I Should Have Helped Ed:  Reflections for Moral Education - John Gibbs

I Should Have Helped Ed:  Reflections for Moral Education

BY John Gibbs

Whether dealing with a bully at camp or in school, it can be much easier to turn away than to intervene.  I could and should have intervened—but didn’t—as certain campers one summer repeatedly pulled a prank on Edward.  Ed was a small, uneven-legged adult who was the basic maintenance staffer for the camp.  He was kind, conscientious in his duties, and proud that he was earning his way in life.  There was just one thing:  At a point of frustration or moment of embarrassment, Ed would invariably unleash a torrent of profanities that was surprising and, to some campers, entertaining.  Several campers had devised a way to set off this “entertainment.”  Ed worked hard mowing and doing other chores on the campgrounds and would sometimes take a nap during the day.  His bed was located in the boys’ wing of the campers’ open barracks-style sleeping quarters.  Seeing Ed asleep, the plotters would move in. They would gently sink one of Ed’s hands into a pail of water.  Ed would wet his pants in bed and awaken, swearing madly and running frantically after the hysterically laughing campers.

That summer belonged to a year many years ago, yet even today I regret my failure, as one of the adolescent campers, to intervene in behalf of Edward. More broadly, I ponder and reflect.  The event even opens my book Moral Development and Reality, which explores the nature of morality, prosocial and antisocial behavior, and moral inspiration, as well as implications of moral development for moral education.  I reflect that imaginatively putting oneself in the place of another, or social perspective-taking, is central to moral development and behavior.  Social perspective-taking relates to the right and the good of morality, that is, to justice or mutual respect and to empathy or caring.  What if the plotters that summer had adequately taken Ed’s perspective, including Ed’s limited ability to take such a prank in stride?  Might they have anticipated a certain unfairness to their planned act, a certain violation of justice or respect?  Might they have anticipated feeling a certain empathy-based guilt?  Had the campers been less self-centered—that is, had put themselves in Ed’s place—they might have successfully resisted their temptation to tease and humiliate him.  I also reflect that acts such as the campers’ against Edward are morally wrong, that morality and its development have an objective basis, that a more mature morality is a more adequate morality.   

Ed needed someone to intervene in his behalf.  Again, to my regret I did not (I feared sinking from anonymity into downright unpopularity, an excuse that even today fails to neutralize my guilt).  Yet we know of moral exemplars among us, individuals high in moral identity, social “field independence” (even if it means unpopularity), and social efficacy beliefs, who do intervene. How can we promote such moral exemplarity in moral education?  

Why didn’t the campers take Ed’s perspective?  Actually, I suspect that the campers were on the verge of adequate perspective-taking, with its attendant intimations of wrong and harm, of unfairness and empathy-based guilt.  But perhaps they used cognitive distortions (rationalizations) to sabotage that incipient perspective taking so they could continue to tease and humiliate.  I do remember how the campers who were engaged in tormenting Ed seemed motivated to talk about how much they needed “entertainment”:  “This camp is so boring, you see, that it forces you to things to do for kicks.  You have to get some relief;”  “Everybody pulls pranks, that’s just what happens at any summer camp.  And, you know, Ed’s so funny when he’s mad—you just can’t help setting him off, it’s sort of his own fault.”

Blaming the victim and other rationalizing distortions neutralized the good and right of adequately taking Ed’s perspective.  Accordingly, the campers failed to take into account that Ed was mentally challenged; that Ed had done nothing to them; that, in fact, he had shown them little kindnesses from time to time and tried to be their friend; and that their “entertainment” inflicted humiliation and distress on him.

As I reflect on Ed’s victimization, then, I am struck by the importance of promoting social perspective-taking and moral exemplarity in moral education, school- (and even community-) wide anti-bullying programs, and offender treatment programs.  Social perspective-taking—perspective-taking that is profound or mature; rationalization-busting and personal-responsibility-inducing; adequately informed; subtle or discerning; reciprocally ideal and balanced; and socially expansive or inclusive—should be a basic theme pervasive across the components of any effective treatment  or moral education program.  I could and should have helped Ed that distant summer.  Had I experienced such moral education, I suspect I would have intervened.

2/27/2017 Op-Ed piece for MEF.