Deciding to be Good
I start with an imaginary case to oil the wheels of thought. Suppose there are people who go through a specific schedule of moral development: around the age of ten their moral thinking crystallizes around the question, “Should I be a good person?” At this time they become able to think in these general moral terms, whereas before that their thinking concerned specific moral situations; they explicitly acquire the concept of personal virtue and become able to ask about exemplifying that concept. Let’s suppose that this time is a “sensitive period” for moral development: what happens around and within the child then has a particularly significant role in fixing his or her moral character. We may imagine that they have encountered adults of different moral caliber, some good, some not so good; the question then is apt to be, “Should I be like A or B?” Think of the question as like one of those Big Questions that people sometimes ask in their lives, such as what career to pursue or who to marry or whether to make an effort to stay fit and healthy. The outcome of the decision will have a considerable influence on the person’s future, their character and actions: if they decide to be good, this will take them down a certain road, while if they decide that being good is a mug’s game or not in their best interests, this will have an opposite effect. We can suppose that they frame the question in terms of winning and losing: “Do I want to be a winner who is not afraid to step on a few toes in order to win, or should I stick to what is right even if means I sometimes lose?” And let’s suppose that a certain percentage go one way and a certain percentage go the other way—50-50 just to be concrete. As a result, the decision made at age ten substantially affects the distribution of virtue in the lives of the people involved: you can’t really go back on it once it is made (you lose that flexibility later in life), and it produces two distinct types of individual. The adult population will consist of two different moral types, depending on how they made that fateful decision—it will not consist of a continuous spectrum of moral quality. There is a sharp dichotomy in the population, resulting from the way the individual chose at the sensitive period. It is possible to influence the decision that is made by setting an appropriate example or by discussion, so moral education is particularly important at this juncture—and educators may angle for one type of decision or the other (with some urging that selfishness is the right choice to make). Thus moral development results in large part from the outcome of an early childhood decision; it is certainly not beyond the scope of the will of the individual. It’s a bit like deciding at age ten whether to be a nerd or a jock and pursuing your life accordingly. A crucial part of moral psychology for these people results from a kind of existential decision—a life-determining decision.
Now let me report something empirical: I recall around the age of ten having just such thoughts. The question of virtue presented itself to me with unusual clarity—it had never struck me before. I could see that there were two possible ways to go—possible in principle if not in practice. It is not that I felt tempted by the non-virtuous option, but I could see that it existed as a theoretical possibility. I don’t recall any particular experience that triggered the question, though there may well have been one—did it come from school teachings on Christianity? I have the sense that it arose spontaneously in me as a result of moral maturation, but it may have had an environmental trigger. In any case, the question occurred to me explicitly and forcefully; and it seemed to me obvious which way to go, though the choice (if it really was a choice) struck me as momentous. I have never heard of any developmental psychologist inquiring into whether such broad questions are common in children, though there has been a good deal of study of childhood moral development (Piaget, Kohlberg). I think it is worthy of empirical study: are such self-interrogations found in all children in all cultures, at what age do they tend to occur, what kind of outcome do they typically have? It may in fact be that human children follow the pattern described in my imaginary case—which would be useful to know if you are interested in moral education. Based on an informal survey, my own experience is not unique: other people to whom I have spoken also recall entertaining such general thoughts at around ten years old, though the questioning took different forms in different individuals. If that is so, there is an interesting empirical question as to the long-term effects of this kind of early moral reflection: in particular, does it lead to a sharp dichotomy of moral types in the adult population–do we find moral discontinuity instead of degrees of variation in people’s moral character? And what proportion of this traces to early childhood decision-making? What if some children respond to their moral self-questioning by affirming their commitment to living a virtuous life, while others find themselves wishy-washy on the issue or even downright skeptical (”Why should I be good?)? How much did this early ratiocination affect their future moral lives? Is it possible to intervene at the critical time so as to encourage the choice of virtue?
My own feeling on these questions is that researchers (all adults) tend to underestimate the ratiocinative powers of children, assuming some kind of automatic or unreflective mode of moral development (all predetermined stages and stimulus-response, like anatomical development), while actually children are capable of quite sophisticated moral reflection at a relatively early age. We know that young children are capable of asking and understanding philosophical questions, and this may be just one among them. Maybe it is literally true that children “decide to be good” (or decide not to be) at a particular period, and that this shapes their entire lives. There may be some backtracking or rethinking later, more or less extreme, but the lines could be laid down early on: you decide your moral character around the age of ten and it remains pretty fixed going forward.  Why should this not be so?
 Of course, a variety of factors will influence your decision, particularly your social environment (and possibly also your genetic endowment); but this doesn’t mean that it is not a genuine decision, i.e. an act of will. From a phenomenological point of view, you are faced with a decision; causally, that decision may have a large impact on your future life. The fact that it may now be completely forgotten doesn’t negate these psychological realities. Isn’t the question bound to arise in the mind of any normal human, and isn’t it likely to arise sooner rather than later?