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Moral Skill

I overheard a rather offensive conversation while in the library this past Saturday, a conversation between a teacher and a librarian that made me want to slam my head against the wall and chant, “I don’t want to live on this planet.”

Many teachers have a way of looking at the world from a very smug, self-righteous perspective, and it was this general attitude that pissed me off to the point where I left the profession. This conversation is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

The woman behind the counter – who couldn’t have been older than thirty – said this to her coworker: “Kids today have no sense of responsibility. Like, they want everything, and they want to get away with everything.”

Well, first, I hate those kinds of broad generalizations, but okay. For the sake of argument, I’ll hear you out. Give me an example of what you’re talking about.

“Like yesterday. This girl in my class came up to me and said, ‘Miss, can my friend and I go to lunch five minutes early? We want to go to 7-11.’ In order to get there and to get back in time, they needed an extra five minutes. I was like, ‘are you nuts? I’m not letting you go five minutes early.’”

Okay, you’ve got a point there. Kids do need to learn that they only get a sixty minute lunch break, and if they can’t do something within those sixty minutes, then they shouldn’t plan to do it on their lunch hour. However, the instant I conceded that point, I immediately thought of all the adults who take an extra five or ten minutes on their lunch break when they’ve made special plans. Virtually everyone I’ve ever worked with has done it. So does the ‘exactly sixty minutes’ rule have to be set in stone? Wouldn’t teaching kids about flexibility be a valid lesson?

Of course, an equally valid point is the fact that letting these two girls go early might be unfair to the rest of the class. But then it’s Friday. Maybe you could give them a treat and let them all go? The fact that these two girls are going to 7-11 for lunch, and that the trip will take roughly half an hour, makes me think that we aren’t dealing with six-year-olds here. These are probably preteens or possibly early high school students. Teachers often let us go a couple minutes early when I was in high school. Either way, I don’t think the girl is spoiled or irresponsible simply for asking the question.

Hold on; it gets worse.

“Can you imagine if I let them go five minutes early and something happened? Then my ass is on the line! If they want to go to 7-11, they can go at the bell.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on.

Is it safe for these girls to go to 7-11, or isn’t it? If it’s safe, then whether they go now or five minutes from now is irrelevant. If, however, it isn’t safe – say the trip requires a half hour walk through one of Hamilton’s rougher neighbourhoods – then it is your duty to stop them from going regardless of whether they leave now or later.

Talk to them; explain to them that it isn’t safe and offer a better alternative. Sure, they may whine, but that’s when you’re supposed to use that authority you’re so fond of and be the hard ass. This woman isn’t the least bit concerned about their safety – she said it herself; “if they want to go to 7-11, they can go at the bell” – her only concern is keeping her own ass out of the fire.

There’s a word for that.


I’m aware that if a teacher lets his students leave early and something happens in that time, there could be serious consequences. And I’m aware that we live in a culture where people jump at the word “lawsuit,” but that doesn’t change the fact that this woman’s attitudes are entirely self-serving. Of course you have to take policies into account when making these kinds of decisions, but that should be the beginning of your analysis, not the end.

We live in a culture with too many rules and too many laws.

Not only do these excessive laws make it difficult for people to get anything done, they erode what Professor Barry Schwartz calls “moral skill.” Simply put, moral skill is the ability to exercise good judgment. It’s the ability to know when to follow the rules and, more importantly, the ability to know when not to follow the rules. To paraphrase Schwartz, “we must have the moral will to do right by other people, and beyond this, the moral skill to figure out what doing right means. A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule.”

I’m going to share a story that Schwartz shared with his audience. “It’s a story about lemonade. A dad and his eleven-year-old son were watching a Detroit Tigers game. His son asked for lemonade, and dad went to the concession stands to buy it. All they had was Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Dad, being an academic, had no idea that Mike’s Hard Lemonade contained alcohol. So he brought it back, and the kid was drinking it, and a security guard spotted it and called the police. They called an ambulance and whisked the kid away to the hospital. The doctors in the ER ascertained that the kid had no alcohol in his blood, and they were ready to let him go.

But not so fast.

The Wayne County Child Welfare Agency said ‘no,’ and the kid was sent to a foster home for three days. At that point, can the child go home? The judge said, ‘yes, but only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a motel.’ After two weeks, I’m happy to report, the family was reunited, but the welfare workers and the ambulance people and the judge all said the same thing: ‘we hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.’

Scott Simon, who told this story on NPR, said ‘rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.’”

And that’s the problem.

The instant that you allow something to “spare you from thinking,” you’ve lost your moral agency. Blind faith in any list of rules and policies – no matter how elaborate – will inevitably result in situations exactly like the one that Schwartz described. We’re trained to enshrine policies and procedures, to treat them as sacrosanct, when in fact we should be honing our critical thinking skills. Or, in the words of one of my personal heroes.


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It’s had some great reviews!



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