What has more emotional salience, an abstract moral principle such as love or justice or a good story of someone whose life commitments exemplify these values?
Shortly after I finished my Ph.D. in social ethics, I decided to retool myself as a sociologist, focusing on how people live in the real world—not the hypothetical world of abstract reasoning and well-tuned theories. While some sociologists emphasize statistical analysis, I decided to focus on oral history, interviewing hundreds of people about their experience of genocide, religious conversion, and more recently, their motivation for doing good in the world.
This last project has set me thinking about the power of stories and how they function in our lives. Here are several observations that undoubtedly are open to debate, but if true, have implications for how we teach ethics and do moral education.
First, rational propositions about justice, fairness, duty, courage, love, honesty or compassion have little meaning unless they are connected to real-life examples that conjure a mental image of how they work in practice. We need to be able to visualize these ideals. We need context as well as content.
Second, we are emotional creatures, not purely reasoning beings. The power of a good story or image is that it is evocative, it elicits emotion. It speaks to our heart, not just to our head. It potentially provokes us to action.
Third, when we review our lives, what counts is the gestalt of our actions, whether we have lived a life of purpose, not any particular action (a divorce or abortion). What is the narrative that unites all the individual choices that we made? Did they add up to something worthwhile?
The philosopher, Linda Zagzebski, has proposed an approach to ethics that focuses on moral exemplars and the way they evoke admiration and a desire to emulate their way of life. While she is short on actual examples, and those she offers are deceased historical figures, she nevertheless says there are three categories of moral exemplars: the hero, the saint and the sage.
Zagzebski’s approach to ethics syncs well with my own, and to flesh out an alternative approach to ethics—one that focuses on real-life examples—I have worked with colleagues at USC and two dozen journalists to profile 104 exemplary individuals from 42 different countries.
As an exploratory project, we decided to limit our project to humanitarians who are inspired by religious values and have a regular spiritual practice that sustains them in their work. Furthermore, we decided to experiment with various modes of communication: articles published in magazines and news outlets, podcasts and short videos. Journalists and researchers were provided with funding to do in-depth reporting, doing multiple interviews with exemplars and the people they serve. The humanitarian work of these exemplary individuals included medical intervention, poverty reduction, climate change and gender justice, among other issues.
I suppose one might see this project as creating entertainment, providing a potential audience with human interest stories. But as the project director, I had a deeper motive: To inspire people to think about their lives, to be inspired to pursue deeper structures of meaning, or in Zagzebski’s terminology, to move from admiration to emulation.
By focusing on the life and practices of these exemplary individuals, the project focus was not on their words or teachings—it was on their actions. Their words took on saliency by examining their lifestyle, their commitments, how they spent their time; the risks they took, their resilience when faced with challenges and failures.
None of us like to be preached at. Moralistic axioms tend to be alienating and off-putting. But stories have the power to inspire, especially if they are narratives of people who ventured to pursue an alternative lifestyle of humanitarian service or prophetic witness related to human rights.
In our project, there are a hundred different ways that people found a deeper meaning. For some, it was a response to a religious calling, an encounter with God. For others, it was working through issues of personal identity that provided the context and vision for their work. For most people, they encountered an issue—poverty, injustice, civil war, violence—and decided they should respond.
Because our project focused on people of faith, we learned a great deal about spirituality and how it functions. God was not found in seminary libraries; God was present more often at the margins, in acts of service to the poor. Spiritual practices—prayer, meditation, worship and adoration—connected exemplars to a power beyond themselves. Challenges and disappointments, even torture in a few cases, drove these exemplars to deeper sources of meaning.
At one point, when I was reading through all the publications in this project, I came face-to-face with the advantages of chronicling these moral exemplars over being one of them. At the same time, I felt like I had glimpsed some essential elements of living a meaningful, purposeful life.
These exemplary individuals were not shouting moralism into the wind; they were doing meaningful work. The effect of engaging these accounts was one of seduction—they spoke to the heart rather than the head. They invited self-examination.
I believe that Zagzebski has a point: Portraits of moral exemplars are potentially evocative; they challenge us to think about our lives, to make comparisons and even to emulate.
How do we measure up? Are there changes that we might want to make? Or maybe the lives of some exemplars are so far beyond the realm of what we might do that they are dismissed as hopeless idealists, even masochists for subjecting themselves to such challenges.
The psychologist Dan McAdams has written extensively about life history. He argues that there are two dominant life narratives: contamination narratives and redemptive narratives. Redemptive narratives single out painful experiences and obstacles and develop a storyline—what McAdams calls a life myth—about how these were overcome. Contamination narratives do the opposite. They single out particular moments of life and conclude how life is bad and unredeemable.
According to Erik Erikson, a psychologist who has influenced McAdams and my own thinking, there are crucial periods of identity formation when we are searching for role models to emulate. This is particularly true in the late teens and early twenties when we kick at the constraints of childhood and the culture and identity into which we have been socialized. For Erikson, the “identity crisis” is a potentially generative period in which we are in search of authentic values, with some of our most creative and influential figures in history having gone through protracted periods of crisis.
There are potentially other stages of life when we are in search of alternative models of life’s possibilities, such as retirement, a traumatic event or a breakdown in our cognitive meaning structure. At these points, we are not looking for a moral principle or moralistic axiom. We are searching for a new narrative on which we can hang our commitments.
If exemplars across religions and geographies share one quality, it is that despite trauma and challenges, they have redemptive narratives. How can we see our own lives in this way?
Donald E. Miller is the co-founder of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.