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Moral Exemplars and Beyond-the-Self Purpose with William Damon

Dr. William Damon is a Professor of Education at Stanford University, where he directs the Center on Adolescence and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His research has received numerous grants and awards from several Foundations and trusts, including the John Templeton, Andrew Mellon, and Spencer Foundations. He has authored and co-authored fifteen books on the topics of child development, education, morality, and purpose, including Greater Expectations which received the Parent’s Choice book award. Throughout his distinguished career, he has focused on a number of topics related to moral development. In this podcast, we discuss his research with moral exemplars, his interests in the development of purpose and its effects, as well as his forthcoming book on the development of purpose in his own life.

APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). (2019, October 1). Moral Exemplars and Beyond-the-Self Purpose with William Damon [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


NOTE: This transcript was generated automatically. Please excuse typos and errors.

Amber Cazzell: 00:00:00 Bill, could you please tell me about your background, how you became interested in education and how you became interested in moral development? On your CV, it said that you had earned your doctoral degree in developmental psychology and I didn't realize that I had thought it was education.

William Damon: 00:00:18 Right now I'm I'm really a psychologist. That's my disciplinary training and I became interested in education about midway through my career. I I got interested in psychology and especially developmental psychology. After college. I I did take some courses in college that I liked a lot in child psychology and so on, but I never imagined that's what I would go into. But after college for a couple of years, I did social work in New York city and worked sometimes with the Bureau of child welfare and other agencies that had a lot to do with youth. And at that time I made a personal discovery that a lot of young people who are disadvantaged and don't have the kind of backgrounds that give them a lot of a lot of credentials and that kind of thing are still really smart and have a lot of talents.

William Damon: 00:01:25 And I felt that the courses that I had taken in college, and this was quite awhile ago, I remember it didn't really recognize this, that they were they were suggesting that there were all kinds of differences between groups of people that could not be overcome or that were somehow baked in by either biology or culture or some factor that was beyond individual's control. And it was a very deterministic point of view. And so I've got kind of interested in the idea that we could do better than that in terms of building a science of human development that respected and understood human agency, the ability of people to take control of their own lives and make the best of it. And I knew from my own experience that that happened for sure. And from even reading history. And my own family background, even my family came from immigrant places and they worked their way up and then they did pretty well.

William Damon: 00:02:43 And so I knew that people could could in a lot of ways determine their own future. And I thought that there was a story to be told for especially young people growing up that hadn't really been told. So I went back to graduate school at that time and I enrolled in developmental psychology program, a PhD program, and I got interested, I think in the moral development part about halfway through the program. I went in to study cognitive psychology and intelligence and that kind of thing. But then I began reading people like Kohlberg and Piaget who were cognitivist since that's how I got onto them because they were cognitive psychologists, but they had written, especially Kohlberg, but also Piaget about moral judgment. And I thought that was just fascinating and I think it was my intellectual interest that drove me then to say, you know, this is a, this is an area that I think is important. It's really interesting. It fits right into my agenda of trying to figure out how people's worldview and their vision and their sense of who they are can give them agency over their lives about very important areas. So that's when I started studying social and moral development. But that was basic research as a psychologist. That's how I started my career.

Amber Cazzell: 00:04:10 So at that point in time, did you consider yourself a cognitive psychologist with intents in studying moral development specifically from that cognitive perspective?

William Damon: 00:04:21 I did and in fact it's kind of amusing to think back on it cause it also reveals my age, which is elderly. But at that time I was as exactly as you said, I thought of myself as a cognitive psychologist interested in social and moral phenomena. And I thought, well, what I really want to study is something called social cognition. And when I pitched that idea around to my advisors in graduate school at the time, they said, what in the world is that? There's no such thing. Little did any of us know that within 10 years, social cognition became a field in and of itself. And that was that was a surprise to me. But I do definitely remember people giving me a blank look when I said, gee, I really would like to study social cognition. And and so that does kind of date me. But it also indicates that I was starting as the cognitive psychologist moving into these areas of social and moral development.

Amber Cazzell: 00:05:24 Yeah. Yeah. So what were some of your first kind of projects or research programs once you became interested in Kohlberg and Piaget and, yeah.

William Damon: 00:05:34 So my very first study ever, it was my masters thesis at Berkeley and then it became my PhD was a study of young children and it was propelled by my sense that somehow Kohlberg had Piaget. They both had missed something in their stages of moral development because they began with a stage, both of them with a kind of an authority obeying stage in Kohlberg at stage one called power in a power obedience. The idea that you obey whoever might makes right and you believe that's the right thing because the powerful person has the right to determine what's right and wrong. In Piaget it was a similar kind of idea that that it was what Piaget called unilateral respect, which means the child has respect for the adult's point of view, not the other way around. And whatever the adult said was right by virtue of the fact that the adults said it.

William Damon: 00:06:47 But I had been reading other people that had studied early childhood, especially a Viennese psychologist from the early part of the 20th century named Charlotte Buehler, who had studied children's sharing and early peer interactions. And she had made observations that for preschool children, there was a real ethic that you ought to share your things and that there was a sense of fairness. Even that if I use your scooter you have some right to use mine. I should share my toys with you. Or if we have a couple of cookies we should split them up. And so I thought, well, this is different than what Piaget and Kohlberg were writing about as the origins and morality because this is a positive thing and it has to do with justice. And it wasn't based on a grownup telling the kids you have to do this.

William Damon: 00:07:52 So that was my first study was to actually see if that was the case, that I was guessing that was the case. And I had read that into what Charlotte Buehler was doing, but she never interviewed kids or actually asked them what they were thinking. And so I did that. And sure enough, I found that if I asked the child a four year old child a question, like you know, if your mother told you not to share your toys with your sister would that be the right thing or would you do that? And four or five year old, I can tell you, you can replicate this if you ask your five year old daughter that question, she will say, "no my mom is being off the wall. It's the right, you know, it's fair. Like, of course I should share this with my friend."

William Damon: 00:08:39 I thought that there was a mistake in both the theories of Piaget and Kohlberg and how and where developmental changes take place. I think that they were underestimating or maybe missing entirely the importance of peer relations and developing very fundamental concepts of justice, which is the heart of morality. And they were kind of assuming that there's a line that goes from the adult child relationship to then later kind of what they call de-centering and more equal form of morality and justice. And so it was really a different view of the developmental mechanism of change. I thought that development took place out of the experience that kids had, the real lived experience that kids had in the context of their friendships and their other, other social relationships rather than rather than starting with a kind of a one way observation of what the adult world thought was, right.

William Damon: 00:10:10 And then, and then working it out after that. So it started me off on a number of studies that had to do with the importance of peer learning. And I did those studies both in the moral and in the cognitive domain. So early in my career after I left my graduate school and got a job at Clark University as an assistant professor my first a program of research had to do with peer learning and peer interaction. And as I said, that was both in the moral domain and in the cognitive domain. And we looked at how kids solve physics problems or math problems in collaboration with other children. And because I always believed that was really important source of learning in life it's not the only source. And of course people also learned from folks in authority and folks that know more.

William Damon: 00:11:10 But but a lot of the most fundamental insights about life come from bouncing ideas off of people who are your equals.

Amber Cazzell: 00:11:21 And so that led eventually to the, the book the moral, is it called the moral child?

William Damon: 00:11:29 Well, the, my first book was my first book was called the social worlds of the child. And that was the book that I presented my view of the origins of morality in sharing and what I was calling positive justice, which is really just another word for distributive justice. The other way that Piaget and Kohlberg I thought I think distorted or had a bias about the origins of reality is that they were talking about punitive justice, about an, the morality of constraint, about what not to do and how you could get in trouble if you broke the law or did the wrong thing.

Amber Cazzell: 00:12:06 And for Piaget it was all about respect for social rules and you've got to follow the rules. And Kohlberg, it was about about avoiding punishment. But as I said, my focus on the social world, the child was on positive justice on, on doing the right thing for somebody else, which has to do with sharing and benevolence and kindness and friendship. So the social, social role of the child was really about that. And I had chapters in it about positive justice, about friendship and, and that kind of thing. So how was the book received? Was it, was it at that time breaking quite heavily from what most people believed or, or was it sort of like, yes, of course, this is kind of the next step in research?

William Damon: 00:12:59 It was breaking with what people had believed and the book got a lot of attention. It was the lead a review in contemporary psychology, which was the main of a journal that reviewed books. So it was, it was widely read. And I think the the good news for me at the time was that people then did a lot of studies based on it and my claims were replicated pretty widely. I mean, there was, there was nobody disputed that in fact, yes kids do care a lot about sharing and they have a sense of justice. And the interesting thing I'll say is that I went to a conference in Norway a couple of years ago with a bunch of economists, behavioral economists, and they were still doing studies with a much more sophisticated experiments than I had used because I just interviewed kids and ask them questions. But they were still doing studies that exactly replicated my findings, which was that kids start off with a sense of that you ought to share, they believe in equality early on. And then that's followed with understanding compensation, reciprocity, merit, need. Other elements come in to add to the fairness idea and what would be a fair distribution. And in the sequence that I proposed the the behavioral economists are finding exactly the same thing with, with a much more elaborate and I'm sure sophisticated experimental techniques. Yeah.

Amber Cazzell: 00:14:49 So how did you move from sort of expanding the realm of moral understanding to the social world in that context and into what, I guess what I first was introduced to your work as being, which was moral commitment in moral exemplars. How does your career kind of make that trajectory change?

William Damon: 00:15:18 That's a good question. I I think that it was my relationship with Anne my wife Anne Colby that propelled that move. Anne and I got married in 1983. We had been together a little while before that. So we basically knew each other very well starting in about 1980. And, Anne at that time was more of a lifespan developmental psychologists. And I was, she had worked with Larry Kohlberg and had studied moral development throughout the whole stage system all the way up to stage six. And when she and I got together and got married, we were on our separate tracks. But of course we talked with one another. That's what you do when you marry somebody. And especially if they're in your field. And we cooked up this idea together. I can't remember who, who said what, but the idea that what really happens with moral maturity and where does it all lead and, and what is actually the the direction that the finest people move in and the people that you really admire as being the moral leaders.

William Damon: 00:16:45 What, what does it take to be a moral leader like that? And what what are the developmental processes that contribute to somebody being able to make the kind of commitments that we admire as being people that really get to the pinnacle of moral achievement. And at the same time that we were talking about this, there was a social science research committee on giftedness and that was on giftedness generally. What, what does giftedness mean creatively, artistically and so on. And they invited us down to ask whether there was such a thing as moral gifted, this and that fit right into our agenda of saying, what is the pinnacle of moral achievement? What does moral creativity, what is moral imagination? So somehow we came up with the idea that we should actually study moral exemplars, exemplary figures who who everybody admires and agrees this person is really is really a stellar example of, of moral commitment. And so we then did our study of 23 Americans who who were nominated by by

William Damon: 00:18:09 An array of moral scholars that, that was our choice was to say, we don't want to just ask anybody that's walking down the street who they admire because maybe people haven't even thought about what morality means. Or they might have instincts about it, but we'd like to know people that have spent their lives really studying morality. And moral psychology what they think as to who a morally admirable person is. And we were sure to cover the gambit of ideologies, religions. We had 20 nominators and everybody politically from left right to center. I religiously all the religions we could think of. Philosophers other kinds of scholars, theologians. And we came up with a list that, that they would all agree on as this person really is walking the walk. This person is an example of moral commitment and out of we had a list of maybe 50 or 60 and out of them we got 23 of them to agree to be studied. And that's when we did the book, Some do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment.

Amber Cazzell: 00:19:25 Were you surprised by any of the exemplars that emerged?

William Damon: 00:19:30 We were surprised by a couple that I, well I shouldn't mention it, there were some people we thought would emerge that that did that. And I probably shouldn't say names cause some, a couple of them are still alive. So, but but I can tell you the reason the reason they got turned down. I mean, there were some famous people that had done things that that look like they are heroic things in society, but the ones that got turned down were people that were full of ego basically. And there was a suspicion they were doing this in order to self aggrandize and rather than that out of a sincere commitment to the cause itself. So there were a few of those people that that we were surprised did not get nominated. As far as the people that did get nominated, it seemed, now these people were such clear cases and they had to be clear cases because as I said, we had 20 nominators who would disagree with one another on everything else. So if they're going to agree that that Virginia Durr, for example, or Suzie Valadez or any of our cases were were examples of moral commitment. It was a pretty sure thing that they were going to be.

Amber Cazzell: 00:20:47 And then you said you got to interview 23 of these exemplars. What was that like?

William Damon: 00:20:52 It was amazing. I think that was probably the most life changing research I've ever done because these people were really inspiring. And I remember I mentioned Suzie Valadez. She was a born again Christian, a missionary who had seen a vision of Jesus early in her life saying something like a minister to the children of Juarez, Mexico or something like that. And she followed that vision and spent the next 40 or 50 years of her life living in El Paso, Texas, going over the border every day, building hospitals and schools and every other thing for children living around a garbage dump, a huge garbage dump in Juarez and saving these children's lives. The children went on to become educated, become middle-class, and more thousands of these children as Suzie had ministered to over the course of her life. And so I spent a long weekend with her going back and forth to this garbage dump.

William Damon: 00:22:07 I think it's called a favela, if I'm remembering the, the Spanish word for it where the families would live and eke out an existence foraging among the garbage that the citizens of Juarez threw out. And so I saw what Suzie did. She would spend benching at that time, if I'm remembering that she was something like 70 years old and she'd go for 14 hours and full of energy. The kids loved her. They would flock around her. It was an amazing experience to see this woman just and on fire and so committed and so full of joy yet her work, even though herself she had very little, she didn't accumulate wealth or do anything like that.

Amber Cazzell: 00:22:56 Wow. And so how did you feel that, that sort of, you said it was a life changing experience. How did that change your life?

William Damon: 00:23:05 It it gave me the sense that you can, you can really follow what you believe in in a way without worrying a lot about the consequences, I think. I think that's the way I would put it, that I had always been very self-protective. And and for example, taking a financial risk by doing something that wouldn't necessarily provide income for family or something like that would seem like something that, gee, you know, should I be more self protective of me and my family? And there are other other examples there too, of risks that I that I was hesitant to take. And I would see Suzie who just lived this natural life of doing what she believed in. She had raised her own children who were doing really well, but she didn't really worry. She would always say I mean her expression, she was highly religious and she would always say God will provide.

William Damon: 00:24:20 And that sentiment, even though I may or may not put it exactly that way myself in my personal life, but in some sense, I think that's a great way to live. And it's the right way to live. And a, that Suzie was not reckless. She didn't take on necessary chances or, and, and she was a responsible person. And all of that. But she wasn't a worrier. She just assumed that I could do this, I believe in this and it will turn out all right. And she had a, she had a fine life. People supported her because they could see what she was doing. She was able to do good work and and in a way that she that, that, that in a way that corresponded with her deepest beliefs. And I'm not saying I'm able to do that, it to any extent to the extent that she or any of the moral exemplars did it, but I think I learned something from her and other people that I spent time with that maybe at least pushed me, that that helped me lean more in that direction than I would have otherwise.

Amber Cazzell: 00:25:29 Yeah. When I, when I first learned about some of this work, I was really interested in the judgment action gap. Which for listeners who might not know, that's referring to this idea that you might have values that you fail to live out despite the facts that you feel sort of in that you identify with these values. So when I first heard about that, I thought it was fascinating. What you're saying kind of echoes the findings that I recall from that Some do Care book that exemplars don't seem to have this tension so much. They seem sort of to have a light burden, so to speak.

William Damon: 00:26:07 Exactly. I mean, that was one of the surprising findings for me in the book and in the study. And, and I went into the study with the idea that we were going to try to understand moral courage, what it takes to be courageous under risk. And in Susie's case, it was kind of a economic courageousness that she didn't worry about her financial wellbeing and she ended up fine anyway. But for other people, there were other really dangerous things that they were doing for the sake of peace or the civil rights movement or other kinds of causes. And we expected that they would tell us how they were able to shore up their courage under all of these scary situations, these risky situations. And every single one of them gave us the same response, which is, well, no, I don't really feel like I need courage or I necessarily have it because I had to do it.

William Damon: 00:27:12 It was what I believed in. And that's so much part of who I am, that it's like crossing the street to get to where you want to go, you just do it. And so I don't feel that I ever had to shore up my courage to the sticking point or any of those kinds of ideas that people have. I just I just felt that this was my life and this is the way I live. And so that was again, that same message that, you know, if you just go for it and do what you believe is right it preempts a lot of the fear and worry and anxiety that gets in your way. And as I said I still admire the extent to which people like we studied can do that and they do it in a total way cause they have such a strong moral identity and the sense that this is who I am and this is the right way to be. And I thoroughly admire that and I don't pretend that I can do that myself, but I think I hope I've learned something from them and I'm able to do it more than I would've if I hadn't come in contact with them.

Amber Cazzell: 00:28:20 So after doing that research with the moral exemplars and having the background in sort of the role of the social world in moral development, did you find that there were distinct differences between moral exemplars? Sort of a social context from say of just the average person?

William Damon: 00:28:42 Yeah, they were differences in quantity, but not in kind, not in quality. And we wrote about this in the book that it wasn't as if they were a different species or something like that. I think all people when they do a moral action consistently or over time do it out of a sense of moral identity. That's who I am. Yeah. And I think that applies to just all of us ordinary people. When we, let's say, raise children and take good care of them, which is a moral act and it's a commitment and we sacrifice for our children. We do all kinds of things and we would, all of us have probably jumped in front of buses in front of for our children. So all of us have this in, in us, or at least most people do in some areas of life.

William Damon: 00:29:36 And children may be the most clearest case because it's such a feeling. So all of us have some sense of moral identity and in many other areas too, people tend to be responsible in their work and, and not, not going to do, most people aren't going to do criminal or violent things. So all of those types of action come from the same source that our moral exemplars drew, drew from in their moral action. It's just that they were able to extend it to a vast domain of human affairs that went way beyond their personal lives or their family lives or their work lives. They were able to do it for great social causes like fighting poverty or healing the sick or something like that. And so it was a difference in quantity and extent rather than in process.

Amber Cazzell: 00:30:33 Yeah. Yeah. That's fascinating. So was moral identity already a well known construct by the time this book came around?

William Damon: 00:30:43 It wasn't well known. There were, there had been people that have been writing about it before us. There was a Israeli psychologist named Mordechai Nisan who's now no longer with us, also Swiss psychologist who is named Fritz Ozer. And they had all written about moral identity or the moral self or concepts like that. And we drew on their work and we used it for some new chair. And I think because of that, the the concept became more well known and more widely used in the field. Yeah. But we didn't invent that concept that we drew from other people in their writing.

Amber Cazzell: 00:31:23 Okay. And so your more recent work on purpose, is that, do you see that as the extension of some of these ideas of moral identity? And what you're saying you throw yourself in front of a bus for a child is that a type of purpose and how might it be different from identity?

William Damon: 00:31:44 It is, it is. We, we, I did draw on that. I do on a couple of other things too. The purpose work was actually as you suggested, an evolution of the work that I had done with an on moral commitment. And the idea of identity is absolutely central to the work on purpose because purpose helps us understand who we are. And so it's a source of information about our identity and people with stable, well-formed identities are much more likely to make commitments to purposes. So all of this I recognized and came out of the studies that we had done on moral exemplars. There was one other source though that fed into the purpose work, which was a series of studies I did with two colleagues. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner that we called the Good Work studies.

William Damon: 00:32:48 And those studies were also influenced by Some do Care. They were studies of more ordinary people, but successful people who were doing good work in a number of different domains. Leading professional domains like law and medicine, journalism, science, education. And out of that set of studies, one of the findings was that the people that were able to do good work that was recognized as being both excellent and ethical. So they were people that were in high renowned in their fields. These people always had a clear sense of the mission of their field. So if it was medicine, they really understood that this was about healing people and they never lost sight of that. Or it's about journalism. It was about giving people the kind of information that could help them make decisions about their lives, about civil society, about voting, about the kinds of things that people need to do in a democracy.

William Damon: 00:34:01 And so on. Law has to do with justice. And you'd always get these incredibly insightful statements about the mission of the field from these good workers. And so what I took from that was that these people had some sense of the goals that they were trying to pursue, which was the public mission of the field. And on an individual level, the word isn't mission exactly. It's purpose. And so that's where I came up with the idea of purpose. And I connected that with the moral commitment and identity work that I had done with Anne and, and then develop the idea that purpose is really a central motivator for the good life for, for creating a kind of identity that helps you get a sense of the kind of person you want to be, the kind of accomplishments you want to make, what you want to say when you look back on your life later in life and say, you know, I really, I really accomplished what I had hoped for and what I set out to do. Yeah.

Amber Cazzell: 00:35:19 This is a concept that I think you're using probably a bit differently than a lot of laypeople would use the term. Could you define what you mean by purpose?

William Damon: 00:35:28 Well, you're right. And I've actually done probably as much work on the definition front has on the research front on purpose cause I think it's so important. Let me start with, with lay people. Purpose is a very popular word. Especially these days. It's probably popular because people like me and other people have been writing about it and psychologically so it's become a little bit trendy and there've been tons of media stories about that. But when people don't think very carefully about it and they use it in the everyday jargon or the everyday lexicon, they merge it together with lots of other concepts. So they'll always blurt out things like, well, I want to have a life of meaning and purpose as if it's the same thing. Or it's important for my students. I'm a teacher and I want them to find their passion and purpose.

William Damon: 00:36:23 And, and so they kind of throw all these words together and they kinda think, well, they mean roughly the same thing. Well, in science and even in education, you want to see that every word has its own special meaning because you want to understand what each of these ideas brings to human life. And it's not the same thing. So it was very important for me to come up with a definition of purpose that captured what special benefits this particular experience brings to human life that no other experience brings. And so purpose is not the same word as meaning. If it were, you wouldn't need two words, you would only need one word. A purpose has additional features. And the way we finally defined it after a lot of examination and trial and error is that purpose has the following special criteria. Number one, it's longterm.

William Damon: 00:37:28 So a purpose is not a one shot deal. It's a goal, but a goal that you pursue over a period of time. I, when I came to work today, I had to find a parking place at Stanford. That was a goal. It's not a purpose or you know, getting a date on a Saturday night if you're a, you know, a college kid. I mean that's a nice goal, but it's not a purpose. A purpose is something that you have a commitment to and that over a period of time you keep trying to get closer and closer to fulfilling that commitment. Secondly, purpose does have to be meaningful. In other words, you have to care about it yourself. Nobody can give you a purpose and say you have to do this. There are a lot of things that people do tell you to do it.

William Damon: 00:38:22 You have to do, you have to follow traffic rules, you have to do homework if you're a kid, et cetera. But none of those are purposes because a purpose is something you take on yourself out of your own belief. So it does have meaning, but it doesn't stop there. It's more than just meaning. Cause there are lots of things that are meaningful that are not fully purposeful. So, you know, if I go to a movie or I go to a music concert, it can be amazingly meaningful. But that's not a purpose. So the additional thing, and this is the important thing that I underline, is that it is a commitment to accomplish something that's of consequence to the world beyond the self. So it's not just all about me and I'm not the only one that has come to this. Even even the theological book written by Rick Warren called the Purpose Driven Life.

William Damon: 00:39:22 It begins with the sentence of wonderful sentence. It's not all about you. It's not, it's not self-centered. It goes beyond the self. It's something that does contribute to the world and that makes a difference in the world. So when you put all these things together it has to be meaningful. It has to be a consequence of the world beyond the self. It has to be a longterm commitment. You get the very special psychological, psychological capacity of being purposeful, of having purpose. And that particular capacity brings a lot of psychological benefits that none of these other concepts, passion, meaning goals bring to the self, such as it gets you away from all of the dangers of being self absorbed. It helps you become resilient to bounce back because you have a longterm horizon that you keep aiming towards. Even if you have temporary setbacks, it it fills you full of energy because you believe in something you want to, you want to achieve it. So that's why purpose, the definition of purpose was very important. It has its own definition. It's different than any other concept. And we've worked very hard to get this across to the field. And I'm gratified to to say that I think most of the field at this point has gone along with what we've been writing.

Amber Cazzell: 00:40:51 Yeah, that's awesome, that must be a good feeling.

William Damon: 00:40:54 It is because it was a bit of a struggle to really kind of pound this out with people that didn't quite get it and said, well, why can't it just be the same as meaning? And then you'd have to say, well, you know, in science you don't, eh, you know you don't have two different words for liver. You know, I mean, you just have one word. It would be very confusing in medicine if, if you call liver one thing in one sentence and then call it something else in another sentence, you just need one word for it.

Amber Cazzell: 00:41:23 Yeah. So the, the, the piece about having consequence beyond the self, does that eliminate sort of negative purpose? It's like I could imagine somebody having a negative, something, a purpose that would be of consequence beyond the self, but would be, you know, destructive or something that normatively seems bad beyond the self.

William Damon: 00:41:45 Yeah, that's a great question, Amber. And unfortunately, no, it doesn't eliminate that in a strict sense because you can believe that you're doing something for the world or for other people, but do it in a way that is immoral. And this is the old means ends issue in philosophy that if you engage in an immoral action and use immoral means towards even the most noble and you still are doing something wrong. And that's the same with purpose. You can have a purpose that's a noble purpose. But if you lie, cheat, steal, kill and every other horrible thing in order to try to accomplish that you are still being purposeful but you're not being ethical. You're being purposeful in a negative anti humane way. And so purpose does include unfortunately, people that go about it in an immoral way.

Amber Cazzell: 00:42:45 Okay. And have you done any research on, you had mentioned purpose, has a lot of benefits that come along with it. Is that different for people who use purpose for the means and problem that, that do things negatively or immorally as a process?

William Damon: 00:43:02 It's a great unanswered question. We haven't done that research and that's just speculation. Whether purpose brings its benefits to the individual, whether it's moral purpose or not, I can't honestly say it certainly does not bring the same benefits to society if it's an immoral cause. It's very destructive. And when we work with schools to help them do purpose learning, I always say purpose does not automatically come with ethics and you need to do ethics as well. We need to educate for both purpose and ethics. And don't assume that just because the students are purposeful, they'll be ethical unless you help them understand that too.

Amber Cazzell: 00:43:47 So do you think that these normative ethical pieces are only in the purview of education, or do psychologists need to concern themselves with that as well?

William Damon: 00:43:58 I think both, absolutely. And and everyone that deals with young people needs to concern themselves with that. Parents, teachers, religious institutions. It's, it's a fundament-- moral education is a fundamental responsibility of adults in this world.

Amber Cazzell: 00:44:19 So what do you think, what are your thoughts about at least in psychology, there's sort of this big debate over whether or not science should be normative or whether it should just be descriptive.

William Damon: 00:44:33 Yeah. I, I'm a believer in the normative side of things, especially social science. It's, it's going to be it's gonna be value laden no matter how hard you try to make it a value neutral. So you better think about what those values should be and use the best of what we know from philosophy and theology to get that right.

Amber Cazzell: 00:44:56 Yeah. Yeah. So have there been any movements in the science of morality or moral psychology or moral education that you think have been misguided or have you largely found each of these sort of pockets of theorizing to be useful?

William Damon: 00:45:17 I find some of the strains of behavioral economics to be misguided. I guess it's under the moniker rational choice theory or the idea that everybody is self interested and everything else is just rationalization. And that way of thinking has made its way into psychology under the guise of quote, the new science of morality. Where the idea is that anytime we try to invoke moral principles, it's only an after the fact rationalization and we just operate out of our gut instinct that's biologically determined. It's a different version of determinism than the economic rational self interest. But it's the same general idea that we're just out for ourselves or we're being driven by basic emotions. And whenever we talk about justice, that's just some kind of highfalutin rationalization. We'd never make it. We never make a choice based on our moral principles. And I think that's misguided. And wrong, and I think it's been proven wrong over and over again. The course of history. It doesn't mean that some people don't operate that way. But that's what education is for, is to help people work out ideas and principles that will give them agency over their choices and help them operate on high level ideas about fairness and compassion and justice and just looking around at

William Damon: 00:47:04 Human history and at people we know, we can see that this happens. Then there are lots of examples of it in, in both everyday life and in studies and in history. So I think it's a misguided and kind of foolish way of thinking that kind of only specialized academics could ever convince themselves was the case anyway because so defies everything we know about people. But, but it's a popular point of view, as I said, both in, in the economics field and under the guise of this rational self interest theory under the guise of this quote, new science of moral psychology. And I, I think it's just it's untenable and it, it's not a position that's going to have much of a it doesn't have legs. It's not gonna have much of a lifespan I think. Cause it's, it's, so it's, it, it's so out of whack with, with any, any possible data that we get about people, but the way people really operate.

Amber Cazzell: 00:48:11 So were there, were there certain like in the history of the discipline where there's certain contexts that gave rise to this new science what do you think was sort of the, the thrust behind it emerging?

William Damon: 00:48:28 Yeah, I think it's a, I think it's there's always a pull towards becoming deterministic in any science because you want simple explanations. And a scientist is most happy when he or she finds a one factor that can predict human behavior or anything, one factor that can predict the behavior of physical objects or atoms. And so there's always been a tendency in psychology to come up with theories that say either biology determines everything, our genes or our evolutionary histories or society determines everything. That's exactly the opposite. But, and some people even go back and forth between the two. You know, the culture you're, you're raised in, it's all written in the codes of the culture and you just follow that. So I think people gravitate to those kinds of explanations because they're simple. They are easily, because they're simple. They're easily picked up by the news media.

William Damon: 00:49:39 So the news media love to cover experiments that seem to demonstrate that. And scientists love to get the attention that the news media shower on them. But whenever you look carefully at any study you can see that the data just aren't there. Just give you a couple of examples, early examples in the, in the moral psychology area the contextualist theories of people, the social psychologists, like in the Milgram experiment or the Zimbardo experiment. In the Milgram experiment, it was reported that people could be influenced the setting of having a guy in a white coat telling you to shock somebody. And a lot of people do that at the moment. But what is less reported is that in any population of subjects, a bunch of people refuse to do it. Yeah. Now they're in the minority so they don't show up in the normative trends.

William Damon: 00:50:48 And that's not what the newspapers report. But there are always people that say what? You've got to be kidding. I'm not going to just go some guy in a white coat telling me to shock that person. I'm not gonna do something like that. Yeah. And even more interesting is that you go to the subjects a week or two later and you talk to them. And a lot of the people that did shock them said, wait a minute, what did I do? I would never do that again. They've learned something from the experiment, from their experience. So it's not as simple as saying the context determines your behavior. The context did determine the behavior of some people or a lot of people at the moment, not everybody, and not for all time. So other things are happening, including the mind is working for some people right away to say, no, this isn't right for other people longer term.

William Damon: 00:51:37 And Phil Zimbardo has found the same kind of thing in his in his college experiments with the prisoners that there's some people that will not be that kind of guard or they can learn. And he even has a project now, a wonderful project called the heroic imagination where he's teaching people to do better. And if he can teach people to do better, that means there's a mind that can overcome these kinds of impulses. So it is not determined. And that's what I what I try to emphasize when I write about moral agency.

Amber Cazzell: 00:52:13 Yeah. It seems like there is sort of this natural tension between the idea of agency and the scientific method that tries to force these sort of sterile findings. And do you think that your, your data's primarily qualitative do you think that that has influenced you in a more, agentic direction or do you think that your agent tech position has led you more to qualitative data?

William Damon: 00:52:42 Oh, that's a good, it's a, which is the chicken or which is the egg? It's a really good question and I can't say I know for sure. I think the answer though whichever the case of the two options that you mentioned it's certainly the case that when you interview people and give them a chance to tell their whole story, you're more likely to get insights into the way these people's minds operate and make a difference and how their worldview and their beliefs actually affect their behavior. You're more likely to get that than in a one shot where you've set people up in a situation that you may not even know what the meaning of that situation is for the person. They may not even go along with the situation. They may not be even taking it seriously. So the experimental paradigm is very limited in what it can tell you about, about the really important moral choices people make over the course of their lifetime.

Amber Cazzell: 00:53:51 Yeah, I agree. I think that the experimental and quantitative sorts of methods and analyses are very useful and important in their own right. But they, the researcher isn't as surprisable because they have to direct at the outset one specific finding that they're going to test and then their hands are tied from testing anything else.

William Damon: 00:54:13 Right. but you said too about that they can be useful. I mean it's, it's, it's good to know what Milgram recorded that that people will very often blindly follow authority even if that's not the whole story. Yeah. It's good to know that it's important for us to be careful then. And it's good to know what Zimbardo found out that which is the same general message. So these can be valuable additions, but it's not the whole story and you can't base a whole theory of people on the results of these experiments.

Amber Cazzell: 00:54:51 So going in a more positive direction I want to hear about your thoughts for next steps in the fields. What do you think are the next important avenues for researchers to explore and trying to understand how to promote moral development?

William Damon: 00:55:08 I would love to see people do more comprehensive studies of educational contexts like schools, which vary enormously and there's so many things going on that they've never, nobody has ever managed to really come up with an understanding of what makes a difference in a classroom between the teacher and the peers and the curriculum and the, and the nature of the school setting and the child's background and what the parents are telling the kid about going to school. And I think that in in the absence of such an understanding, we're kind of helpless to know how to arrange our, this very important part of children's lives. And I think that's true not only in fact in schools at at the K through 12 level, but also in higher education. Yeah.

Amber Cazzell: 00:56:07 This is sounding a lot like the Mellon project. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Mellon project?

William Damon: 00:56:11 The Mellon project is our study of higher education and it's, it's the same general idea, which is that a, what makes a difference in a college student's experience? We that when alumns look back on their college years, some of them say, wow, this made all the difference in my life. And I was totally given a running start and I owe everything to Stanford or Princeton or university of Wyoming or wherever it is a, and they, that's why a lot of alumns become big donors, but we don't really know what it was that happened to any of them. That, that made such an impact. And, and why it is that some students go through their college years without having that positive experience. So that's what the Mellon study is about, is we're trying to take a look at all the different things that students experience. And we're especially looking at purpose, which is our master concept. We're looking at that as one of the most important outcomes. And which of these experiences makes a difference in helping young people find purpose in life.

Amber Cazzell: 00:57:24 Yeah. And I think that this is a great segue into just asking you a little bit about the book that you're working on now. So what little understanding I got to glean from Elissa was that you're working on a book that discusses sort of the purpose in your own work and in your own life. Could you tell me a little bit about the premise?

William Damon: 00:57:45 Yes. well as you said I got interested in, in the idea of using my own life trajectory as a kind of a case study. But there's an additional twist to how I got interested in this because probably if I was just buzzing along in life without any disruption or anything new happening at this stage in my life, I would've thought this was much too egocentric. And, you know, why is my case any more interesting than anything else other than to me? But something did happen to me about 10 years ago that that triggered a lot of self reflection, a special kind of self reflection. And just to tell you very briefly about it in the kind of quote elevator version one of my daughters started doing research on my father who I never met. My father never came home from world war II.

William Damon: 00:58:52 He was a soldier in the army in Germany. And during my whole life I was told that he was quote missing in world war II, which I interpreted as meaning he was killed in action or something like that. And his body was never found or whatever. I never really thought about it very much because I grew up without a father and it wasn't as if I missed him because I never got to know him. So that's, this was kind of a blank spot in my life. And a little later in my life I got some hints. I won't get into the details, but I did get some hints when I got in about my college years that, you know what, maybe this guy is still alive somewhere. But I never paid much attention to it because he was already so much, not part of my life that I figured whatever, you know he didn't come back if he was missing, if he died, if he ran off it means nothing to me.

William Damon: 00:59:46 He's not, he's not anywhere that I could see. Well. Anyway, my daughter found out that she got interested in her grandfather, my father, and he found out, she found out that he actually he was no longer alive, but he had quite a full life after not returning home. And it was an interesting life. It was a life that led to him having some children by a second wife and I could actually meet those children who are my half sisters and plus there were some cousins involved with the other family that I'd never met. So I started getting into a whole fascinating set of discoveries of this family I never had. But that led me to being curious about what this guy was like my father. And it turned out that he'd actually gone to the same schools that I had gone to.

William Damon: 01:00:49 And my mother, unbeknownst to me, my mother's has was dead at that time, so she wasn't available for me to ask questions about. But unbeknownst to me, she had sent me off on a path educationally that was identical to my father's. She sent me to the same high school, the same college, et cetera. And so I suddenly, I sort of realized that my identity was influenced by forces that I never understood, which was my mother opening these doors for me. And again, it's not that they, it was determined or anything like that, but it was certainly an influence on me. And so then I started thinking about identity and how I discovered my direction in life and my purpose and how, how there were always mysteries in anybody's life because we don't really know the facts or we don't understand them or we don't think about them.

William Damon: 01:01:47 And so at that point I did start thinking that maybe I am a reasonable example for this kind of mysterious process of continuing to work out in life who you are, where you came from, what that has to do with the future that you're creating for yourself. And so that's the book, the book. Yeah. And I've, the working title of the book, which is probably not going to be the final title, includes so much stuff that the working title is called the Psychology of Life because it's, it includes just about everything from identity to purpose, to autobiography, to history, to the how that leads to the future to family. Both the family I had in the family I didn't have, but now have and why family's important. So it includes a lot of themes that I've been interested in my, in my scholarly career that came home to me in the special way because of the sudden discovery. I was 64 at the time when all of this was discovered until age 64. I had never even seen a picture of my father. I didn't even know what he looked like. That's how absent he was. And so suddenly being confronted with all of this information about him and who he was and how it actually did relate to who I became helped me or at least triggered a lot of self reflection.

Amber Cazzell: 01:03:09 Yeah, no kidding. That's a lot. That's a lot of exploration. So has it been fun to discover all this or kind of tough for both?

William Damon: 01:03:18 It's been exhilarating. Fascinating. it's at times I I feel like it's almost euphoric. It fills in parts of me. And the part about finding a new family, half sisters and cousins has been totally thrilling and wonderful. But it's also been difficult. I've had to come to terms with the fact that my mother hit all of this from me. And because of that, I never got to know my other side of the family and that, what does that mean? And, and I wanna come away with a positive view of her because she did so much for me. But at the same time, she did limit my development in that sense. And my father, who after all did abandon me. Yeah. And what does that mean? And part of my discovery process is I've gone around to meet the very few people that are still alive that know him. They're in their nineties now, of course. And asking them what he was like. And one of the women, the one, a wonderful woman of who's now 96, she was I think 92 when I first met her who knew my father in Germany when he was in the war. She looked at me and she said, you know, it's a shame your father never took the, took the effort to get to know you because he would have liked you. And the emotional impact that had on me was, you know, it was very deep.

Amber Cazzell: 01:04:55 Yeah. Wow. So, and when does this book come out?

William Damon: 01:05:00 My first draft will go into the publisher sometime this fall, fall of 2019. It will probably take them a year to get the book out. So I'm expecting, I'm expecting late in 2020 or maybe early 2021 probably is the, as probably the guest best guess.

Amber Cazzell: 01:05:17 Very, cool. Well, thank you so much Bill. I really appreciate getting to talk to you and to learn sort of your back story and your broad perspective on the field as you've seen it develop.

William Damon: 01:05:29 Thank you, Amber, that your questions were terrific and have also led to an interesting self reflections on my part. So thank you very much.


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