October 18, 2008

Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict.

Arendt (1951)

In my last entry I talked about how, in the absence of more traditional views of human nature in which people are generally disposed to do wrong, it was necessary to come up with imaginative explanations of why children are not responsible for their behaviour, thereby allowing them to be innocent victims even when they are observed to be behaving like complete bastards.

The explanations were:

It is possible to imagine situations where this is true, but a moment’s thought would tell you that these sorts of situations are obviously rare exceptions to what is usual. But if you were a believer in the inherent innocence or goodness of children then it is impossible for a child to do wrong without some kind of explaining factor, an explaining factor usually picked from this list. Invariably what happens is that normal moral judgement is suspended and the discipline of psychology is bastardised to provide morality-free explanations of children’s behaviour to replace the obvious explanation. As if this way of thinking wasn’t damaging enough it also requires that teachers must be assumed to be oblivious of the “science” of human behaviour and require endless training in pop psychology. Then, having been thrown out the front door, moral judgement is sneaked in the back door in order to condemn the ignorance or intolerance of those who have not accepted the pseudo-scientific, psychological explanation of children’s sins.

The truth is that we don’t need a scientific model of the human mind to understand why we do wrong. We all have minds of our own (complete with weaknesses and a general susceptibility to temptation). A quick study of one’s own mind, and the minds of those one knows, suggests that people think, feel and do bad things. Trying to suggest a complex personal motivation for an individual’s history of sinning is like trying to suggest personal reasons why an individual might inhale oxygen or bleed red.

In the next few posts I will cover each of these “explanations” in turn and explain why they do not constitute grounds for ignoring the more obvious forms of moral reasoning. The likely complaint is that by identifying the human condition as an unavoidable cause of bad behaviour I’m not addressing how to “fix the problem”. My point, of course, is that I’m not saying it to “fix the problem”, I am saying it because it is true. People do bad things for no good reason. And this isn’t a frustrated statement about naughty kids; it’s a fact about human beings generally. This is a problem that we are not going to solve. We can’t change ourselves into saints through the application of rational principles, so why do we think that we can have that effect on future generations?


Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schoken, 1951



  1. Yes, well you know you’ve got my vote!

  2. oa – have you ever tried teaching a class ethics/moral philosophy? The socratic method and reflecting on the existence – or not – of eternal moral truths.

  3. No, I fear that’s not part of the National Curriculum.

  4. I would have thought that selfishness (NOT lack of self esteem – that strikes mre as a BIG problem, not an explanation), greed & cupidty would cover the topic adequately

  5. Ooops, or to put it more succinctly, “the Evil of banality”.

  6. I’ve only just found this blog, but I’m glad I have. I’m not a teacher, but education of our children and young adults MUST be an interest to anyone who has above-room-temperature IQ – it’s not just their future, but ours too.

    Taking the points one at a time:

    Children are too young to understand how to behave.

    Young children do not know how to behave. They have to be taught, just as they have to be house- – sorry, potty- – trained. This is first and foremost a parental responsibility. Unfortunately this responsibility is often abdicated and other people (primarily teachers) have to do their best. This is not helped by the complete lack of appropriate sanctions.

    Children’s behaviour is determined by their background.

    No! Children’s behaviour is influenced by their background, not determined. Some children manage to overcome a poor background, whilst others manage to screw up even when the right influences are there.

    Badly behaved children have a medical or psychological condition.

    Whilst this is undoubtedly true in a minority of cases, we are in danger of medicalising misbehaviour rather than controlling ot modifying it. To use a medical term, the statement is complete bullsh*t.

    As a parent, I’ve had to deal with “It wasn’t my fault!” It can be difficult to get through that whilst the damage/injury/insult wasn’t intended, it is still a fault that must be laid at the door of the perpetrator.

  7. It’s times like these that i like to draw an annalogy to my Dyslexia. I could let my dyslexia dominate me and use it as an excuse not to do things, such as writting those very long and high octane worded assignments you have to do on degree’s and the like. I could whine and mope about the fact that most of the population doesn’t know what it’s like for poor little me to try and clunk through even leisure reading because of how slow it is.

    However i don’t*, i man up and soldier through. Even to the point where i feel it would be more productive to bang my head repeatedly on a brick wall. It’s this approach thats got me through my PGCE. The key is to acknowledge a contributing factor and how it may make things difficult but not to use it as a lame excuse. Yes the little dears might have had a deprived background, but that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of learning right from wrong and sticking to it!

    *Most of the time i’m like this, everyone is allowed a down day.

  8. […] Blamelessness […]

  9. [“Yes the little dears might have had a deprived background, but that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of learning right from wrong and sticking to it!”]

    It doesn’t even matter if they are ‘incapable of learning right from wrong’ – it is unacceptable whatever the reason.
    What matters is making sure that they do learn this, which means taking their problems into account. For example, if your dyslexia is particularly bad (your typing is too good for me to guess!) then you would have benefitted from extra help to overcome it at some points.

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