Graham Haydon explores the role of moral constraint in influencing behaviour

A study of street violence and robbery reported late last year that some young people engage in violent street robbery not because they are desperate for the money to buy drugs, but because they enjoy the fighting, they get a buzz out of it.

How society should tackle problems such as street violence is obviously a very large question that cannot be answered concretely without considering a wide range of social and cultural issues. What I want to do here is more narrowly focused: I want to use this issue to cast light on some of the questions about teaching right and wrong, and about morality, that I have raised in recent columns. Street violence by young people is, after all, just the sort of issue that leads some people to demand that schools must do more to teach the difference between right and wrong or to inculcate morality. Is that the right response?

From a prisoner convicted of violent robbery:

I don’t know like – it weren’t even for money. It was just, I had money, it was more like the buzz you get from doing things. It wasn’t like, for money – I was more addicted to robbing than I was to drugs.

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Research ref. RES-000-22-0398

What should schools do?

To get a clearer focus on the question I’m raising now, there are some points we need just to recognise and then put on one side. There’s room for debate over how far preventing anti-social behaviour is the responsibility of schools rather than of, say, families or communities; let’s for now just ask, if schools should be trying to do something about this, what is it that they should be trying to do? Let’s assume too that the majority of teenagers will not in fact go in for violence or robbery. It doesn’t follow that we can predict in advance which individuals will turn out to be part of that majority. Let’s say that in any school, for all we know, there may be some students who – depending on how things turn out for them – will be capable of getting a buzz out of violence.

What sort of influence might a school hope to exercise over its students so that it will become less likely that any of them will in fact engage in street violence? 

The ‘teach them right and wrong’ or ‘inculcate morality’ answer is what some people would advocate here. A certain view of morality is implicit in this answer. It sees morality as a set of constraints that stop people doing what they want to do, or forces them to do what they don’t want to do. These constraints may be external ones (morality as society’s rules, imposed on young people) or they may be internal ones (conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong). Psychologically we might link these two versions by saying that external constraints get internalised. Whether external or internal, the constraints of morality stop people doing what they want to do – but don’t stop them wanting to do it. So there may be people on the streets who really would get a buzz out of beating other people up – there’s nothing they’d like better – but they don’t because of their sense of right and wrong. What a triumph for morality!

Moral constraints

If that is what morality is (and this is certainly one traditional conception of it) some people would be inclined to dismiss it altogether. I don’t, because I think we would all be worse off if it didn’t exist at all. It is an important fact about human life – whatever the explanation of the fact may be – that we can have a sense of right and wrong. At least sometimes, a person can think that there are certain demands – whether we call them demands of conscience, of God, or just of morality – that must be respected, regardless of the person’s own inclinations. That is what, to me, is central to morality. There’s little room for doubt, I think, that a sense of moral constraints sometimes prevents people from doing the harm to others that their own inclinations might lead them to do. 

So there is a place for morality. But we should not expect too much of it.  Inculcating morality (if that is what it means) might work with some people, and if it does work then it is certainly better than nothing; but it’s far from the best way of working against something like street violence.

Motivation

What would be a better way? Well, if someone has no inclination to beat people up in the first place, they will not need morality to restrain them. I am simplifying a bit, because some people have different sorts of reason for engaging in violent robbery. But the nub of the issue is about motivation. Morality in this case would be about one kind of negative motivation – a sense of constraint or guilt – blocking another – the buzz someone gets out of violence (the first is negative in the way it is experienced by the individual; the second is negative, obviously, because of its consequences for others).

So if schools are trying to influence young people so that they will be less likely to engage in anti-social behaviour like street violence, trying to get them to recognise moral constraints so that they will refrain from doing what they want to do will be only a kind of back-up measure. The far more positive move is to influence their motivations in different directions. There are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answers, but we should surely be trying to develop other wants and inclinations in young people, trying to see that there are other things in life that they can get a buzz out of. After all, teenage years with nothing to get a buzz out of would be pretty boring – I assume all my readers were teenagers once – and education, whatever else it is, should not be about making people bored and training them to put up with boredom.

Reference

Bennett, T, Brookman, F and Wright, R (2007) ‘A Qualitative Study of the Role of Violence in Street Crime’. End of Award Report.
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Dr Graham Haydon is course leader, MA in Values in Education, Institute of Education, University of London.

First published in Learning for Life, February2007