For most of the past decade, a number of editorial writers, politicians, members of the clergy, and other pundits have described America as a nation in some sort of crisis. They point to a growing number of people who drop out of high school, who are living on probation, parole, or in prison, who are victims of domestic or criminal assault, who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, who are infected with sexually transmitted disease, who are having abortions, who are giving birth outside of marriage, who are getting divorced, or who are relying on Ritalin, Xanax or Prozac to make it through the day. They maintain these statistics are evidence something has gone terribly wrong with the American way of life.
As a practicing clinical psychologist, I work with people included in these numbers every day of the week. Monday I talk with a man on his way to prison for writing bad checks, a middle-aged mother struggling to quit drinking herself into a stupor every night, and a twenty-something single woman recently diagnosed with herpes. Tuesday I talk with a teenager dealing with an unintended pregnancy, a father court-ordered out of his house after assaulting his son, and a wife conflicted about whether to end her extramarital affair. On Wednesday I meet with an 11-year-old boy who doesnâ€™t cooperate with his teachers, on Thursday with a woman who was devastated by the news that her husband has filed for divorce so he can marry his girlfriend, and, on Friday, with an adolescent who recently attempted suicide.
From this perspective, rather than being numbers, persons included in statistics are living, breathing, human beings. Each has a unique history and set of circumstances as well as very personal thoughts, emotions, ideals, regrets, hopes, and dreams. But despite their differences, all of these individuals have one thing in commonâ€”they are all, to some degree, unhappy, discontent, and dissatisfied with life.
Recognizing that all of these people are in some sense unhappy, it is possible to characterize the number of persons in all of the statistical groups referred to by the pundits as a global measure of unhappiness in the United States. Since the total number of people in each of these groups continues to rise, it is reasonable to infer that we are in the midst of an epidemic of unhappiness. Recognizing that this nation was designed to optimize the conditions for the personal pursuit of happiness, this epidemic of unhappiness can be referred to as the current crisis in the American way of life.
Attempts to Cope with the Crisis
One group of opinion leaders offers a simple explanation for, and solution to, this crisis. Presuming illiteracy, probation, incarceration, assault, addiction, sexually transmitted illness, unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, and divorce are consequences of dysfunctional behavior, conservatives maintain that the rising number of people who find themselves with these conditions is the result of poor decision-making. They contend that people could avoid these outcomes by making better choices when managing their personal lives.
Conservatives remind us that the basic structure of the American way of life is a legal system based on a foundation of moral principlesâ€”ideas about right and wrong. They cite Founding Fathers, such as John Adams, who, in 1798, wrote, “Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to govern any other. ” Or they refer to James Madison, who, in 1778, wrote, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions . . . upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God. “
Conservatives point to the fact that, beginning with Colonial America and up until roughly forty years ago, the people of this country generally assumed the moral principles the Founding Fathers inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition were a set of guidelines for making choices which would lead to real and lasting happiness in this world and the next. They note that since those advocating a separation of church and state began to succeed in removing all reference to religion from public schools there has been an increase in the number of people who are failing to finish high school, living on probation, parole, or in prison, victims of domestic or criminal assault, addicted to drugs or alcohol, infected with sexually transmitted diseases, having abortions, giving birth outside of marriage, getting divorced, and relying on antidepressants and other psychotropic medications. They argue that each of these undesirable conditions could be lessened if Americans, once again, began to act on the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ when making choices in daily life.
On the other side, liberals insist there are several problems with the conservative approach. First, the moral position of the Judeo-Christian tradition is far from clear. Although all believers root their morality in scripture, there are wide differences in how sacred texts are understood. While some Christians maintain using alcohol is a sin, others serve wine in church. Similar differences exist with respect to the Christian positions on gambling, divorce and homosexuality. Liberals point to the fact that people of faith can be found on both sides of abortion, capital punishment, and assisted suicide to demonstrate that religiously based moral reasoning is incapable of effectively dealing with the major moral controversies of our time.
Further, liberals maintain that religiously-based moral reasoning permitted many of the most outrageous injustices of the past. Thousands were slaughtered in the Crusades, tortured during the Inquisition, and died during centuries of European holy war. Many who settled the British colonies in North America were fleeing persecution at the hands of religious authorities intolerant of their beliefs. After the American Revolution, the Bible was used to justify the perpetuation of slavery and the subordination of women. Even today the Ku Klux Klan uses a Christian symbol to terrorize non-white Americans who are simply exercising basic rights.
Liberals also note that the American Revolution was as much a rebellion against religion as it was a military campaign. Instead of relying on the British notion that it was a citizenâ€™s duty to God to obey a divinely enthroned king, the Founding Fathers based their declaration of independence on rational philosophyâ€”the other source of moral authority which has shaped and influenced the course of Western civilization since its beginning in ancient Greece. They went on to establish a government explicitly based on philosophical rather than on religious ideals. Referring to the first amendment of the Constitution and the fact that America has become a nation of many faiths, liberals argue that it is now un-American to base public education or any type of public policy on a set of moral principles which belong to any particular religious tradition.
Beyond rejecting the conservative solution to the crisis, liberals offer a different analysis of the crisis itself. Although acknowledging that failure to finish high school, delinquency, crime, addiction, sexually transmitted disease, unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, divorce, and emotional disorders involve some type of dysfunctional human behavior, they deny these conditions have anything to do with moral reasoning or ideas about right and wrong. Drawing on the theory of human nature generally accepted within contemporary social science, they contend that this behavior is determined by instinctive drives, patterns of prior conditioning, imbalances in brain chemistry, socioeconomic circumstances, or some other, as yet, unidentified factor which involves something other than choice. They believe further scientific research will inevitably discover the causes of this dysfunctional behavior and that the results of this research will eventually lead to a reduction in the number of persons who behave this way.
A Need for a New Approach
Rather than attempting to work together in an effort to find some common ground, todayâ€™s conservative and liberal leaders invest their energies in attempting to win hearts and minds to their respective points of view. Their strategies are to affect public policy through opinion polls and the election process. Unfortunately, as the leaders of these ideologies engage in cultural civil war, the epidemic of unhappiness continues and the current crisis in the American way of life endures.
One means of moving beyond this quagmire begins with the realization that crises are events which have a structure and dynamics of their own. Crises occur when people are confronted with undesirable conditions which are unintended and unanticipated. They result from pursuing courses of action based on assumptions which are in some way inaccurate, ineffective, or inappropriate with respect to achieving an intended outcome. Crises persist as long as those attempting to achieve the intended outcome continue doing what they do without realizing their assumptions are in some sense flawed.
Crises are resolved when three events occur. First, the assumptions of those who end up with the undesired outcome are clarified. Next, these assumptions are evaluated with respect to the degree that they are actually accurate, effective, and appropriate with respect to achieving the intended goal. Finally, the results of this evaluation are used to develop a new course of action aimed at achieving the intended outcome based on assumptions which are more accurate, effective, and appropriate for achieving the desired result.
This insight into the structure of a crisis suggests that a resolution to the current crisis in the American way of life could be obtained by identifying the assumptions within the conservative and liberal traditions, evaluating their accuracy, effectiveness, and appropriateness, and then developing a new approach to dealing with the epidemic of unhappiness based on what this evaluation has revealed.
Identifying Existing Assumptions
The conservative approach is rooted in three assumptions about human nature deeply rooted in Western civilization. These assumptions were contained in the writings of British Enlightenment philosophersâ€”Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Lockeâ€”who provided a theory of human nature for those who led the American Revolution and went on to write the Constitution of the United States. Todayâ€™s conservatives often make reference to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers who made use of these philosophersâ€™ ideas.
The first conservative assumption is known as a volitional theory of human nature. It asserts that human beings have the capacity to choose between alternative potential courses of action. It also includes the notion that, when confronted with a choice, people are naturally motivated to select the potential course of action they believe is most likely to make them happy in some way.
The second conservative assumption is a moral theory referred to as enlightened self-interest. This theory presumes that moral principles are a set of guidelines for making choices which are essential to obtaining an optimal quality of life. It also presumes that if individuals act on these principles when making choices in daily living they are doing what they can to maximize their potential to achieve happiness, emotional well-being, contentment, and satisfaction with life.
Finally, conservatives assume that moral principles are a matter of religion. This assumption is based on the belief that individual human beings are limited in their ability to distinguish between those courses of action which only apparently enhance a personâ€™s quality of life and those which enrich it in actuality. Accordingly, conservatives maintain that an all-knowing God revealed this knowledge about how to become and remain happy to specific personsâ€”Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostlesâ€”and that the rest of humanity can find real and lasting happiness by utilizing this information when making choices in daily life.
The liberal approach to dealing with illiteracy, probation, incarceration, assault, addiction, sexually transmitted disease, unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, divorce, and a variety of emotional disorders is based on a set of assumptions about human nature which began to influence the Western world as the philosophy of the Enlightenment was replaced by a new set of ideas about the nature of human existence. While Enlightenment thinking was rooted in faith in God, a vision of heaven, and a fear of hell, the notions about human nature utilized by liberals developed as an atheistic, scientific worldview emerged.
The first liberal assumption is referred to as determinism. This is the theory of human nature advanced by Sigmund Freud, William James, and John Watson, seminal thinkers who set the foundations for contemporary social science. Determinism consists of the belief that human behavior is caused by instinctive drives, patterns of prior conditioning, genetics, changes in brain chemistry, socioeconomic status or some other process which has nothing to do with choosing between alternative potential courses of action.
Second, liberals assume that moral principles are irrelevant to dealing with dysfunctional behavior. This assumption is based on the belief that rather than religion, the great minds of Western philosophy are the proper source of moral authority and the belief that the French philosopher Auguste Comte, is the great mind Americans should turn to as the appropriate authority on morality. His theory, altruism, maintains that what’s right is that which enhances the welfare of other people, society, or humanity in general. Since altruism insists that moral activity consists of service to others, acting on principle is viewed by altruists as an obstacle to, or restriction on, the personal pursuit of happiness.
Third, liberals assume that religion is not a reliable source of knowledge about life or how to live. This assumption is rooted in their opinion that the quality of human life has improved in virtually every domain of human existence where scientific discoveries have replaced pre-scientific thought. Liberals maintain that it makes more sense to rely on science as a means of trying to figure out how to help people who engage in dysfunctional behavior than referring to religious texts which they view as outdated relics from a bygone era.
Clearly, the traditional approaches to dealing with the current crisis in the American way of life involve a set of questionable assumptions about whether people are capable of making choices, as well as the purpose and source of ideas about right and wrong. While conservatives assume that people have the capacity to choose between alternative potential courses of action, that religion is the proper source of ideas about right and wrong, and that acting on moral principle is essential to becoming and remaining happy, liberals assume that human behavior has nothing to do with choice, that morality is irrelevant to the personal pursuit of happiness, and that science, rather than religion, is the appropriate source of knowledge for dealing with the dysfunctional behavior contributing to the epidemic of unhappiness. Now that these questionable assumptions have been identified, each can be evaluated in terms of the degree to which available evidence suggests it is accurate, effective, and appropriate with respect to attempting to resolve the current crisis in the American way of life.
Throughout the course of Western civilization and up until the establishment of social science, roughly one hundred years ago, all educated and thoughtful intellectual leaders recognized that people have the capacity of choice. Since the first philosophers of ancient Greece, every major philosopher in the Western tradition has maintained that, with respect to many behaviors, human beings are able to select between alternative potential courses of action. In addition, every known society has had a legal system based on the notion human beings actually make choices in the course of daily living.
These historical and sociological facts are consistent with observations human beings have made with respect to themselves and one another since the dawn of time. In everyday descriptions of human behavior, people have always regularly made reference to intentions, desires and choices when describing the activities of friends, family members and those whom they deal with in commercial and community affairs. Moreover, we have direct access to the process of choosing between alternative potential courses of action when we decide what to eat for breakfast, what color coat to purchase, and which program to watch on television.
Although the results of some animal studies can be used to argue for a deterministic theory of human nature, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that this is an accurate means of describing many types of human behavior. Over the course of the Twentieth Century, scientists have attempted to identify a number of non-volitional processes such as instinctive drives, patterns of prior conditioning, genetics, changes in brain chemistry, and socioeconomic status which cause people to fail to acquire adequate vocational skills, commit crimes, become addicted to drugs or alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior, abuse family members or get divorced. At best, these studies have produced only modest correlations. The results of thousands of these studies over nearly one hundred years reveal that although non-volitional processes may play some role in these dysfunctional behaviors, they do not actually cause people to behave in any of these ways. Based on all of this scientific evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that scientists have never been able to prove that human beings lack the capacity of choice.
One way of determining whether moral principles are relevant to the personal pursuit of happiness consists of looking at what research has revealed about the relationship between acting on principle and subsequent quality of human life. Statistics show that there is a correlation between personal reports of happiness, emotional well-being, contentment, and satisfaction in living with people who regularly tell the truth, keep their agreements, and refrain from theft. Research also reveals that there is a correlation between people who report they are unhappy, discontent, and dissatisfied with life and a tendency to frequently lie, cheat, and steal. What’s more, virtually all psychological research on the reasons people describe for acting on principle reveals that the vast majority of individuals who do what’s right act on principle because they believe they will personally benefit as a result.
Assuming that people have the capacity to choose between alternative potential courses of action and that moral principles can enhance a person’s potential for becoming and remaining happy, the next assumption which needs to be evaluated is whether it is more appropriate to assume that religion is the proper source of moral principles or whether to turn to philosophy for ideas about what’s right and wrong. In this respect, both conservatives and liberals assume there are only two sources of moral principles. Neither considers the fact that within the past decade a new source of moral principles has emerged. This source is science and what the scientific method has revealed about the relationship between choices people make and how those choices affect the quality of their lives. Given the fact that these principles were specifically formulated as a means of determining which potential courses of action maximize a person’s likelihood of becoming and remaining happy, scientifically formulated principles of morality provide a more effective means of dealing with the epidemic of unhappiness than continuing to operate on the assumptions about the source of moral knowledge contained in either the conservative or liberal approach.
Scientifically Formulated Principles of Morality
Scientifically formulated principles of morality were developed by following the same logic scientists used to come up with principles for achieving health and physical well-being. Researchers were able to formulate wellness principles by observing a correlation between certain types of voluntary human behavior and a number of serious illnesses. Studies revealed that people who regularly smoke tobacco often end up with cancer, emphysema, or heart disease. It also detected that a lack of exercise is correlated with diabetes, obesity, and stroke. Based on these and other correlations, scientists were able to formulate alternatives to unhealthy patterns of behavior which they then promoted as guidelines for making healthy choices in daily life. These principles for healthy living indicate that when we avoid tobacco, street drugs, and the excessive use of alcohol, obtain adequate amounts of rest and exercise, and eat a high fiber, low-fat diet, we are doing what we can to maximize our potential for becoming and remaining healthy.
Similarly, the search for scientifically formulated principles of morality began by determining which types of voluntary human behavior correlate with a loss of happiness, emotional well-being, contentment, and satisfaction with life. Once these correlations were determined, alternatives to these behaviors were identified. Conceptualized as principles, these guidelines for making choices in daily living maximize a person’s potential for becoming and remaining happy.
Research which led to the development of scientifically formulated principles of morality revealed that there are basic similarities between the voluntary behaviors of the majority of people who become, in one way or another, unhappy as a result of doing what they did. These patterns of behavior are referred to as self-defeating because they undermine a person’s effort at becoming and remaining happy. Research revealed that there are the following seven types of self-defeating behavior which lead to a loss of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction with life.
Heedless behavior consists of pursuing a course of action while knowing it poses a threat to something or someone essential to a person’s overall contentment and satisfaction with life. Examples include smoking cigarettes, using illicit drugs, driving while under the influence of consciousness altering substances and engaging in unsafe sex. Self-effacing behavior consists of regularly pursuing courses of action aimed at enhancing the happiness of others while failing to attend to what is essential to one’s own. Examples include a female adolescent who consents to unprotected sexual relations as a means of pleasing her boyfriend, a husband who constantly defers to his wife’s wishes on decisions which negatively affect his own quality of life, and parents who continue to provide for able-bodied adult children while neglecting what they need to do to prepare for retirement. Non-productive behavior involves spending time and energy on activities which have little or nothing to do with acquiring or maintaining what is required for contentment and satisfaction with life. Examples include teenagers who spend their time watching television, listening to music or talking on the phone rather than doing homework or studying for exams, employees who spend portions of their workday surfing the Internet rather than completing assigned tasks, and spouses who spend virtually all of their time in activities which have nothing to do with nurturing their partners in life. Unfaithful behavior consists of failing to fulfill agreements freely entered into at an earlier point in time. Examples include adolescents breaking curfews, salespersons who fail to honor warranties and married people who cheat on their spouses. Disrespectful behavior consists of pursuing a course of action which violates another person’s basic rights. Examples include physical or sexual assault, theft, or the disclosure of certain types of personal information. Deceptive behavior consists of attempting to create in another person’s mind an image of reality which does not correspond with actuality. It includes creating misleading audio or video recordings, filing falsified reports, or simply telling lies. Ill-considered interpersonal interaction occurs when people pursue a course of action which involves other persons whose behavior is heedless, nonproductive, disrespectful, unfaithful and/or deceptive. Examples include riding in an automobile with an impaired driver, continuing to employ an individual who does not put in a day’s work for a day’s pay, disclosing personal information to an individual who has demonstrated no respect for privacy, remaining in a marriage with a spouse who has an ongoing series of extramarital affairs, and trusting a person who frequently lies.
Once it was determined that these seven patterns of behavior are the ones which correlate with unhappiness, discontent and/or dissatisfaction in life, a set of alternatives was identified. The alternative to heedless and self-effacing behavior as well as ill-considered interpersonal interaction is referred to as self-respect. Self-respect consists of avoiding any course of action which clearly poses a threat to what is required for contentment and satisfaction with life. Industry is the alternative to non-productive behavior. Industry consists of investing the time and energy required to obtain and maintain what is essential for contentment and satisfaction with life. The alternative to unfaithful and disrespectful behavior is referred to as equity. Equity consists of honoring agreements and respecting the basic rights of others. Honesty, the alternative to deceptive behavior, consists of rendering an accurate description of reality. Like wellness principles, these guidelines for making choices only maximize the potential for achieving emotional well-being when they are combined and acted on consistently in the course of daily living. Given this reality, the combination and regular use of the four scientifically formulated principles of morality can be referred to as the formula for happiness.
Prevention and Dissemination
The potential that the formula for happiness has for reducing the epidemic of unhappiness becomes evident when the connection between acting on its principles and a person’s ability to avoid functional illiteracy, probation, incarceration, assault, addiction, sexually transmitted illness, unintended pregnancy, or divorce is clarified.
People who act on the principles of self-respect and industry can acquire adequate skills for competitive employment in today’s post-industrial economy. When those who are inclined to violate the rights of others act on the principle of equity, they avoid probation and incarceration which is frequently a consequence of murder, assault, and various types of theft. When those who are mulling over an opportunity to experiment with illicit drugs act on the principle of self-respect, they avoid future addiction. When people who have become addicted to drugs or alcohol act on the principles of self-respect, industry, and honesty, they enter into substance abuse recovery programs and invest the blood, sweat, and tears required to overcome their dependency. When interested in having casual and unprotected sexual intercourse, people who act on the principle of self-respect avoid sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy. When people act on the principle of self-respect in choosing a spouse, industry for investing time and energy in working on a satisfying marriage, and equity in forsaking all others, there is a reduction in the number of people who live with marital disharmony, domestic violence, and divorce.
Scientifically formulated principles of morality only hold the promise of reducing the epidemic of unhappiness if people become aware of these ideas about what’s right and act on these principles as they go about their daily lives. This means that a reverse in the epidemic of unhappiness requires a general recognition of the value of acting on these principles to the individual and to society at large. Clearly, the most efficient and effective means of achieving this goal is through the process of education.
The first step in teaching a significant number of youth about scientifically formulated principles of morality began with The Facts of Life Seminar which was instituted in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1993. This program for character development was designed to teach the formula for happiness to teens who are on juvenile probation and to show them how to apply the formula in the course of daily living. All of the adolescents adjudicated delinquent in this county are currently required to complete The Facts of Life Seminar as a one of the conditions of their probation.
In The Facts of Life Seminars students learn that when they act on scientifically formulated principles of morality they get the tangible benefit of improving and maintaining the quality of their lives. Students are provided with mnemonic devices similar to those used in teaching principles of nutrition and health. They are equipped with decision trees and given several exercises to help them learn to recognize a context for principled decision-making and how to systematically employ scientifically formulated principles of morality to figure out which alternatives to pursue. In addition to learning about the principles themselves, students are trained in behavioral techniques such as imaging and self-talk as a means of enhancing self-control when confronted with temptation to engage in a self-defeating course of action.
Since its inception, hundreds of adolescents have gone through Facts of Life Seminars taught by juvenile probation officers, mental health treatment personnel, and a number of teachers in residential placement centers, day treatment programs, outpatient counseling centers, and alternative education schools. Outcome research reveals that of those who complete this program there is a 123% increase in the number likely to refrain from violence, a 92% increase in the number likely to refrain from theft, a 178% increase in the number likely to keep their promises, and a 160% increase in the number likely to tell the truth. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Center for Juvenile Justice Training and Research sponsored the first state-wide program to prepare youth workers to lead Facts of Life Seminars throughout the Commonwealth.
In addition, a number of public school administrators and guidance counselors who learned about The Facts of Life Seminar have expressed an interest in integrating the formula for happiness into classes on decision-making and self-awareness in public schools. They recognize that many of the youth on juvenile probation may have been able to avoid trouble with the law if they learned to use scientifically formulated principles of morality as part of their overall education. As a result of this interest Lessons on The Facts of Life have been developed. This is a set of lesson plans which can be integrated into existing curriculum on decision-making and self-awareness classes in both public and private schools.
When scientifically formulated principles of morality are taught within a public school, influential persons in the community need to be aware of their existence as well as their value in promoting personal responsibility and citizenship. Public meetings provide opportunities for parents and other community leaders to learn about the origin and nature of the formula for happiness as well as why and how it is effective in motivating adolescents to act on principle in daily life. These meetings also equip members of the community with a vocabulary and a set of concepts about right and wrong which they can share with other adults who are dealing with the challenge of character development in youth. This ability to speak a common language enables teacher, school administrators, parents, clergy, and other community leaders to coordinate their efforts in dealing with issues of responsibility and accountability at school, at home, and in the neighborhood. Clearly, this effort can only succeed if those involved in implementing programs for character education based on the formula for happiness are able to enlist support from community leaders who represent both conservative and liberal groups.
Because scientifically formulated principles of morality are based on a volitional theory of human nature and because they are clearly relevant to the personal pursuit of happiness, many conservatives who learn about the formula for happiness recognize its value with respect to reducing the epidemic of unhappiness in the United States. But, since most conservatives believe that morality must be a matter of religion, some have difficulty supporting the idea that scientifically formulated principles of morality should be taught in public schools. They are frequently used to taking a position that it would be more appropriate to either return biblically-based moral principles to the classroom or to take all instruction in moral reasoning and action out of the schools, leaving this aspect of education to parents and to the clergy.
The conservative position that biblically-based morality should be brought back into public schools is rooted in the history of the United States. Conservatives remind us that when the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution they recognized democracy was a very fragile form of government. They knew it had only been tried twice before in the history of Western civilization and that each time it had collapsed into some form of dictatorship. In order to prevent this from happening in America, some of the Founding Fathers advocated for a system of public education so that citizens who are electing public officials would be able to make good choices when it came time to cast their votes. Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers, and the father of American psychiatry, was a chief architect of public schools in America. He maintained public schools should have two objectives. The first was to teach basic academic skillsâ€”reading, writing, and arithmetic. The second was to train students to act on the moral principles contained in the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.
Based on this mission, for nearly 200 years, public schools in America were one of three institutions which trained successive generations of Americans in moral reasoning and its relevance to daily life. Public school’s functioned in concert with the church and family in presenting an integrated and effective means of acting on principle at home, at school, at work, and in the larger community. History reveals that this combined effort at character development began to unravel when advocates for the separation of church and state were successful in requiring public schools to remove any reference to The Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus. Since most Americans view morality as a matter of religion, public schools rapidly and completely abandoned all formal teaching of moral reasoning based on a concern the school district would become the object of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Conservatives who cite this history as a means of arguing for a return of biblically-based moral instruction to the classroom can be reminded that given the political strength of those who advocate the separation of church and state, it is unlikely religion will be returned to public school classrooms in the United States anytime in the foreseeable future. What’s more, even if this were to occur, teaching moral reasoning based on scripture will do little to motivate a large number of students to act on principle because many Americans no longer understand the world in terms of Biblical descriptions of reality. Students who have no faith in God, who have no vision of heaven, and who have no fear of hell, have no reason to take seriously what the Bible has to say about life and how to live. Clearly, scientifically formulated principles of morality are much more powerful in motivating public school students who have no religious foundation to make use of them in daily living because these ideas about how to behave are consistent with the scientific worldview which pervades everything else they learn at school.
Those conservatives who maintain moral training should be kept out of public school and left up to the family and the clergy can be reminded that in America today millions of children have never seen the inside of a synagogue or a church. Millions more are being raised by parents who see no value in acting on moral principles in the course of daily living. Since public schools are the only place these children would have an opportunity to receive formal training on how to act on principle, failing to provide this type of education only perpetuates the epidemic of unhappiness in the United States. Persons of faith who have no problems using scientific discoveries which have led to vaccinating virtually all children in America against smallpox, diphtheria, and polio should be encouraged to recognize that teaching the formula for happiness is a means of inoculating children against functional illiteracy, probation, incarceration, addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, marital disharmony, domestic violence, divorce, and a variety of problems with their mental health. It makes no more sense to deprive millions of children of the benefit of learning about scientifically formulated principles of morality than it would to limit the availability of vaccinations to the children of persons who believe in God and who take their kids to Sunday School.
Those conservatives who believe that acting on a secular set of moral principles may have a negative effect on fostering faith can be reminded that scientifically formulated principles of morality are in no way hostile to a belief in God or any traditional religion. While letting students learn about the formula for happiness at school, parents and religious leaders can combine this product of scientific research with their approach to religious education. Religious educators can show children how scientifically formulated principles of morality are compatible with many of the ideas about right and wrong contained in scripture as a means of providing further validation for the moral principles found in sacred texts. What’s more, religious teachers can demonstrate how combining Biblical instructions on how to relate to God with scientifically formulated principles of morality enables persons of faith to experience a greater degree of joy than the level of fulfillment people are able to find by simply following the formula for happiness
Because the formula for happiness is a product of the scientific method, many liberals find the notion that it can be taught in public school to be an intriguing idea. Since they can also see how training youth to act on scientifically formulated principles of morality will go a long way toward reducing the epidemic of unhappiness, they generally recognize the value of encouraging this approach to teaching decision-making in public schools. At the same time, some liberals have difficulty supporting a program for character development which inspires students to act on principle by an explicit appeal to self-interest. This resistance can subside once these liberals recognize how following the formula for happiness results in a number of benefits to others and to society as a whole.
When an individual acts on the principle of self-respect that person is doing what he or she can to promote his or her overall physical and emotional well-being, thereby relieving healthcare and social service agencies of the need to provide for that individual and making their services available to other needy members of the community. When people acts on the principle of industry, they provide for the material needs of other people in the form of such tangible items as food, clothing, shelter, automobiles, appliance, electronic devices, and countless other meaningful material objects which enhance the quality of human life. When a doctor, nurse, attorney, banker, police officer, auto mechanic, building inspector, or custodian acts on the principle of industry, he or she is serving others by providing quality healthcare, legal representation, financial assistance, security, transportation, or safe and clean buildings, streets and parks, which enhance the lives of other members of the community. When a person acts on the principle of equity, he or she is enabling others to maintain their physical and emotional well-being while, at the same time, contributing to the freedom and security of other members of the community. When a person acts on the principle of honesty, he or she is providing others with accurate information which enables them to make informed and realistic decisions choices when faced with momentous decisions which will have a long-term impact on their future quality of life.
Beyond these benefits which result from acting on specific scientifically formulated principles of morality, persons who behave according to the formula for happiness tend to be those who support institutions which are central to the American way of life. Self-respecting, industrious, equitable, and honest people are those individuals who provide most of the contributions to charitable organizations in the United States. As taxpayers, they also provide service to others through government-funded health and welfare programs.
Self-respecting, industrious, equitable, and honest individuals build better families, neighborhoods, and communities. Working within these networks of interpersonal relationships they develop, support, and maintain quality education, healthcare institutions, libraries, and emergency services. They become politically informed and conscientious voters who support politicians and public policies which balance agricultural, mining and manufacturing interests with environmental concerns. They also support candidates and government officials who are ensuring fair law enforcement, protecting the integrity of the courts, and maintaining military readiness so that all citizens can benefit from a government designed to protect each individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Assuming liberals are interested in a program for character development which can provide these benefits to society, it is important for them to recognize that these benefits only materialize when individuals are motivated to act on those principles which yield these results. Since character education based on the formula for happiness demonstrates that it is in the studentsâ€™ interest to act on principle, this approach to character education is effective in inspiring them to make use of scientifically formulated principles of morality in the course of daily living. As such, teaching the formula for happiness is a much more reliable means of enhancing the welfare of others than simply requiring students in character development programs to engage in public service activities such as serving meals in a soup kitchen, picking up litter along the highway, or baking cookies for the residents of the local homeless shelter.
Resetting the Moral Foundation
In 1776, a group of British subjects declared their independence from royal rule and went on to design a blueprint for a way of life intended to optimize the conditions for the personal pursuit of happiness. Recognizing that the pursuit of happiness depends on individual self-control, they based the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the assumption that Americans would continue to govern their personal lives with the moral principles they inherited from Judeo-Christian tradition. Although the Founding Fathers were aware that science was making impressive advances even in their day, they had no way of envisioning how that moral foundation would disintegrate when the Christian vision of reality gave way to the scientific worldview which characterizes America today.
“These are the times that try men’s souls” wrote Thomas Paine at the beginning of The American Crisis. Five months after the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, he wrote this essay to awaken Americans to the fact that the war for winning that independence was not yielding the intended, desired, and anticipated result. He urged the people of this nation to recognize that if they simply went about their daily lives assuming the war would be won without some effort on their part, they were pursuing a course of action which would have disastrous consequences with respect to the future of the American way of life. We now know that those who reevaluated this assumption and devoted themselves to the cause, were eventually successful in establishing the first nation on earth devoted to protecting each citizen’s right to the pursuit of happiness.
Like the Americans of his day, we are currently confronted with a crisis and with a soul-searching choice. One alternative involves continuing to flounder along, arguing about whether choices make a difference in the quality of human life, bickering over whether morality plays a part in the personal pursuit of happiness, and quarreling about whether morality must be a matter of religion or whether it should be based on some philosophy, while each year more and more children move into adult life with virtually no appreciation for the role morality plays in the pursuit of happiness. The other alternative consists of recognizing that the choices we make determine the quality of our lives, acknowledging that ideas about right and wrong are essential to the pursuit of happiness, and doing what we can to promote the notion that scientifically formulated principles of morality are an effective means of restoring moral reasoning and moral action to its proper place at the foundation of the American way of life.