Education and Morality: Are smarter people more virtuous?



This blog entry was prompted by a recent Facebook conversation. A friend of mine was remarking that she had just watched the movie The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is set amidst Hitler’s notorious “final solution” in Nazi Germany. Understandably, she found the movie upsetting, and she wondered (out loud) how people could bring themselves to treat each other so cruelly.

Facebook being what it is, a diversity of responses was on offer, but one that appeared fairly early one came from a young woman at university. The problem, she told all readers, is that people stereotype and discriminate, and in order to be more enlightened, accepting and more humane was to become more educated (like her, I can only assume). I replied by suggesting that actually education doesn’t turn wicked people into good people. It only enables people to be more cunning in their wickedness. A young student (or graduate, I’m not sure) promptly took me to task for suggesting that made people evil, and then proceeded to begin cobbling together a lecture on the psychological factors that make people like that. Now of course, I never said that education makes people evil. I said that education makes wicked people more cunning in their evil.

The proposal that education is what wicked people need to make them better is surprisingly common (surprising to me, but apparently not surprising to people who actually hold this view). If you’ve seen the 1996 action sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day you might recall the initial reaction of Thomas Whitmore, the president of the United States, to the appearance of huge alien spaceships in the skies. He decides that since this alien race is clearly as intelligent and and advanced as they are, it’s best to assume that they are also peaceful and therefore safe. Here’s what happened shortly thereafter:

This was brilliantly satirised in the movie that came out later that year, Mars Attacks, where the President, played by Jack Nicholson, is constantly told by his liberal advisers that we just need to give the aliens a chance. They are so advanced that they must mean well, and any appearance to the contrary must really just be a matter of miscommunication. Meanwhile the aliens are running around with their high tech weapons vaporising people.

Why some people continue to maintain that education makes people more likely to be moral is beyond me. Education is a wonderful thing of course, and it can bestow many benefits, but better moral character is not one of them. Being more educated and advanced enabled us to split the atom, which was great, but it surely illustrates the fact that education gives people power to magnify what they would otherwise have done: hurt (e.g. nuclear warfare) or help (e.g. nuclear energy and medical application).

Take those ever-useful examples, the Nazis. While Hitler himself did not have a higher education (and did not even succeed at high school), he could never have implemented the Third Reich’s regime without those who did: Joseph Goebbels, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, Walter Buch and others. They were the Fatherland’s educated upper class, and were no more moral for it. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them.

Without wanting to drag politics in, but recognising its inevitability, I do find it mildly ironic that those who insist that education makes us more moral and more humanitarian see no problem with the fact that it was the educated elite of Russia like Lenin who steered the savage price controls and requisition of property that starved millions to death – reportedly willing to that that risk rather than allow free trade, and who viciously persecuted and executed Russian Christians.

Now of course, not all educated people are like this (thank goodness), just as most uneducated people aren’t spiteful sociopaths. This sword cuts both ways. People with a genuine desire to do the things that we identify as good, caring and helpful are able to do so all the more thanks to a good education. Education merely enables people to be more resourceful in doing that which they wanted to do anyway.

When it comes to perpetuating evil against our fellow man, the difference between the educated and the uneducated is not that one fails to understand what causes suffering and the other does not, or that one has the will to do (what we would think of as) evil and the other does not. Evil educated oppressors are not merely ignorant – anything but! They may well know the history of suffering and kindness better than most. They (between them) know the biological, psychological and sociological facts about human experience, suffering and death. No, the difference between the educated and the uneducated is that one is more calculating and able to impose his will on a larger number. One can come up with more efficient ways to kill. One can articulate himself better and deceive more people. Education does not make people like this (although for some people, it fuels the existing flame that is their own sense of personal greatness). Similarly, education does not stop people from being like this. I suppose it is possible that when people say that oppresively-minded, bigoted people really just need education, by “education” they mean something like “persuading people to be tolerant and accepting of everyone.” But this makes the suggestion vacuous, because it would boil down to saying “people who are cruel, bigoted and oppressive need to be taught not to be cruel, bigoted and oppressive.” And this surely isn’t what education means. To be educated means to be taught to understand facts and ideas. If all you mean by “education” is “getting someone to a point where they share my values,” then how is it that when regimes under Hitler and Stalin did that very thing you call it “propaganda”?

Think of it this way: a violent chimp is like an evil person. Give that violent chimp a gun and teach him how to shoot it. Now he’s an educated evil person. Stated another way: knowledge is not wisdom.

Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear your thoughts.
Glenn Peoples

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Geoff May 2, 2010, 1:28 pm

    I agree, you can not educate or legislate morality.
    That is, you can teach people what is right and wrong, and you can make laws about what is right and wrong, but neither of these things will ever “make” people obey them.

    The only way people will ever behave appropriately is if they BELIEVE that this is how one should act. And belief requires something other than just education or legislation.
    You can learn “anything”, but learning it does not mean you will apply what you have learned. Its pretty much certain that every murderer or rapist knows what they are doing is wrong, because its taught and legislated in the community. They do what they do because they find some reason to justify it (what ever that might be)

  • Glenn May 2, 2010, 1:47 pm

    Well, you can legislate morality. In fact I don’t think you can legislate anything but morality.

    But yeah, it’s not knowledge of the facts (i.e. the consequences for other people) that makes people act as they do, usually. It’s desire.

  • David Auty May 2, 2010, 4:22 pm

    Glenn, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. It seems to me to be an unbelievably popular belief. Sometimes when I hear people talk about Education in this way, it’s almost like they believe Education is “the messiah” – the saviour of the human race. If only we could learn this or that, or teach this or that, THEN all will be well in the world. Fortunately, paradise is not just a lecture or two away… imagine that place for a minute – scary! I’m glsd you picked up on this topic Glenn.

  • scrubone May 3, 2010, 9:17 pm

    I think they believe that all people are, in the end, good.

    By giving people more education, they can understand better which choices lead to good and evil.

    But as you point out, if someone really is evil then it just gives them more tools. In fact, the idea that uneducated people are more likely to be evil could possibly be seen as an evil in itself, perpetuated by the educated.

  • Glenn May 3, 2010, 9:53 pm

    That’s true scrubone. For some reason you don’t tend to hear the uneducated using that argument. It’s a tool of elitists! 🙂 (I use a smiley face, but I’m serious)

  • CPE Gaebler May 4, 2010, 6:34 am

    On the one hand, people with higher education are more likely to have more money/better jobs, thus are more likely to have no need to commit crimes to live or to stave off their festering discontent at having been dealt a terrible hand.

    On the other hand, such is quite simply a case of education granting not increased moral character, but rather greater opportunity to behave civilly.

  • semmie May 4, 2010, 9:57 am

    I soberly agree.

  • Matt May 4, 2010, 3:39 pm

    I understand that Germany was one of the most educated nations in the world prior to WWII, German culture had produced intellectual giants such as Marx, Freud, Kant, Nietzsche, just a generation or so before WWI. Its also worth noting that serial killers are often highly educated and intelligent people. Ted Bundy is an obvious example.

  • bethyada May 4, 2010, 11:27 pm

    I agree with your general assertion. I think it may be nuanced though. I wonder whether those who have come to an understanding of their misdeeds sometimes do better with the aid of education. Criminals in prison who want to leave their lives may find it a little easier if they gain skills that make them more employable outside. Not that they have no choice, one can be ignorant and eumoral; just they may be less inclined to repeat offend with a few more skills?

    Of course you could argue that education may help one do good or evel “better”. And such a decision to stop crime is a good choice which education may amplify.

    (Just musing, not a lot of experience here).

  • Andrew May 5, 2010, 3:38 pm

    “Why some people continue to maintain that education makes people more likely to be moral is beyond me.”

    I think it is perfectly understandable why people would think this. According to a rationalist meta-ethical strain, the correct moral beliefs just are those beliefs that one has after ‘thinking’ really hard about those beliefs (Kantians might say that its a matter of thinking about universalisation or dispositionalists might say its about thinking about how we would feel free of our own biases etc). So for these people, some form of education (getting better at the right sort of ‘thinking’), should lead to more accurately moral beliefs. Now, of course these people could be wrong. But it’s a complicated metaethical issue and not one that we can simply assume is false.

    “Take those ever-useful examples, the Nazis. While Hitler himself did not have a higher education (and did not even succeed at high school), he could never have implemented the Third Reich’s regime without those who did: Joseph Goebbels, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, Walter Buch and others. They were the Fatherland’s educated upper class, and were no more moral for it. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them.”
    Well, as with most Nazi examples this is a bit empirically dubious. I mean on the conventional reading of the Nazis, they were a supremely anti-intellectual movement. The hierarchy of the third reich, were generally, conspicuous for their lack of education. Goebbels is no counter-example – his intellectual credentials got him into serious trouble with the powers that be. What made the Nazi regime succeed is, of course, incredibly complicated. But it is overly simplistic to say that their success required the educated.

    I think there is one uncontroversial case where education is likely to lead to actions that are ‘more moral’. That is those situations where the moral view was based on a mistake of descriptive fact. So I might be a racist and believe that race x is of no moral worth because they lack gene y. Now, if I found out that this descriptive fact is false, race x in fact possess gene y, then I would have reason to change my moral belief. And it is plausible that quite a few incorrect moral beliefs are based on such factual errors. Education, both about the descriptive facts and how to reason using those facts could clearly lead to better moral views, in those cases.

    Matt said:

    “I understand that Germany was one of the most educated nations in the world prior to WWII, German culture had produced intellectual giants such as Marx, Freud, Kant, Nietzsche, just a generation or so before WWI. Its also worth noting that serial killers are often highly educated and intelligent people. Ted Bundy is an obvious example.”

    I don’t see how this information is pertinent. Kant is hardly a generation or so before world war 1. Marx and Freud were jewish intellectuals – the exact group whose views were so quickly silenced by the Nazis. There is no reason to think that such intellectuals or their views would provide support for the Nazi regime (and in fact, we know it was quite the opposite). And, as I understand it the ‘Hannibal Lecter’ view of serial killers, psychopaths etc is actually false. It is very rare that such individuals are well-educated. Ted Bundy is an obvious exception. There is a very strong correlation between low-education and evil behaviour (which is not to say that there is a causal relationship – it’s all very complicated).

  • Glenn May 5, 2010, 9:29 pm

    Andrew, yes I agree that there is one kind of case where education can lead to more moral behaviour (or rather, behaviour with better outcomes), namely those where acting on mistakes of fact, but still wanting the best outcome, leads to unexpectedly bad outcomes (or outcomes that we do not realise are bad). I would never have said that there are no cases of this sort.

    I think your analysis of the Nazis is simply false however. Goebbels was far from alone in being educated, as even the short list that I offered shows.

    I also suspect your comments about a rationalist meta-ethical strain (although it sounds more like moral theory, but that’s not relevant here) rather misses the point. You refer to people who already wish to figure out how to live morally uprightly and then think really hard about it. That’s (obviously) not what I have in mind. According to a pretty sensible view of ethics (whether you agree with it or not), people who want to live morally uprightly are already morally upright.

  • Matt May 5, 2010, 10:27 pm


    I am not sure that a rationalist meta-ethic entails the link you suggest. Sure rationalists state that moral principles are grounded in reason. A Kantian for example might contend that a moral principle is a prescription that a perfectly informed rational person would universalize for example, but that only shows that being informed helps one to gain moral knowledge.

    I think the real divide is the division between people who believe that a human being can never act contrary to what they believe is good ( as Socrates and Aquinas believed I think) and those who believe that humans can and do act contrary to what they perceive to be good ( Augustine’s pears for example in the confessions). If one holds the latter view then a person can be perfectly educated, know an action is wrong and yet choose not to follow it. Morality would be an issue of the will not the intellect.

  • Samson May 8, 2010, 1:22 am

    I keep a list of “worthwhile quotations”. Near the top is this: education, without God, makes men into clever devils. (I’ve heard this quote attributed to C.S. Lewis, probably improperly, but it doesn’t matter anyway.)

    The most striking examples of this that I can remember are the law students that I used to know who were virulently pro-abortion. They misused their God-given intellectual gifts to find new ways to promote evil.

  • Archena May 15, 2010, 3:35 pm

    “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C S Lewis, The Abolition of Man

    I suspect that many of those who believe education instills virtue have confused knowledge with values. That, and they have been too isolated from people of the same education level but diametrically opposed views.

  • zslastman August 25, 2012, 5:06 am

    You have completely failed to provide meaningful evidence.
    You pluck some relevant anecdotal cases from the top of your mind and disprove the statement “educated people are always good”. But nobody is arguing for that. It’s an absurd strawman. People are arguing for general tendencies. So you need statistics and evidence.

  • Glenn August 25, 2012, 11:46 am

    “But nobody is arguing for that. It’s an absurd strawman.”

    I didn’t accuse people of stating that “educated people are always good.” For you to accuse me of making that accusation is itself “an absurd strawman.”

  • Greg July 30, 2013, 7:35 am

    What @zslastman was pointing out was that you don’t have anything substantial to back up your claims, and I sort-of have to agree with him.

    I’m just going to point out a few things that shouldn’t be confused here.
    Being educated is not the same as being smart. Being intelligent is also something different altogether, and so is being wise. The three things are sometimes, but not always related.

    In terms of human development, morality seems to have its own branch (see Kohlberg’s stages of morality). It cannot really be separated from development of an individual as a whole, but saying that education will undoubtedly accelerate one’s progression (or hinder it, for that matter) is a vast overstatement. There are many factors involved.

    Intelligence is but a tool that helps us assess our principles, the situation, and how to act (or not act) based on both.

    The whole “morality” thing is a bit shaky at times; “there is no good or bad, there’s only opinion” comes to mind. I wouldn’t be quick to label people “evil,” so far I haven’t met even one who truly was, IMHO. Stupid – maybe, irresponsible – perhaps, but not evil.

  • Madonna Gorriaran February 26, 2018, 7:29 am

    One of the things (some kinds of) education does is make people better at spotting ethical dilemmas. When law students and MBA students are tested using ethics survey instruments, law students outscore the business students every time. The main reason for this is they’ve just spent a year of their lives learning to “spot the issues” in law cases.

    James Rest and his colleagues did find that educated people generally score a tiny bit higher on ethics surveys. Perhaps we are educating the wrong people? Maybe we should all have to complete an ethics survey before being allowed admission to higher education?

    The real upshot of all this is that, while most people never are able to morally reason past Kohlberg’s stage 4, many of our modern ethical dilemmas are occurring in the 5th and 6th stages of Kohlberg’s Stages of Morality. It means that the people who have to make those decisions and come up with solutions to 5th and 6th level ethics issues are ill-equipped to do so.

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