Mondays are reserved for questions from readers, especially students.


If people have been raised to consider bad behavior morally acceptable, how can they ever come to recognize that it isn’t?


The premise of your question is that the only way people know what is right and wrong is that they have been told.  That’s what many psychologists think too.  They view conscience as an empty vessel filled up by parental teaching and other forms of socialization.  Your own experience will show you that conscience is more than that.  If knowledge of right and wrong came only from how you were raised, you could never recognize a moral error.  But haven’t you ever come to realize that something was morally wrong, even though nobody told you so?  Haven’t you ever had a change of heart?  Sure you have. 

Of course parental teaching does shape us, but we have, so to speak, a deep shape, which good teaching merely brings to the surface.  No conceivable parental teaching could wipe out the fundamental recognition that wrong is different than right.  No imaginable childhood socialization could pump the awareness of that difference into you if you couldn’t see it for yourself.  There isn’t any way to raise a child so that he will hold the judgment “I should be grateful to those who have done me the most hurt, and ungrateful to those who have done me the most good.”  Even if you don’t teach him the Golden Rule, at some level it will make sense to him that the rules of behavior should be the same for everyone.  He will know that he shouldn’t steal or murder.

By the way, I am not saying that everyone draws correct conclusions from first principles.  Often we don’t.  And I am not saying that everyone actually follows first principles.  Often we don’t do that either.  What I am saying is that everyone knows first principles.  Even our excuses for bad behavior make use of them; we try to convince ourselves that our lies weren’t really lies, that our betrayals weren’t really betrayals, or that our mistreatment of others fulfilled justice because “they had coming to them.”

Just because we do know first principles -- just because we do have deep conscience -- we have a fighting chance of correcting erroneous surface conscience.  Of course it helps to have virtuous friends who will call us to account, but if we didn’t have the knowledge of first principles, how could their words get through to us?  We wouldn’t grasp what they were talking about, would be?  But we can be reached after all; we can see that we are wrong; we can even have a change of heart.