There is a short story by 'Saki' (H H Munro) called Clovis on Parental Responsibilities
. In the story, Clovis is in conversation with Mrs Eggelby who is an enthusiast for educating her children on right and wrong. They have the following very interesting exchange:
'Now, my mother never bothered about bringing me up. She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I've forgotten what it is.'
'Forgotten the difference between right and wrong?!'
'Well, you see, I took up natural history and a whole lot of other subjects at the same time, and one can't remember everything, can one?'
The admission that he has forgotten the difference between right and wrong is philosophically unsettling. It is easy to understand that he has now forgotten the difference between the Sardinian dormouse and the ordinary kind. But if you once knew the difference between right and wrong, it sounds odd to say that you have now forgotten it. But why does it sound odd? What you once knew you can surely be said now to have forgotten, so why can't that be said of right and wrong?
Of course, if the difference between right and wrong is just based on rules, then you could be said to have forgotten what it is because you can certainly forget rules. For example, someone might say: I was taught that matters of right and wrong were established by the Ten Commandments; I learned these when I was at Sunday School but now I've forgotten them.
That is certainly one way of looking at morality, a way that would appeal to people of a fundamentalist persuasion. And before anyone becomes too superior and dismissive of what they might see as an outdated position, it is worth noting that there is a new and very strident non-religious fundamentalism which concerns language.
But rules can cover only a limited number of circumstances whereas moral problems are many and varied. In any case, to think of morality merely in terms of rules is surely inadequate. There must be more to it than learning rules. Is there another sort of knowledge that you can acquire but won't forget?
One candidate might be the kind of knowledge involving skills. 'I once knew how to ride a bicycle but I've forgotten how to do it.' That claim has a slightly odd ring, similar to the claim made by Clovis. If you have once learned how to ride a bicycle you don't ever forget. Of course, as you get older, you might be a bit wobbly but the 'know how', the skill or at least a remnant of it, will remain.
Another example of this kind of knowledge can also throw light on right and wrong. Someone might say: 'I learned to play the violin when I was at school and played in the school orchestra, but I'm a bit rusty now'. In other words, the former violinist hasn't forgotten how to play – the skill would still be there in a very basic sort of way – but she wouldn't sound good. She would
need to resume practising.
There is an analogy here with right and wrong. Someone may have been well brought up but in teenage or later years might have fallen in with bad companions and have got out of the habit of behaving in morally good ways. But let us suppose the person later decides to reform. It might be hard-going at the start but reform would in most cases be possible because something would remain of the earlier good upbringing.
Readers will remember Hamlet's mother. Hamlet gives her a right talking to about her licentious ways. He says: 'Assume a virtue if you have it not'. His point is the Aristotelian one that moral virtues can be re-introduced or developed by practising them. This is like resuming practice of the violin.
So, if knowing the difference between right and wrong is like acquiring a skill, then once acquired it can't fully be forgotten, although someone might become rusty.
But comparing knowing the difference between right and wrong to acquiring and practising a skill is open to the same sort of objection that I made to the depiction of right and wrong in terms of specific rules. Just as there are not enough rules to cover all the varied moral challenges of life, so too we may have no specific skill which fits a given situation.
Additionally, and more importantly, depicting morality solely in terms of either learning rules or exercising skills seems to leave out something essential. For example, everyone can tell the difference between the doctor or nurse who has been on a course on empathy or communication skills and has been trained to behave in certain ways, and the one who shows a real concern for our well-being. What makes the difference?
We think of knowledge, whether of rules or of skills, as something we learn as it were from the outside. But the important point about morality – missing from the both the rules and the skills approach – is that it is constituted from the inside. J S Mill says we all possess the 'germs of sympathy'. He is thinking of our innate ability to respond to tears and laughter and the assorted emotions and problems of others. And we may have other connected innate abilities which we bring to morality. Piaget and others have carried out empirical work suggesting that the concept of fairness may be innate in children. It certainly appears early. But the central point is that sympathy and perhaps a sense of justice are human capacities which provide at least the basis of our knowledge of right and wrong. And because they are innate capacities, components of our humanity, they are not the sort of thing that can be forgotten.
As Mill goes on to argue, the capacities must be developed with the knowledge and skills appropriate for different areas of life. But it is the innate human capacities which make the difference between a learned-up moralism and genuinely knowing the difference between right and wrong. And innate capacities can't be forgotten.
I once attended a music festival at which the adjudicator made some comments about a young man's performance of a Chopin Nocturne
. The adjudicator was full of praise and encouragement for the performer – his playing was accurate with attention to phrasing, dynamics and so on. But to the young man's obvious embarrassment, the adjudicator said: You will play it much better after you have had two love-affairs and a disappointment. The young man had played the Nocturne
from the outside. Life had not yet activated the capacities which would give meaning to his playing.
The conclusion then is that Clovis is wrong: we cannot be said to forget the difference between right and wrong. At its most fundamental, knowing the difference between right and wrong depends on innate capacities, and we cannot forget innate capacities; we just have them (unless we are psychopaths). Capacities require to be educated and broadened with knowledge of the many customs of life, and in general with the knowledge of what makes people tick. Acting habitually on that knowledge creates a morally informed disposition.
But there is a darker side to all this. Even if we allow that morality depends on innate human capacities and therefore cannot exactly be forgotten, it can nevertheless be overcome by other innate capacities or perverted by false beliefs. For example, the innate drive to survive might in some circumstances be stronger than the capacity for sympathy – we might try to get in the lifeboat at the expense of others. Or we might use our elbows as they say to further our own interests at the expense of others. Or false beliefs might lead us to ignore feelings of sympathy. It has been reported that some Nazis had to overcome their feelings of sympathy for the Jews they led to the gas chambers; ideology overcame innate sympathy. The depressing conclusion then is that, even if we cannot be said to forget the difference between right and wrong, other factors can blind us to that difference.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow