Skip to main content

Morality Before Performance

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Marvin Berkowitz cautions against creating a feral competition where those with the strongest performance character are most upwardly mobile—the goal should be a world in which the moral character of citizens drives progress to a just and compassionate world.

The question addressed in this essay collection is “the connection between the development of individual character strengths and the broader societal project of promoting greater intergenerational mobility.” As a developmental and educational psychologist, I am more concerned with the holistic development of children; that is, of their broad psychological flourishing. Conceptually, we can deconstruct the child into psychological parts, such as “individual character strengths.” But in real life we are complex integrated organisms. Empirically, we can approximate the impact of particular influences on specific areas of development and functioning. But life also tends to have a robust impact on us, broadly impacting many aspects of our development. This complexity is often hard to discern and reassemble after the scholarly disassembling. Humpty Dumpty is hard to put back together again.

Let us start with two premises. First, we typically do things because of our values; because they fulfill a purpose. Second, for society to progress and flourish, we need morality to be a primary purpose for its citizens. I will take them one at a time.

Values researchers such as Solomon Schwartz have done an elegant job of detailing a wide array of values that people may hold, and may hold to differing degrees of priority. Some are pro-social, some are not. Some may be more other-focused and some may be more self-focused. Our values drive our choices and our behavior, so it is useful to examine and be aware of our values.

An eternal question for any group, if it is responsible and forward-thinking, is what the next generation needs to be like if the group (society) is to endure, or better yet flourish. This entails both a vision for what we want people to be like and an understanding of what is most likely to lead them to become that way. The founding fathers of our daring and radical experiment in self-governance believed our democratic way of life could only endure if citizens were virtuous participants in a collaborative search for ways to ensure the common good. They also understood the jeopardy that resides in the less virtuous places in the human spirit; i.e., how greed could lead to social disintegration. Hence the role of government and the various checks and balances in their blueprint for democracy.

This takes us to the presenting question for this collection of essays, namely the role of character in increasing intergenerational mobility.

Recently, Rick Weissbourd and Making Caring Common conducted a national survey of adolescents and parents to see what values parents prioritize for their children. The most interesting finding was that, while parents claim they prioritize caring and respect over happiness and success, this does not seem to be the message their children receive. Adolescents in the survey said that their parents care more about their happiness and success. This underscores the need to know the values underpinning a desired end in order to identify the requisite character strengths needed to reach it. Happiness and success may require different strengths, compared to caring and respect.

This raises the question: what is the good in intergenerational mobility? It can be many things. Perhaps equity, or equality. Perhaps material prosperity. Or, a path to a more just and caring society. We need to know why it is worth promoting intergenerational mobility, before we can adequately address the appropriate character strengths that our youth need to maximize intergenerational mobility.

I am at heart a progressive. I always look to see if we can move to a better place from where we currently are. But better on which criterion? Not all “progress” is warranted. And perhaps not all intergenerational mobility is warranted. Is downward mobility good too, or just upward mobility? Ultimately, it is ethical criteria (e.g., justice, equity, benevolence, compassion) that should be used to answer these questions. For ethics to be commonly applied to addressing such choices, however, we need to reconsider the need for our citizens to be virtuous. The moral formation of youth needs to be front and center as a long-term but essential strategy for world building and world healing, including ethically justified intergenerational mobility.

While the sub-categories of character can be quite complex, a recently popular dichotomy may be informative here. There has been a recent upsurge in interest in a side of character that has to do with excellence rather than goodness. In 2005, Lickona and Davidson introduced a report on Smart and Good High Schools that helpfully described two broad and complementary domains: moral character and performance character. The former concerns characteristics that have to do with interpersonal matters and ethical issues. The latter is about the characteristics necessary for excellent performance in any domain, e.g., diligence, self-control, perseverance. Lickona and Davidson’s argument is that both are necessary, essentially channeling John Philips’ quote that “goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” While true, the matter of priority remains. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” One argument then is that if one had to choose between “weak and feeble” and “a menace to society,” the choice should be clear. The more treacherous path then is to emphasize performance character. After all, performance character is about maximizing effectiveness, but is does not distinguish between ethical and unethical effectiveness. One can be a master of either.

Interest in performance character has increased even more recently in part through the popularity of Paul Tough’s book Why Children Succeed. In this excellent review of the aspects of character related to academic success, Tough focused on performance character, and largely ignored moral character, even taking a couple of pot shots at a straw man version of moral character. Tough’s work overlapped with the powerful work of Angela Duckworth on GRIT and the success of the KIPP charter schools which also emphasize performance character.

I give priority to the moral side of human flourishing. This is for many reasons – but the most significant is that human goodness will drive societal progress. To live in a better world we need better people. Better can mean many things, but the best better is a moral better. Performance character is about the pursuit of success, which, according to the Making Caring Common survey data, parents seem to be unwittingly prioritizing over the moral character.

The ultimate question, then, is the values question. Why should one pursue intergenerational mobility? If the answer has a moral basis, then performance character alone is the wrong path to that goal. Many believe that the market, especially if unfettered, will lead to a better world. But again, better in what way? Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before he delved into the notion of the free market, and always believed the market needed to be values-driven. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worried that a moral check was needed to deal with human propensities for greed. Markets do not have consciences, people do. It is not guaranteed that people will have moral consciences as their primary compasses, so educating for character becomes a societal necessity. Educating for character must give priority to the moral side, lest we create “a menace to society.” I do not want a feral competition where those with the strongest performance character are most upwardly mobile. Rather, the goal should be a world in which the moral character of citizens drives societal progress to a more just and compassionate world.


Get daily updates from Brookings