What Is Moral Growth?

(Tim Leet, August 2022)

Not all change is growth. It’s easy enough to see that people change, young people most of all. What is it that distinguishes change we call growth from change that is merely difference? I can change my job, my hair, and my home, but these changes are only differences. In contrast, growth is the upward unfolding of natural potential. With personal growth comes greater effectiveness, an expanding capacity to successfully engage life’s challenges. Growth means increasing cognitive complexity and the slow integration of the dimensions of the self into a unified whole. Growth is an organic process. We are more like trees than machines. 

To speak of moral growth means situating morality inside this organic process. If growth is a particular kind of change, moral growth is a particular kind of growth. Moral growth is growth that inclines us toward greater care for others. Just as a new plant breaks through a seed’s coating, moral growth breaks through a child’s natural preoccupation with self. Increasing cognitive complexity facilitates new ways of thinking about the self and others. These new internal structures are a trellis, of sorts, for growing moral awareness and care. Just as moral growth takes us beyond the natural preoccupation with self, it may go further and break through the small thinking of in-groups and the us-them tribalism that characterizes our times.

I’m leaning hard into this idea of organic moral growth in order to contrast it with other ideas that are less helpful in our work with students. One of those less-helpful ideas is that our kids are blank slates on which collaborating parents and teachers can draw any future they wish. As with seeds, nature enables but also constrains what is possible. I’m afraid the moral idealists who imagine a human future free of self-interest are mistaken. Even the best gardner can’t coax a strawberry out of a bean seed. Another bad idea is that all of us are fatally corrupt in the center, and it’s our job to indoctrinate young people into the world of virtue. Confining a rotten core within a shiny coat of virtue is not moral growth. Moral growth, in the sense I will talk about it here, is the flowering of genuine care for others, naturally diminished preoccupation with self, and the expansion of our circle of moral concern. This potential lies within us all, but whether that flower blooms or withers depends on the soil and sunlight as well as thoughtful attention of the garden’s caretakers.

We are those caretakers. We are not the only caretakers, and we probably aren’t even the most important ones. That distinction belongs to families. Schools are powerfully formative places, though, and sometimes our students need the kind of care and attention that teachers are best suited to give. We support the moral growth of our students by fostering a moral ecology in our classrooms and hallways that is most conducive to that growth. What are the water, soil, and sunlight in a classroom’s moral ecology? Fortunately, we know many of the answers to this question, but we’ll save that discussion for future posts.

Have I painted a too sunny portrait of moral human nature? Perhaps. If I am to err, I prefer to err in the direction of optimism. Organic processes tell us what is possible, after all, not what is inevitable. The realization of potential always requires effort and the support of caring others. Potential is easily thwarted. Seeds are only seeds. Complicating the process is the fact that our nature makes us vulnerable to forces that impede moral growth. Corporations and political actors are more skilled than ever at manipulating us, and young people are especially susceptible. Yes, there are weeds and pests in the garden. Even more humbling is the fact that most all of us under toxic conditions can become weeds ourselves. This is why the work of garden caretakers is so vitally important. This is why the work you do with students is among the most important work a person can do.

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