The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


The Meaningfulness of Meaning

“To lift any society is to strengthen the moral foundations of the core institutions. No culture or individual is ethically perfect—each is a work in progress.”

Terrance D. Olson | July 27, 2015
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A yellow rowboat is tethered to a dock, symbolizing how each of us should be tethered to high moral ground to prevent getting lost at sea.



It may be that facts about human experience—divorce rates, education levels, percentage of high school students who cheat on exams, etc.—do not tell us much about the meaning of those actions. Whether what we are seeking is to know why or how people divorce, or why they pursue education, or the reasons some students cheat and others don’t, citing the facts is rarely informative in any practical sense. That is, to reduce divorce rates, increase education levels or undermine cheating behaviors, citing statistics only suggests the extent of the problem or issue. It does not give us a starting point for solutions. Thus, constructing character and citizenship education hardly relies on percentage figures regarding who is honest or how often. Our assumptions about where problems come from dictate where we think solutions can be found.

We need to identify moral grounds for being moral; ethical grounds for being ethical

We need to identify moral grounds for being moral; ethical grounds for being ethical. Such defining of what values or behaviors are moral draws upon what meanings of human action are granted ethical legitimacy. Debates over what is ethical are debates over what criteria we use to decide what is ethical. We are identifying the meanings of behavior, attitudes, emotions, and actions. We are not citing statistics or mathematical models to make an ethical case. We don’t even make opinion polls fundamental to our decisions as to what is moral. The key questions to address in constructing approaches that will lift society and strengthen its core institutions are questions of meaning, not of mere empirical facts.

To answer the question, “What is the meaning of this?” when the focus is on what is right and wrong, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, or good and bad, means we look at what values and beliefs we are committed to, and why we hold them as valuable, moral or even sacred. This was highlighted for me many times when my colleagues and I were delivering a character and citizenship education program in selected school districts in several western states. An example of why questions of meaning are so important in these matters was illustrated while we were talking with high school students about moral dilemmas and how contrived dilemmas often restricted the boundaries of decision-making expected of students. After one discussion, a student approached us to share her experience the previous semester with an assigned, but contrived moral dilemma. It was the classic lifeboat dilemma, where 8 people were adrift in a raft, but with only enough water for 5 to survive the number of days it would take for ocean currents to drift them to land and presumed rescue. The student explained to the teacher that she really felt the moral thing to do would be not to throw anyone out of the boat. But the instructor was insistent that the boundaries of the dilemma had to be observed (else how could we assess the moral reasoning behind throwing overboard the aging golf pro with tuberculosis instead of the pregnant single mother?). The student dutifully went through the motions, and made her decisions regarding which 3 raft companions would be jettisoned into the sea. But she wrote a note at the end of the exercise. She told us she said, “If I really were in this situation, I would not throw anyone overboard. To me, the moral question here is not whether I live or whether I die, but how I live and how I die.”

This student explained the meaning of her genuine decision, and yet did not explain the moral grounds for it fully. In talking with us she described the moral meaning of taking an innocent life, and that that was repugnant to her. It seems ironic (if not moronic) to try and teach moral reasoning by limiting the moral options available to people in the situation.

My work in character education in the public schools taught me at least three things that statistics and descriptive facts can rarely help with:

1. Real-life stories about moral situations are embedded with a person’s moral sense and sensitivity. Moral dilemmas are responded to according to one’s conscience, and moral feelings about how to treat others are ubiquitous.

2. When the threads of a story are limited to descriptions of events, they are devoid of moral meaning until the individual faced with the situation explains their feelings of conscience regarding the decisions to be made.

3. Unraveling the moral possibilities and possible actions are matters of moral philosophies and lived-experience—the things addressed fundamentally educationally by the Humanities, where meaning, context and humans living as moral agents (or not), are crucial to understanding the stories to be told or examined.

No culture or individual is ethically perfect—each is a work in progress

Of course, it is possible to adhere to meanings that are destructive of the well-being of an individual, a family, a neighborhood or a whole culture. Lifting society by strengthening its core institutions, such as schools, is fostered by an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of this?” and the most important meanings to examine are the moral meanings. To lift any society is to strengthen the moral foundations of the core institutions. No culture or individual is ethically perfect—each is a work in progress. But as moral grounds are discussed, it is clear that there cannot be an “anything goes” mentality about private and public behavior, nor can a moral assessment of individual behavior, cultural norms or legal boundaries be avoided. The meaningfulness of moral meaning is basic to the task of refining and strengthening any culture.