People are not born as morally responsible citizens; they are educated to be so.
Education for morality has therefore engaged the attention of every society. Today there is considerable disagreement over both the aims and the proper agents of moral education in our contemporary society.
In earlier societies, each generation was traditionally socialized by the transmission of apparently stable value systems and more or less explicit codes of conduct. Some parts of modern society still rely upon such traditional socialization.
Many modern educators, however, appear to believe that such transmissions are no longer possible.
They point to a "decline of traditional societies" and the rise of "anti-authoritarian attitudes" that appear to be conditioned by such factors as the increasing rationality of people whose moral potentials have been shaped in advanced, highly mobile, technologically productive societies. In short, traditionalist moral educations are associated with cultures of low material productivity.
What a modern education for morality should do is a vexing question. Instead of stable and long-established social structues into which its members are born, modern society is characterized by increasing leisure and by shifting membership in voluntary social structures.
Many educators argue that modern education for moral conduct must take into account that people will live together increasingly in situations that lack any persistent constraints, such as the economic contraint to make a living. Behavior will no longer be governed, they argue, by prudence and fear of penalties, imagined or real, for deviancy in that behavior. You can see morality changing basically when the word for immorality becomes "deviancy" - or "marginality."
Another major question concerns who has the primary duty for moral education, cultivating the sense of good and evil, right and wrong, however that sense he stipulated in conduct.
Specialists on the subject disagree as to whether the family is irreplaceable as the main agent of moral education and, indeed, as to whether or not the modern family is declining as a moral educator.
Netherless, despite continuing disagreement on the current eductive function and capacity of the family, what is more generally agreed is that humans are started off very early in the direction their moral conduct is likely to take, given the fortunes and misfortunes of circumstances in later life.
Freud and other modern students of moral development elaborated new, if not entirely persuasive, versons of the old idea that "character is destiny" and that character - that is, the moral quality lacing all our various activities - is formed during the first five years or so of life.
Contending against this view, though not entirely opposed to it, is the view that, despite the fact that humans develop in moral no less than biological stages, they can make moral decisions than run against the directions shaped in early years or in any particular stage of moral development. This latter view of moral development usually invokes some agency of decision not entirely describably within the stages of moral development.
"Instinct," which knows no stages, or "God's will," which knows no moral development, are two such extra-developmental agencies of decision, "chance" is yet another.
Current theories claim that moral education is largely developmental in character. Morality grows and evolves, as does the body. Each stage of moral growth demands its own distinct education, as if the body, during its various phases, is best nurtured by different foods and regiments. Whether these different stages of moral development are marked by fairly distinct lines, or run continuously, has exercised the imagination of many an investigator.
Certainly, two major schools still appear very influential in the field of moral education.
One school may be called the Freudian, the other by the name of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget.
The Freudian school continues to contend that once certain primary patterns of emotional relation to the mother and father - often ambivalent - are established, most people develop morally along a series of events that can be traced back to that very early set pattern. The pattern keeps repeating itself, even though the individual "growing up" in this pattern is rarely aware of the pattern, nor can be have any conscious memory of how it established itself.
Even later intellectual growth, however powerful the mind becomes, takes directions set by the early emotional pattern established unawares in relations between children and their parents - or parent equivalents.
Thus the full weight for the moral development of individuals falls on the family unit, and on emotional arrangements between members of that family unit.
Jean Piaget takes quite a different view of moral education. Piaget and his followers place much less empasis than the Freudian school on ambivalent repression and the changing focus of the child's essentially sexual energy.
For Piaget, there are two turning points in moral development. First, there is that stage at which every normal child begin to be able to see things from the point of view of another person (Freud would call this "identification").
Moral development is bound up with the change from a certain narrow-minded self-reference. The second major stage, according to the Piagetian school, is when children are able to handle abstract ideas.
What unites otherwise contentious schools of thought on moral education is the generalization that children pass through various stages of emotional and intellectual development. The task of moral education is to devise ways of teaching how to behave appropriate to each such stage fo the child's understanding and emotions.
The human cannot depend upon instinctual endowment.
Yet there are some quite competent scientific investigators who continue to raise serious questions about the relationship between inheritance, physical constitution and moral conduct.
For example, some scientific investigators have concluded that those humans they have studied who have an extra "Y" sex chromosome are congentially disposed to come into early conflict with any legal order, whatever the law might be. Other investigators have even sought to make correlations between human height and crime - which may be another expression of the old notion that most of the trouble in the world is caused by short men.
It is a unsettled question whether and which constitutional characteristics affect human morality, and what moral education could do to offset the supposed effects of such constitutional factors.
Another question of concern is how moral literacy can be taught when there are so many different languages of morality bombarding the individual. It is usually thought by educators in this field that morals have to be taught in fairly long cycles of preparation in languages rich in both precision and nuance, so as to match the subtleties of changing circumstance.
The very acuteness of contemporary interest in moral education, and the variety of moral languages that fill the air, may have the consequence of creating moral illiterates - or, at least, people who are exposed to too many moral languages and never learn any of them well enough for effective use.
Moral judgements are rarely made without considerable emotional involvement. Yet the variety of moral education now available, and the openness within the variety to criticism from temporary representatives of other varieties, may create a condition of emotional uninvolvement.
Such uninvolvement may render all forms of morden moral education increasingly able to produce only one kind of moral man: The kind that would rather switch moralities that fight about any; or, what amounts to the same type, the one that will fight without any belief that his morality is any better than anybody else's - the sort who could just as easily switch to the other side, with equal conviction.
The great Irish poet, Yeats, expressed this in two celebrated lines:
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
"Are full of passionate intensity."
Perhaps the great problem of modern moral education lies in the paradox that the best sort of people it can produce lack all conviction.