Morality, Anyone? It's Still Out There

It almost seems like it's out of vogue.

Morality, that is.  

We have a president who lies just about every time he opens his mouth, a congress that looks the other way, an attorney general who fidgets and flushes uncomfortably when asked to speak the truth (and doesn't).

But how do we find out way back?

Experts say it's how guilty we feel when we do something wrong, and then, what we do about it. I'm ashamed to admit that recently, with my new car and too-big side mirrors, I clipped someone else's mirror driving by.  I think most of the damage was done to my mirror -- I had to have it soldered back into place.  But I didn't leave a note for the other person, and to this day (about a week and a half later), I still feel guilty.  Unlike the teenager who backed into my two-month-old car at a high school event and did leave a sorrowful note under my windshield.  (I was parked in a fire lane so I covered the cost of my new driver's side door.)

According to, the answer to finding our way back to morality is looking at what we do after we feel guilty.  It's one of the many complicated issues researchers at Wake Forest University are studying as part of The Beacon Project, an in-depth look at “moral exceptionality.”
The three-year project, which launched in 2015 with a $3.9 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, has awarded grants to 21 researchers around the world in psychology, philosophy and theology, who are hoping to determine what influences moral decision-making.
And that can be as simple as how a person reacts in a spilled red wine on the new carpet situation or as serious as whether you readjust your life to welcome foster children into your home or put yourself at risk to shelter Jews during the Holocaust, the web site reports.
“We need to know what makes people good in order to help people in their efforts to become better,” says William W. Fleeson, Wake Forest psychology professor and director of The Beacon Project. “We want to be able to create conditions that give us opportunities to become better, or more good, more often.”
The 21 research projects range from a look at moral courage and why someone might intervene to help another despite serious personal risk; to outrage and political protest; to a look at a hunter-gatherer society and the origins of moral exceptionality.
Fleeson notes that one of the sticking points about studying and teaching moral exceptionality is that one must be careful not to define morality, or even to force it.
“We have to be mindful when educating for morality, character or goodness. We don’t want to enable one particular view or definition of those terms,” he adds. “Instead, we should guide toward an understanding of oneself, who one is and how others are affected by one’s actions.”
For example, Fleeson often assigns in his classes an article that discusses how morality is one of the most important parts of one’s identity. The students read it, and he asks, “If this is true, then what does it say about how you should act in most situations?” The students always agree that morality should play into their decision-making – but he never defines what the moral choice should be.
So how do we put morality back into this world?  We can't.  But we can make it a slightly better place by practicing it ourselves.  I'm going back and leaving a note.


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