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The Power of Ideals summary

William Damon and Anne Colby

The Real Story of Moral Choice

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    The Power of Ideals
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    The “new science of morality” claims that people are immoral.   

    The debate over human morality is as old as society itself, and even today it is still hotly contested – just think of the many contemporary religious debates that concern moral choice.

    But in recent years, a new thinking has emerged, the so-called new science of morality, with a rather pessimistic viewpoint on human nature.

    In 2007, psychologist Jonathan Haidt coined the term, “new science of morality,” to describe a renewed understanding of moral behavior, in which humans are seen as intrinsically evil and dishonest.

    All fine and good, but where’s the scientific proof?

    Proponents of this new “science” point to studies such as psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 prison experiment at Stanford University. As part of the experiment, Zimbardo asked students to act either as prisoners or as guards in a make-believe prison.

    Once the experiment was underway, the students who were playing guards became so cruel toward prisoners and corrupt in their actions that Zimbardo had to prematurely call off the experiment. His conclusion from his observations was that humans are inherently evil.

    Such views are also supported by thought experiments such as the “trolley car problem.” This fictional scenario involves a trolley car that’s about to run over five people. You’re standing nearby and must decide between throwing an innocent bystander under the trolley to make it stop, or doing nothing.

    In other words, do you choose to kill one person to save five lives, or choose indirectly to kill five people. It’s easy to see how a researcher could paint a participant as immoral, no matter which option is chosen.

    These thought experiments are cited to show that when a person makes a moral choice, it’s often by accident. In the trolley car problem, you’d have to make a split decision, as you’ve no time to weigh the pros and cons of action.

    But some psychologists hold that when given ample time to decide, a person is more than likely to make an immoral, selfish choice. Or are they?

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    What is The Power of Ideals about?

    The Power of Ideals (2016) shines a light on the questionable science behind the new thinking in psychology that holds people are inherently immoral beings. These blinks offer a deeper, clearer look into the nature of human morality and show how our actions are shaped by innate human traits of empathy, humility and honesty, as exemplified by the achievements of society’s moral leaders.

    Best quote from The Power of Ideals

    Academic games about imaginary situations are not sensible proxies for genuine moral commitment and real-life moral choices.

    —William Damon and Anne Colby
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    Who should read The Power of Ideals?

    • Students of psychology and the social sciences
    • Individuals seeking moral guidance
    • People curious about the implications of ideological shifts in psychology

    About the Author

    William Damon is a professor of education at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. He is also the author of Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools and over a dozen other books.

    Anne Colby is a consulting professor at Stanford University.

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