So, you know the right thing and you want to do it. Now what?

Tim Leet (February, 2022)

I love to ask my sophomores, “But how would you actually say that?” We might be discussing a hypothetical scenario where they’d been asked to lie for a friend or to look the other way when a classmate is being bullied. One of my students will begin with, “I’d just say that…” at which point I interrupt and ask, “But how would you actually say that? Talk to me as if you’re talking to them.” It’s one thing to know what is right and still another to want to do it, but even when those first two pieces are in place, sometimes we just aren’t sure how to say or to do it.

In the past, I have been guilty of short-changing this third and crucial part of the three-part formula. Having done the hard thinking (part one: the knowing) and resolving ourselves (part two: the wanting), my take on the actual doing has been, “Well, then you just do it.” It turns out this is much easier said than done. When I ask my students, “How would you actually say No, I won’t lie?” it is clear that many can’t find the words. When they do, the words they find are often needlessly hostile or, on the other hand, weak and mealy-mouthed. How do you give voice to a principled stand that is neither self-righteous nor feeble? Many of the discipline issues I dealt with as Dean of Students involved kids who knew better and wanted better but couldn’t figure out how to intervene or remove themselves from bad situations. Without the skill to take a stand, their default was to stand by passively or, worse, join in because they couldn’t figure out how not to!

As Mary Gentile points out in Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, it can be helpful to assume that often people really do want to do the right thing.¹ They just need help figuring out how. My experience as Dean and as an ethics teacher inclines me to agree with her. This kind of skill-building is the very sort of thing SEL targets, and when done well, it can produce that sense of competence we know from self-determination theory is crucial to internalized motivation. 

Gentile describes three types of people² when it comes to the role values play in guiding their actions. On one extreme, she identifies the “idealists” who attempt to act on their moral values in all situations. On the other end she locates the “opportunists” who are driven by their own personal interest and place little importance on values. Between these extremes she locates a middle-ground, the “pragmatists,” who want to act on their values but will defect when doing so costs too much or places them at a serious disadvantage. Consider cheating on homework. There are those who, given the chance, never will (idealists) and those who almost always will (opportunists). In my experience, however, most students are willing to be honest and fair with regard to homework, provided the homework load is not unreasonable and the majority of their classmates do the same. If too much is demanded through homework or too many of their classmates are cheating, the pragmatists may defect. The idealists probably won’t. 

We all want our schools to be bastions of honesty and kindness. In my experience, our greatest gains in this respect will not come from evangelizing the opportunists (though we must never give up on anyone) or holding up the idealists as an impossible standard. Our greatest gains, as I see things, will come from supporting and empowering that pragmatic middle. We need to teach the skills that enable our students to act on the better angels of their nature and immerse them in a culture where most are doing the same. This is an approach driven not by idealism but rather by a bang-for-your-buck calculation that aims to make moral action less costly and easier to execute.

To that end, Gentile offers a number of skill-building strategies to her readers.³ This is not the place to summarize all that she suggests or translate those strategies to work with our students, but I’d like to highlight a few. First, we can work with students to identify the types of moral conflicts or temptations they are likely to face during a school year. It might help to think about this in categories, such as issues of academic integrity, treatment of others, treatment of school property, weekend temptations, etc. By naming conflicts in advance, we can (a) reinforce the idea that dealing with such issues is a normal part of life that should be expected and planned for, (b) help reduce the paralyzing effect of surprise when these issues do appear, and (c) make it possible for students to develop scripts they can rehearse to prepare themselves. 

Second, the development of such scripts will require that students decide in advance their desired outcome of those conflicts. Envisioning the outcome is empowering, and writing a script that leads to that outcome and rehearsing it out loud makes successful navigation of conflicts more likely. No one will literally follow a script in a real-life situation, but rehearsing such language in advance will make it easier to find the right words when the moment comes. 

Third, that script ought to reflect the unique style and play to the strengths of individual students. There are many ways to respond skillfully to ethically challenging situations. Often, we think the only virtuous way to stand up for values is a defiant declaration of our position – a kind of moral hero if all goes well or a heroic social martyr if it doesn’t. We can help students learn about their own strengths and style and craft their scripts accordingly. This improves the odds that students will respond how they want to respond when the time comes. 

Fourth and finally, we can help our students develop a “self-story” from which these scripts naturally emerge. In adolescents, this “self-story” is nothing less than their moral identity, the narrative theme of moral commitments that from the inside feels like ego-coherence and from the outside looks like moral integrity.

1 Gentile, Mary C. Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Press, 2010.

2 Gentile is careful to point out that no student is always one type or another. She uses this typology to make broad descriptions of trends, not rules.

3 Her readers are adults in the business community, but most of her recommendations can be adapted for students, especially older ones.