As part of an ongoing series, Field Notes interviewed educational theorist and systems scientist, Dr. Derek Cabrera on the topic of developing a moral compass in young people.
Field Notes (FN): Why is a moral compass important?
Cabrera: One thing that has never changed across human time is the importance of, and need for, a moral compass. Since antiquity we have developed various moral codes to serve the call. Most of our world religions exist to provide a moral compass. The Ten Commandments, for example, serve as a moral compass for Judeo-Christians. Halal and haraam tell us what is permissible and not in Islamic law. The precepts provide a code of conduct for Buddhists.
When I was a kid, I was aware of two religions and two December holidays. Today there are dozens, if not hundreds, of world religions and holidays. A bus to the local library gave me access to thousands of books with hundreds of thousands of pages. Today, my handheld iPhone gives me immediate access to 5.32 billion web pages. When I went to the grocery with my mom, there were five fruits. The other day, my kids bought a pomelo imported from Viet Nam. When I was a kid we were aware of exactly two sexes. Today there are at least a dozen meaningful, fine-grained distinctions. When I was a kid, there was good and evil, the good guys and the bad guys. Today, I'm often unsure. I look for black and white but I see a thousand shades of gray and even the nightly news doesn't help me sort it all out.
One thing that has changed is the complexity in which we now live. Today, we are inundated with information and multiple perspectives. Life is -- literally, mathematically, metaphorically, genetically, and realistically-- more complex. We are more interconnected as people. We are more interconnected as economies and we are more interconnected in our ideas. In today's complex landscape, when something happens in one corner of the world it has both the potential and a realistic possibility of effecting the far corners of the world. We are inextricably, interconnected.
FN: Does increasing complexity increase the need to develop a moral compass in children?
Cabrera: It doesn't change the importance but it does change the compass itself. The increase in complexity is really an increase in perspectives, or an increase in the distinctions made by people who are different from us. It's an increase in the sheer number of relationships between things. Make no mistake, a moral compass is as important today as it has ever been. But, in this new complex world, many of the azimuths on our moral compass of old fail to guide us like they once did. Take just a few of the basic moral codes shared by most religions. Thou shall not kill. Yet, we are killing quite a number of people and we distinguish between justified killings and unjustified ones. We develop more nuanced and sophisticated definitions for things in order to justify that there are always exceptions to the rule. So, that commandment no longer guides us in the real-world complexities of things. Or, how about, 'thou shall not steal.' Well, sometimes stealing is necessary. Robin Hood steals from the rich. A starving child nicks some bread. Thieving Wall Street executives steal from 300 million people and go unpunished. The rule doesn't hold up. Even the golden rule can lead to irreconcilable conflict because we do to others as we would have them do unto us. But that breaks down because the "others" are not like us--they believe different things. Something that is polite in one country or culture might be rude in another. The golden rule only works if you're dealing with a homogenous other who is more similar to you than different. Let's take another one: 'Honor your father and your mother.' That's relatively good advice, unless your mother is a meth addict and your father is a pedophile. Sometimes reality isn't as black and white as we would like it to be--or as simple as our codes of conduct pretend it to be. These are all examples that make the black and white look gray in reality.
What to do? As a father, teacher, and educational theorist, I know the importance of a moral compass. As an Outward Bound instructor for two decades, I led 30 day wilderness courses that were designed to develop a moral compass in young people. How do we develop in children a moral compass that is worthwhile in this ever changing world? The question is as important today as it has ever been, but I think the answer needs to be different.
FN: Okay, I'll take the bait. How do we do it? How do we develop a moral compass in young people so that they will grow up to be adults with a moral compass that actually works?
Cabrera: The simple answer is that we teach them to be reflective. But, there's a more complex answer...
FN: Which is?
Cabrera: I think it requires a deep understanding of how complex systems work and how the simple behavior of the individual can lead to a thing complexity scientists call an 'emergent property.' What this means is that each individual person in a big society has to behave a certain way. Reflect a certain way, and the net result of all of those simple behaviors and interactions will be a just and moral society. The simple rules are governed by a formula of sorts. But, people really don't like math and formulae because they have had bad experiences in algebra or geometry in high school. Many people see mathematics as dry, cerebral, academic. I see beauty and aesthetic in mathematics, so I see equations as expressions of this beauty. I can understand that many people have had negative experiences with math and equations. If that's the case for you, just ignore them. The formula could be expressed equally well in poetry, indeed, to a large extent it is well expressed in one of my favorite book of poems, the Tao te ching.
FN: So there is a formula for developing a moral compass?
Yes, the acronym for it is DSRP which stands for distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives. DSRP is deeply value-laden, but it may not be immediately clear just how so because it is apolitical, a-theistic (meaning that it does not lean toward, nor away from, any religion or god), and content agnostic (meaning it makes no difference whether you are thinking about the state capitals or your deepest feelings of compassion). It is truly universal, free of dogma and, importantly, non-judgmental, which in a deep and abiding sense, is the root of such moral values as compassion, empathy, and love. So, at its core, DSRP is about listening, love and compassion.
FN: I think a lot of people are under the impression that DSRP is a way to better understand things, not a moral compass?
Just a few weeks ago I saw an image on Facebook that read, "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." I commented, "What we metaphorically refer to as the heart is actually the mind..." which, of course, received many criticisms on the Internet where anything that not immediately understood is brutally attacked. I believe the Dalai Lama said something similar, "It is vital that when educating our children's brains that we do not neglect to educate their hearts." Yet, the original Dalai Lama and founder of Buddhism,
the Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, said, "“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”
The point is that what we think of as the emotional, conative (motive), heart-full or compassionate side of humanity—things like ethics, morals, values, etc. —are integrated with the cognitive into a thing called the "mind." Our mind processes our internal world--our motivations, thinkings and feelings — and it is through a meta-level awareness of these elements of the mind (not the heart organ) that we come to better understand ourselves and others. The meta-level mind is the reflection on ourselves that lies at the core of what it means to have a moral compass — to think about our actions, drives, feelings and thoughts. The meta-level reflection is what causes us to question our values which is the most moral thing one can do. So that would be my first point--the central role that meta-level reflection plays in the ethos of humanity. DSRP theory is merely a concise description of, and algorithm for, meta-level reflection. It is the core of the moral compass.
FN: So how do we get from here to there? How does DSRP become a moral compass?
Cabrera: A moral code is a set of values and a value of any kind, by definition, is a bias. This is because it is based upon a biased perspective that "places value or worth" upon one thing (the valued) over others. Of course, the problem with moral values is that everyone has them and they can all be so different. The implications of this fact has kept my ADD brain stimulated, engaged and learning for two decades. So the question is, "is there a universality or constancy to the biased and variable nature of morals?"
Let's say I decide that I don't want to be a jerk by constantly "shoulding" on everyone with my biased morals. The question I have to ask myself is, 'are there moral values that lie at the root without being biased? The answer, as it turns out, is yes. And that is precisely what DSRP provides. An example of this is that DSRP says we should all take perspectives. It doesn't say take this or that particular perspective. It says, whatever perspective you currently have, take a different one. So that is a "universal should" that everyone can follow which is not biased toward anyone or group or perspective.
DSRP presents the structures and dynamics that make up any idea. I'm happy to share the complexities of the dynamics but to summarize the structures they are four-fold:
Hidden in these structures are a number moral azimuths. At the same time one might say that DSRP Theory is agnostic to local/specific values. For example, to understand that all thoughts are comprised of distinctions means that all thoughts are value laden because they are focusing on one thing (thing) while reducing focus on some set of other things (other). This is the very basis for Us/Them, alienation of [or worse violence toward] the other; not merely at the scale of human-group interactions but in every thought-act or speech-act. To me this is a deep a lasting moral virtue that has profound implications on how important it is to be metacognitive about the distinctions we make every moment of every day. It means that every distinction we make has the potential to be a violent act and we must try to gain meta-level awareness of the distinctions we are making at each moment.
Likewise, DSRP Theory presents that part-whole structure and interrelationships are universal to all ideas/reality. Again, while DSRP may be agnostic as to the value of any specific part-whole structure or relationship, it is based on an ethos that we are inextricably linked in an infinite hierarchy of networks of interaction (e.g., an ecological ethos). Action-reaction is not merely important in physical systems as per Newton's third law, it is an essential meta-aware trait for understanding the mutual interdependence of human relations or the mutual-dependence of thinkings-and-feelings (emotion/cognition). A part-whole moral code means that 'no man is an island,' that we are bound by many circles of mutual context. Along with the ecological ethos of thinking in relationships (R) we realize that we are part of something larger and hurting ourselves or others in the myriad ways we do only comes back to hurt the whole of which we are but one part.
Finally, DSRP Theory presents that all ideas/reality contain perspectives and that being aware of the existence of these perspectives is a deep moral imperative. Everything you think and every time you think, you are projecting your view on the world. And while there is nothing wrong with sharing your views, there is a moral imperative to be aware that they are yours and that they effect the way you see others. Once again, DSRP Theory is agnostic to this or that specific perspective, but it is not agnostic to the value of taking perspective and being aware of the perspectives one takes (and perhaps more importantly, does not take--which is an interaction effect of distinctions and perspectives). There is a saying that, "If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." This quote is the epitome of DSRP moral imperative because when we shift perspective, we also transform the distinctions, relationships, and systems that we see and do not see. This results in a deeply ethical set of morals based on merely being more aware.
FN: That is fascinating. It seems free of dogma but useful nonetheless?
Yes, exactly. I'll share one more thought experiment I had at the origins of my research that led to DSRP. When I first envisioned the possibility of the universality-of-variability-of-knowledge (what eventually became dsrp) it was with the concept that I called the shapeshifting "nerf knife". In my imagination at the time, a nerf knife was one that is a steel blade when cutting tomatoes that transforms to harmless nerf material when it is used against people for harm. I thought of all ideas (all knowledge) as inert but having the potential for both good and bad in the world. What I noticed about all systems of knowledge (religion, political models, even science, etc) was that while all of them were essentially inert, all could also be used for both harm or good. I imagined that by researching the possibility of the universality-of-variability- of-knowledge one might discover a knowledge system (a mental model) that could be resistant to use for the purposes of dogma or oppression. That is, all leaders who use some knowledge system X, need followers to adopt the system X. I imagined that there could be a system that the more it was understood by followers, the less it could be used by leaders to manipulate. Thus, a nerd knife knowledge system.
I would venture to say that as a candidate of such a system, DSRP is a potentially non-dogmatic framework for living. It is predicated on the singular value of awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, and motivations and their impact on others. The values of recognizing the other and taking their perspective as one in an ecology of which we are a part are deeply embedded.