorical domination of some kind). Yet, we don’t teach our children how to deal with either. We simply tell them that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you,” as if this will become true simply by chanting the mantra enough times. The truth is, however, that an ego broken by a salvo of words hurts much more than a broken bone, and a moderately intelligent bully can easily manage both. The law of the jungle still lives. The concrete jungle operates by the same laws and has only shifted the criterion of “fitness” more to the intellectual side of coercion than the physical (at least in adulthood). Deceived by the illusion that all competition has been channeled into positive ends like market capitalism, where the law can protect us from predators, we deliver our domesticated children completely de-clawed into the mouth of this concrete jungle, equipping them neither for it or the jungle that came before. Fortunately, our children will arm themselves. Unfortunately, they will often harm themselves and others while learning how to do so. How can it be that after millenia of cultural evolution we find ourselves impotent to provide a decent moral education or provide training that will equip our boys for modern manhood? Perhaps some of that cultural evolution has acted as an impediment by hopelessly muddling issues and replacing worthy predecessors.

The two systems or approaches to moral reasoning that have dominated the intellectual discussion are consequentialism (roughly utilitarianism) and deontology (roughly maxim-oriented, categorical though such as Kant’s). However, modern social psychologists, moral philosophers, moral psychologists and other brain scientists have begun to revive a clearer perspective on moral reasoning that is based on “virtue ethics,” and here I am referring to Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Green and others. These researchers have shown us that we choose to defer to either of the two basic moral modes of consequentialism and deontology at our convenience. Sometimes we side with utilitarians and answer a question by saying “this produces more good for more people,” and other times we find it convenient to side with deontology and answer a question by citing “natural rights” or saying, “this action is categorically wrong in all circumstances.” These researchers carry on the work of David Hume and others in emphasizing the centrality of our “moral sentiments” to moral reasoning, often drawing an analogy between our moral sentiments and our sense of taste as both involve innate, intuitive reactions to environmental stimuli. As they point out, we even use some of the same language in both contexts, such as when we experience moral “disgust” or see something that “leaves a bad taste in our mouth.” Much like our pallet, we can become more sensitive and refined in our moral tastes. The problem is, however, that much like with food, it often takes our being in the physical presence of such stimuli to excite these sentiments. Thus, we can all report that we would help the drowning child in Peter Singer’s “Shallow Pond” example, but yet seem to be violating our own moral principles by not donating money to help starving children thousands of miles away in Singer’s other example. This is simply because our intuitive moral reasoning system was not designed to care about people thousands of miles away, but our “manual” or “rational” system can spot this inconsistency and leaves us languishing in cognitive dissonance. This creates an enormous problem for moral eduction because we have to impress on our children that their natural moral sentiments are not always right, as they evolved to foster the survival of the family or tribe (the “in-group”) at the possible expense of other families or tribes (the “out-group”), but are then left only with maxims, moral blueprints from various religions, and deontological reasoning to refine or replace their “intuitive” system so that it can accommodate the realities of a modern, globalized world. This focus on maxims, rules, categorical imperatives and so forth often fails to engage the natural human motives that our moral sentiments provide us with, thus blunting the intended “refining” of these sentiments by the movements of Reason. We are essentially asking our children to develop refined and sensitive pallets by reasoning about food instead of actually sampling various foods. Or, to use the analogy of wine-tasting, we are too afraid of our children getting drunk to let them experiment with different flavors of wine. Even though we can imagine what a chardonnay tastes like, and this may even give us a little craving for some, this is just not going to improve our discriminatory abilities like regular wine-tasting will. But placing our children in actual moral situations that would viscerally activate their moral sentiments is inherently dangerous, just like drinking is. However, our children are going to experiment with drinking regardless of our rules just as they will experiment with moral situations regardless of our rules.

The moral sentiments, much like our immune system, come with basic functions that are somewhat adaptable and can be refined and improved to fit the demands of the environment. Just as the overprotective parent who keeps his kids indoors so that they don’t get sick is actually blunting the development of their immune system (leading to allergies and so forth), so the overprotective parent who keeps his kids out of all morally ambiguous or morally demanding situations is blunting the development of their intuitive moral sentiments; literally producing a weak moral immune system that is prone to the “moral allergies” of fear, moral apathy and narrow selfishness. Swinging to the other extreme, parents can let their kids experiment, get hurt, and hopefully they will survive and either learn their lesson or be cowed into submission by  subsequent moral disapprobation and censure. This is obviously far from ideal as our kids could get seriously hurt and most likely won’t respond to our moral lectures, which often have more to do with lifeless maxims and less to do with the painful consequences that the kid just experienced and might actually learn from. To make matters worse, this instruction via moral disapprobation and censure comes at precisely the time when a child’s critical mind is coming into its own and making quick work of any tradition or stodgy vestige of his parent’s outmoded culture. The method of ethical instruction that these parents favor is quite similar to the way in which disease is treated in western medicine as they wait until symptoms arise to address them, but unfortunately teenagers don’t want to take their medicine!

What is desperately needed is a form of psychological “preventative medicine,” but this cannot come in the form of inert knowledge, traditional values, or impassioned moralizing–least of all full-blown indoctrination. As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “virtue is as little taught as is genius,” and “we should therefore be just as foolish to expect that our moral systems and ethics would create virtuos, noble, and holy men, as that our aesthetics would produce poets, painters, and musicians.” To become virtuosos, painters must paint, poets must write poetry, musicians must play music, and moral beings must exercise their moral sentiments in action, though theory plays an important role in all of these cases as well. Ethics and virtue are not learned in the classroom; they are done in life, and learned almost accidentally—after the fact. They are learned in the same way that we learn which foods we like via a process of trial and error that teases out what our actual tastes are.

David Hume argues convincingly that “The rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason.” Though Immanuel Kant tried to intellectually refine and perfect this natural human faculty, he would agree with Hume’s claim, as he even argues that “conscience” is one of two great mysteries; that this “moral law” could not be explained, but was just a basic part of man—a “given.” Knowledge of this moral law, as well as knowledge of one’s own character, are learned not by reasoning, but by acting. As Schopenhauer asserts, only as a motive “is put into action does it reveal its own nature to the cognitive faculty,” which learns “the nature of its own will only from its actions, empirically. What one calls conscience is really this closer and progressively more intimate acquaintance.” This explains why virtue cannot be taught by ethical rules or appeals to reason: it must be experienced first hand in the world of action. It is only after harming someone and feeling the pangs of conscience tear away at you that ethics gains any motivational force, or conversely, helping someone and feeling a splash of meaning accompanied by the faint promise of reciprocation.

Preventative medicine for the body involves good nutrition and exercise. Preventative medicine of the soul requires much the same thing: physical exercise combined with the nutrition of morally demanding interactions, or those that literally exercise the moral immune system. The martial arts don’t simply teach physical and mental discipline, they can also teach ethics and virtue by placing kids in an environment that requires ethical actions. Sparring offers an arena of trial and error which naturally reinforces and refines one’s moral sentiments by necessity. Nobody will spar with you if you display a lack of character, and those who are willing might give you a taste of your own medicine. Though these are powerful incentives to “play fair,” the real moral progress is made when mistakes are made and one must grapple with that sickening feeling in the stomach that accompanies wronging a friend. This environment can be carefully controlled so that whatever the outcome, no serious damage will be done, but it is imperative that real consequences exist because this is the only way that virtue is learned. Though the worlds great moral thinkers have given us great one-line aphorisms to teach to our kids, we must break out these big guns only while our kids are actually feeling the principles related by these aphorisms. Thomas Paine, for example, asserts that “character is much easier kept than recovered,” which is stated in another way by Nietzsche, who asserts that (good) “character is determined more by the lack of certain experiences than by those one has had.” Nietzsche explains that morality is designed to protect that which a man values and thus “fear is the mother of morality.” But how are kids supposed to learn that certain experiences are morally and psychologically scarring without experimentation? How will they know which fears should prompt them to flee and which to stand their ground? Moreover, how are they supposed to form any deontological maxims regarding “boundary testing” if sometimes their experiments reinforce the utility of trespassing on traditional values, and other times reinforce the dangers endemic to such experiments? Scarcely any teenagers are willing to remain in the dark about such matters, and will in fact perform such experiments in one form or another, eventually discovering which lines can be crossed without disturbing their own conscience. Watch any two (preferably unsupervised) brothers playing and you will see a healthy example of this boundary testing, as they will inevitably start wrestling or rough-housing. All social animals seem to do this and human beings are in fact prototypical examples of animal behavior in this respect. Little boys play with guns and wrestle with each other and little girls play with dolls, hold tea parties, and nurture each other. This all just seems like good, natural “fun” to kids, but evolutionarily speaking they are establishing boundaries, exercising their skills, and becoming better prepared for adult life. Just like in all dog species, human males play fight and play hunt because our male ancestors needed to do a lot of these things as adults. However, watch those two unsupervised brothers long enough and you will likely see a real squabble ensue as there are no rules to the game and much confusion on what constitutes “fair play.” “What about knuckles in the ribs, or small joint manipulation, or tickling, or biting…are these allowed?” Once again, the martial arts provide a well-tested and thorough system of allowing kids to compete with each other, test boundaries, discover their own physical powers, but most importantly, discover their own moral nature. This last virtue of martial training comes about somewhat counter-intuitively to those of us who were raised in a Judeo-Christian environment that might have taught the virtues of pacifism, turning the other cheek, and unconditional love. How can fighting produce peace? How can violence produce personal moral progress? As usual, Aristotle gives us a good answer. “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.” The Christian would agree that turning the other cheek or loving your enemy takes an immense amount of courage, but where is this courage supposed to come from? Though they would likely respond that it comes from the holy spirit or a faith in god, they would also likely agree that it takes much work and experience to be fully possessed by the holy spirit or to be granted the grace of faith. We are no more born with the requisite courage to be moral heroes than we are born with the requisite physical strength to run a marathon.

The martial arts are primarily in the business of developing courage, but they have the added advantage of dealing with one of the greater sources of immoral behavior: aggression and violence. The beauty is that human males are quite naturally fascinated with these subjects to begin with! Much to the disappointment of every power-hungry teenage boy, however, the reality of violence does not live up to the romantic, idealized version seen in movies and or their fantasies. The reality is harsh, unforgiving, sloppy, clumsy, and most often quite demeaning to everyone involved. So why not approach these kids with reality instead of leaving this topic to the inept methods of the very people who they are actively individuating themselves from (their parents), or worse, to the influences of their peers, popular media, or their imaginations? Would it not be better to open this topic up for discussion and inundate the child with the reality of violence? As William Blake wrote, “the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom… for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” Every teenage male will walk the road to excess, so why not pave this road for him and allow him to walk it until his feet blister and he longs for the rest stop of moderation? Instead, we shelter our children from violence, which establishes violence as a forbidden fruit that merely inflames their curiosity. It is better to expose them, almost overexpose them to violence–the logic of this strategy being that if you allow a kid to glut himself on ice cream he will inevitably get sick, then he will associate his overindulgence with sickness and cease to fantasize about gluttony. The first goal of any combat instructor should be to un-romanticize violence and this involves showing the students violence in all of its gory detail. Moreover, these students should be taught that there are parts of the human psyche that are potentially destructive and ugly that should not be repressed but explored and understood lest they manifest in unhealthy, painful ways. Emotions like anger are not innately evil forces that we should repress. There are times that one should be angry and that one would really fail to be human if he was not angered by such things. The big question is how do we deal with anger, both in our selves and in others?

The field of psychology is of one voice on the matter of how important a child’s early years are to his eventual mental health. Yet, it is usually not until later in life when symptoms become “clinical,” that is start seriously interfering with a “normal” life, that these symptoms are addressed. Alfred Adler wrote that, “neurosis and psychosis are modes of expression for human beings who have lost courage.” Ernest Becker explains that this is “the same as saying that it reflects the failure of heroism.” This is because the central aim of the human organism, according to Becker, is to live in a way that justifies feeling good about ones self—that is, to live heroically in order to have what is popularly called “self-esteem.” Victor Frankle might call this a search for “meaning,” Maslow a search for “self-actualization,” and religious men a search for “spiritual nourishment.” As William James puts it, “What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise although the philosophers generally call it recognition!” We want recognition from others and from ourselves that we indeed deserve our dignity, our self-esteem. Ernest Becker tells us the following about self-esteem:

“High self-esteem means such a sense of invulnerability, and one gets it in three basic ways. It derives first from the power of the other—from the mother when she is a dependable support and does not interfere too much with the child’s own activity and from a strong father with whom the child can identify. The second source of power to overcome vulnerability is…the secure possession of one’s own body as a safe locus under one’s control. We see that this security can be weakened by traumas, as well as by the quality of the early family environment. A third way one obtains power is of course form the cultural causa-sui project, the symbols and dramatizations of our transcendence of animal vulnerability.”

There is not much that a martial arts instructor can do to compensate for the lack of a mother’s support, but the remaining three sources of high self-esteem are well within his sphere of influence. He can:

1) act as a strong father-figure with whom the child can identify,

2) encourage the student to evaluate various cultural “causa-sui projects,” as Becker calls the various myths of a heroic human life, and make sure that physical prowess is not the basis of the student’s vision of true heroism, and lastly

3) teach the student to be in touch with his own body and its physical powers in order to foster in the student “the secure possession of [his] own body as a safe locus under [his] control.”

This third foundation of high self-esteem is obviously the most direct and easy one to address for the martial artist. Becker shows us how important this is to a healthy psychological development. “Right away we can see that the schizophrenic is burdened, like all of us, with an ‘alien’ animal body. What makes his burden greater is that he is not securely rooted in his body. In his early childhood development he did not develop a secure “seating” in his body: as a result his self is not anchored intimately in his neuroanatomy.” The great purpose of martial arts is to unify one’s neuroanatomy; to make the mind and body one, thus abolishing the dualism that reaches its apogee in the schizophrenic. Finding this “one-ness” is the goal, and accounts for how the martial artist can come to find something peaceful about combat. In a modern world dominated by the computer screen and virtual instead of physical interactions, it is not hard to see that losing touch with our bodies is a real danger. This is not dangerous merely because it threatens self-esteem or in extreme cases may lead to the aloof world of Schizophrenia, but also because “there is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy,” to use Nietzsche’s words. It is the churning in our stomachs and the aching in our hearts which communicate the pains of our conscience; that warn us of the transgression against ourselves that accompanies any transgression against another. It is the truth in our body that keeps us from rationalizing away any of our actions. Anyone who has lost his appetite or his ability to let his body sleep because of a guilty conscience can attest to this truth. One of Bruce Lee’s student’s once told me that Bruce was fond of saying “to see and hear is to be deceived; to feel is to believe!” Though he is talking specifically of the advantage of tactile versus visual or auditory stimuli during a fight, this is as true of a violent encounter as it is of a moral one. We can see moral actions on TV, hear them discussed in moralizing lectures, but to feel the moral quality of an action that one is doing is to believe in it.

To address the first two foundations of self-esteem that are within his sphere of influence, a good martial arts instructor should teach the student what true courage is. Now, courage is often taught indirectly on the football field as well as the dojo, but my central argument here is that neither are appropriate venues unless the teacher is also a philosopher or psychologist. Courage is the most important thing that we can teach our children and this should not be left to people possessing only a black belt or a degree in sports management. The result of this is often enough blind machismo; or as Becker puts it, the elevation “of animal courage into a cult.” In place of this, the heroic ideal of the philosopher is not the seeker of mere knowledge, but the seeker of wisdom. As Lao Tzu characterizes wisdom in the Tao Te Ching, “He who knows others is learned. He who knows himself is wise.” The gloomy writer of Ecclesiastes who wrote, “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” should have also noted that he who increaseth wisdom diminishes sorrow. The good martial artist should be able to teach both knowledge of others and knowledge of self; that is, he should teach the truths of human nature, which have been thoroughly worked out if poorly disseminated.

Learning the truth about ones self is harder than any physical battle, and requires much more courage because the opponent is not an external force but an internal one. Bertrand Russell wrote that, “Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for cooperation with oneself,” and it is only after learning oneself that one can know how to cooperate with it. However, nobody can teach this, but only help someone learn for themselves. Moreover, as Jung writes, “the greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown.” Teachers cannot solve the ethical problems of life for their students. They can only help them outgrow them through action, guided by careful thought but not outgrown by rational thought alone. “Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action,” William James warns us.

Given what Adler says about psychological illness, it seems that all such illness is a result of a failure to “outgrow” the most important problems of life, which invariably surface during adolescence. Becker writes that, “there is really no conviction possible for man unless it comes from others or from outside himself in some way—at least not for long. One simply cannot justify his own heroism in his own inner symbolic fantasy, which is what leads the neurotic to feel more unworthy and inferior. This is pretty much the situation of the adolescent who has not discovered his inner gifts. The artist, on the other hand, overcomes his inferiority and glorifies himself because he has the talent to do so. From all this we can see how interchangeably we can talk about neurosis, adolescence, normality, the artist—with only varying degrees of difference or with a peculiar additive like ‘talent’ making all the difference.” The problems of adolescence are just these insoluble, but nonetheless fundamentally important problems of life that must be outgrown. As we noted earlier, these problems cannot be solved by reason alone, and we cannot teach talent any more than we can teach virtue. However, Becker tells us that we can influence someone’s convictions as to the properly heroic life. Far from replacing these with a teacher’s own convictions, the best method of helping a student outgrow his problems is to show him how his convictions are feeding these problems. As Nietzsche taught, “convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies,” especially when these convictions are possessed by a powerful rational mind and are not shared with others, who might temper these convictions. Reason without connection with the world of action can be a dangerous enemy. As Becker explains, “Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know, and that trait is one of the accompaniments of their undoing. All their vital processes are shrunken into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances, to relax and laugh at the world.” To the modern mind, making loud screams and breaking boards seems to be a rather foolish, even laughable act of a childish mind. However, Becker’s insights are again useful here:

“the only secure truth men have is that which they themselves create and dramatize; to live is to play at the meaning of life. The upshot of this whole tradition of thought is that it teaches us once and for all that childlike foolishness is the calling of mature men. Just this way Rank prescribed the cure for neurosis: as the “need for legitimate foolishness. The problem of the union of religion, psychiatry, and social science is contained in this one formula.”

There simply is no better, more natural source of such “legitimate foolishness” than the martial arts. Every social animal uses play fighting as a means of developing good instincts, strong bodies, as well as establishing the physical pecking order. The human animal is no different and there is nothing more natural for male children to do than to wrestle and play fight. If they are honest with themselves, grown men will admit the persistence of this urge throughout their adult lives too. As Nietazhe says, “in every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” In truth, competitiveness and aggression don’t have to be the nasty male traits that they are chalked up to be. The problem is that there is no really healthy venue or outlet for this instinct in society. Many a fight is caused simply by the curiosity of each fighter regarding how his physical powers compare to those around him. Why not satisfy that curiosity in a safe environment?

As Desmond Morris notes, sports like football seem to simulate the group hunting behavior of our tribal ancestors, and act as release valves for man’s competitive pressures. This seems fairly intuitive, given that most of these kinds of sports involve throwing objects with great precision and coordinating the actions of one’s compatriots for a single goal. However, this disregards the competitive nature of these games and ultimately the source of man’s competitive urges. He is not merely honing his skills against those of his companions for mutual gain, he is also trying to shine above them all. The high school wrestling team is a better approximation of man’s natural instincts as it is built around the concept of winning and dominating individually. However, this isn’t the healthiest attitude to take towards these instincts. Man’s spirited nature, his thymos (sometimes called thumos), can be separated into isothymia, a drive to prove that one is of equivalent worth to his peers, and meglathymia, a desire to prove that one is better than one’s peers. The wrestling class and football field favor the latter, where the dojo should prefer the former. This is the great value that physical sparring with every member of the dojo offers. One quickly learns that there is always someone bigger and stronger; that winning is not everything. Dignity and honour can be found in the spirit and courage with which one applies himself, even if one loses. In fact, Bruce Lee taught that people too often focus on not losing. This is self-defeating as one is more likely to win the less he is thinking about losing. All forms of self-censure should be off-limits during sparring, as this is a waste of one’s precious mental energy, which should be focuses on the opponent, as well as time, which is in short supply. Thus, one should embrace the possibility of defeat in order to be liberated from the fear of it. “To learn the art of dying is to be liberated from it,” he proclaimed. Here he is in the good company of Plato’s Socrates, who taught that philosophy was the art of learning how to die, as well as modern existential psychologists who argue that the character or personality is a mechanism for denying death; thus an examination and a certain embracing of death is necessary to truly know and grow the self. The latter thinkers teach that death is the central anxiety of the human organism, the source from which all other fears spring. We are motivated to self-preservation, and thus the fear of death is simultaneously the great motivating force and passion for life. What better place to teach someone how to face fear than the dojo? Getting submitted–that is, having to tap out before one loses consciousness–is a humbling near-death experience that is transformative, while nonetheless being quite safe. To illustrate the fact that “winning is not everything,” consider Nathaniel Branden’s words regarding self-esteem:

“If, in spite of his best efforts, a man fails in a particular undertaking, he does not experience the same emotion of pride that he would feel if he had succeeded; but, if he is rational, his self-esteem is unaffected and unimpaired. His self-esteem is not—or should not be—dependent on particular successes or failures, since these are not necessarily in a man’s direct, volitional control and/or not in his exclusive control. The failure to understand this principle causes an incalculable amount of unnecessary anguish and self-doubt. If a man judges himself by criteria that entail factors outside his volitional control, the result, unavoidably, is a precarious self-esteem that is in chronic jeopardy.”

Despite the fact that self-esteem does not have to be impacted by individual failures, this is precisely what is drilled into kids on the football field and the wrestling mat. This gives an inaccurate picture of human value and of human life. Life is not a game that any of us can “win.” None of us even make it out alive! Life is not a zero-sum game either, with clear winners and clear losers. This is why a physical fight is such an apt metaphor for life. In a fight, regardless of how competent a fighter you are, how diligent a martial artist, your opponent always has “a punchers chance.” This is why professional fights are so hard to predict and why you often have “upsets,” such as Matt Serra versus Georges St. Pierre. A street fight presents even more unpredictable variables and one should count oneself lucky if he emerges from such an encounter with life and limb–and should never give a second thought to who “won” the fight. The best possible scenario in a street fight (other than avoiding it entirely) would still result in some soar or broken knuckles for the “winner.” A good fighting strategy is not one that articulates an indestructible style or impervious defense, but a rational cost-benefit analysis that requires one to step into the breach, to “close the distance” in the full knowledge that his success is not guaranteed. The street fight, and many analogous situations encountered throughout life, requires manly assertiveness and courage. “Manliness is knowing how to be confident in situations where sufficient knowledge is not available,” Harvey Mansfield tells us. Learning how to master one’s fear so that he can hear the calm truth of his Reason’s cost-benefit analysis before making a decision to jump into the breach is an invaluable lesson to learn.

Carl Jung wrote, “find out what a person fears most and that is where he will develop next.” An exploration of fear is a great way of helping someone to grow as long as that exploration leads to the conquering of that fear, which will allow them to use that motivational force to further their personal interests and goals. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychologist at West Point and one of the leading authorities on human aggression and the psychology and physiology of combat, argues that while some 15% of human beings have a snake phobia, 98% of us have what he terms “the universal human phobia” of human violence and aggression. He claims that “we process interpersonal human aggression completely differently,” such that the DSM, “the ‘Bible of psychiatry and psychology, specifically states that any time the causal factor of a stressor is human in nature, the degree of trauma is usually more severe and long lasting.” Because we rely on other people for our survival a single act of blatant violence can literally shake the foundations of our sense of personal security because we lose faith in people’s general benevolence. Grossman continues by explaining that “one of  the most common phobias is public speaking, which is really just a distant echo, a reflection of the Universal Phobia. We fear getting in front of large groups and taking an action that might result in making us a target for their aggression. Again, this is not rational. It is an irrational fear—a phobia.” Whether this fear is as justified or “rational” as it was in our evolutionary past is debatable, but it is clear that we should still be preparing our children to deal with the fear of physical or verbal aggression. Conquering fear is the domain of courage. As Harvey Mansfield explains, “the Greek word for manliness, andreia, is also the word the Greeks used for courage, the virtue concerned with controlling fear.” However, “manliness,” he continues, “is biased in favor of action over reflection. That is a severe criticism when you think about it. One could even say that thinking is itself a challenge to the superiority of manliness, which is too confident of itself. Yet one could also say that imagination is in need of fact, that poets need the men of action to serve as examples of superiority, and that Shakespeare depends on Antony and Brutus to show us human greatness and individuality.” This criticism of manliness, though not the accompanying defense of it, are common in our post-feminist world. In Greek mythology, both wisdom (sophia) and mind or soul (psyche) are female characters! Is it any wonder than men pride themselves on initiative over reflection and deliberation? However, the “gender-neutral society” and feminism have seriously undermined modern man’s sense of himself. Modern boys are not taught manliness because their teachers are too busy teaching them how manliness destroys the world. Great teachers like Nietzsche, who ironically enough gave feminists like Simone de Bouvoir a coherent, articulate philosophy of transcendence to utilize, are criticized for their patriarchal emphasis on “power-seeking.” However, as Mansfield teaches us, “power has a point.” “Let’s suppose that it is used to assert something, which means to assert the worth of something, to make a claim on behalf of someone or something.” “Manliness is not mere generalized pushiness but rather a claim on your attention. That is why the male animal displays and the manly man struts and boasts. He has a point to make and the point is important!”

The purpose of a real moral education should be to make sure that its students are making good points; that they are asserting the worth of something that is actually worthy! The worthy is impossible to define beforehand and more impossible to force-feed someone, but we all know it when we see it. Mansfield continues his informative exploration by asserting that “honor has to be asserted and claimed because nature does not make it clear to all concerned what truly deserves to be honored.” Our educational system doesn’t do much better than Nature. “Manliness,” Mansfield argues, “is the assertion of meaning when meaning is at risk.” Given the lack of consensus on what deserves valuing, on what deserves to be honored, why is it that we simply expect that our children will pick up the right values from their liberal arts education? Will an intro to philosophy course that covers Aristotle somehow be a more meaningful experience of human values than observing the recognition that a friend receives for seducing a girl at a party, or beating up her boyfriend? Unlikely.

In the game of manly assertiveness, unfortunately the rule of the jungle prevails as usual: “might makes right.” For those who doubt this fact, look at the average height of a Fortune 500 CEO and then tell me that their physical prowess was irrelevant to attaining their position in society. My god, look at the stature of Tony Robbins! Is it any wonder the man has influence? There are two ways that one person can control another: physical or intellectual coercion. Given that dignity requires freedom, how can our children find their voice, find meaning, or find honor if they can simply be shouted down or physically intimidated? How will they have the courage to do anything with their lives if they haven’t overcome the “Universal Phobia?” Given the less flattering facts of life, how then to produce men of quality? The answer is to expose boys to fear, led by men of quality who will serve as good models, but who will also help these boys explore their own heroic ideals and stress-test these ideals in action.  As Mansfield explains, “manliness for Nietzsche is both crude and refined; it is the warrior and the philosopher not merely admiring each other but sharing the same soul.” The benefactors of our moral education should have the ability to win by the rules of the jungle; they must be fierce intellectual and physical competitors who understand what is worthy of competing for. They must know the rules of “social jujitsu” along with those of real jujitsu.  It is imperative that they be strong enough mentally to answer the challenge, “why not? Are you afraid or something? Just try it man, we are all doing it!” It is imperative that they are strong enough physically that they can protect their own bodies; that their masculine powers have at least this much relevance. Having already established their own physical and intellectual powers within the walls of our school of true moral education via intellectual and physical competition, they will no longer have the need to do so outside its walls. Becoming a “good sport”–learning how to compete with honor–is a difficult skill that requires careful and measured control of the ego, but is possible for anybody to attain. In George A. Miller’s history of psychology he describes Henry Jame’s method of raising his children. “He (H. James) organized his family into one of the most high-spirited and exclusive debating clubs in all history.” “It would be difficult to devise a better way to learn to think for oneself, or to learn that intellectual combat need not interfere with personal affection.” In fact, neither physical nor intellectual competition need interfere with personal affection, and can often form an incredibly solid foundation for it, provided that each party has learned the meaning of honor.

This entry was posted in Human Movitation, Martial Arts, Morality & Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Realistic Moral Education

  1. Pingback: Life Lessons From A Street Fight « Think On These Things

  2. Pingback: Defending A Life Of The Mind | Think On These Things

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