Teacher vs. Learner …

<< Teacher vs. Learner –

In this midst of confusion, I would like to defend the role of the teacher above the one of the tutor. More precisely, it would be an “éloge” for the teacher, borrowing the very nice French term for honouring the virtue of a cause.

Although a teacher can play the role of a tutor, the reverse is not true. You will certainly not be surprised that a considerable part of teachers do… private tutoring during their free-time! On the contrary, a random tutor at trial in front of a full class of students might create some disenchantment.

A closer insight of what a teacher is, might help us restore some faith in public education. In fact, the three revolutions of educative perception that apparently divide the schooling system can also be invoked to help identifying three different perceptions of what a teacher is. With each of the three initial questions, a different aspect of what a teacher has to be, emerges.

Does the teacher know ? At first, a teacher is someone who can outspeak our pretentions of understanding with zher own knowledge and experience. It is a captain, an authoritative figure whose word is more than it appears to be in the first place. Zhe knows more deeply and broadly. Everything zhe will say will be hard to contest.  As a captain knows his ship and his crew, a teacher must know zher class. Still as a captain, zhe needs to ensure the whole crew stays on board for the whole journey. Zhe takes responsibility for the outcome of the journey. Subsequently, zhe must make zherself trustworthy for zher student-crew and help to build a trustful bond among the crew itself. For the sake of the journey, zhe sometimes has to put up with difficult choices and think for the crew as a whole, even if the sailor-student personalities radically differ from a person to another. A teacher has the misfortune of a captain unable to choose zher crew before setting sail. Zhe cannot decide to put aside those trouble-making sailor-students who do not bring anything constructive to the rest of the crew. Otherwise, zhe risks dicing with mutiny. It is this authoritative and leading personality of the teacher that was most reputed in the past centuries and that is slowly fading away to clear the place for the next following trait.

Can we understand the teacher ? Secondly, a teacher becomes someone who not only knows a lot, but can also adapt zher knowledge to the one who is supposed to acquire it. It is a gardener, a caring and empathetic figure whose helping hand can mitigate any recurrent trouble. As a gardener knows zher flowers, the teacher is conscious of the different needs and learning characteristics of zher fellow pupils. Zhe adapts zher teaching method to the different kind of learners zhe interacts with. When zhe encounters an obstacle, zhe can figure out a way around to still make the stream pass. Many psychosocial books of the second half of the past century describe the distinct learning personalities with their strengths and weaknesses as well as how to resolve them. Such a description can be found in Gregory and Herndon’s book : “Differentiated Instructional Strategies for the Block Schedule, Chapter 2”(Gregory & Herndon, 2003).

Still as a gardener, a teacher creates a suitable learning environment for zher flower-students to thrive and grow. Zhe does not coerce in any way the process of learning, however encourages it only. Students, in a reassuring and stimulating environment, are prone to learn from themselves and not only listen as dull heads to the unique spot light coming from the lecturer. Studies have been made on this in (Turner & Krechevsky, 2005). Learning for a person is a natural and personal process just as growing and blossoming is, for a plant. The role of the gardener is to intervene only in the alignment of nature’s propensity and to compensate for any misfortune due to natural incautiousness. Watering a plant is only necessary when it didn’t get enough rain. It is not a default task. The perspective of the gardening teacher is the most praised and encouraged at the present time of history. Keeping up with the trend, very keen and nicely written blogs usually gravitate around that part. This one in particular insists on how teaching and learning are complementary and that their outcome depends on the environment created for such purpose. The labour is definitely not entirely in the hands of the teacher and the learners must make their part of the work in order to be able to follow up and grow.

The aspect of the teacher as a gardener – or to put in functional terms : as a supervisor – has also had some drawbacks on society. The respect for teachers has decreased since then. Many of those who never had the occasion to teach, see teaching as a secondary and an idle profession, whose passion is shallow and ill-founded. Financially speaking, teachers are often underpaid for their efforts. It is clear that tutoring has had its effect on the perception of the teacher. It is sad but real, teaching is at the present time suffering a downward spiral of negative impressions. Public institutions highly demand good teachers, professionally unsuccessful people surrender in front of the voracious competition – often called “rat race” – undergoing in the private sector and become teachers, and as a result : teachers are paid less. The last perspective of the teacher is a contentious one and jealously regarded by unhappy exploited employees.

Is there such a thing as to know ? At last, a teacher is someone who creates connections. Zhe can never be trapped into a corner and always finds or knows new ways around. It is an artist, an elusive and emancipated figure whose art tackles the philosophical mazes carefully prepared by learners. As an artist evokes strokes of passion before the senses of his contemplators, a teacher encourages zher pupils to bring up and cultivate their passion for whatever they like. Still as an artist, a teacher uses zher creativity to reach out for the interest of zher student-audience. (Good) Math teachers do not try to make us memorise or assimilate mathematic formulas; instead they try to make ourselves become interested about maths and eager to know more and look after them for ourselves. In order to do so, they might try to awaken our mathematical reasoning and make it appealing and intuitive to use for resolving problems. A successful teacher will spend less effort and time in ‘teaching’ per se than in awakening and cultivating the spirit of initiative among its pupils. In contrast with the business model of client-based relationship, teachers do not wish their students to stay numb sitting at their desk, eternally dependant on their instructions and knowledge. Their genuine wish is to never see them again. Never see them again as students, but as equal responsible raised citizens. They would love to keep in touch with any of their former pupils, as they have once taken foothold on their ship.

This elusive and distant personality of the teacher is both archaic and yet in avant-garde. It is archaic because it evokes the esoteric bond that once existed between the apprentice and the master and that has practically vanished throughout the 20th century. Yet, it is in avant-garde because as more papers will be published on whatever new learning/teaching techniques in correlation with success at school grades or in getting promoted or any type of social gratification, the harsh reality of the majority of the population will lay in a general disinterest about cognition. Engineering is too boring, maths are too boring, economics are too boring, natural sciences are too boring, legislation is too boring; younger generations are being driven off toward immediacy and its application to sources of entertainment. Then, future studies will gradually begin to talk about eagerness, interest and passion in the process of learning and try to link it to the skills of the teacher. The trend by the second half of this century will encourage teachers to captivate the pupils’ interest and enjoin them to look at knowledge with faithful passion rather than with the eyes of a short-term utilitarian.

But this doesn’t have anything to do with “how can we know we know ?” ! Well, it has. An artist knows that there is no such thing as technique and craftsmanship without works of art. Similarly, a teacher does not see knowledge as a dead solid ground basis but as a brisk living stream, varying across culture, perspective, insight, purpose and many other factors. Zhe knows that knowledge can be modelled and approached in accordance with the context in which it is formulated. Zhe tries to avoid thinking that things are the way they are, simply as a mere fact. Things are the way they are presented to be seen as such.  Of course, a teacher may not know everything. But at least, zhe knows what zher students do not and how to cope with that. Zhe is not going to tell the sheer truth and facts in a row to zher students. Zhe is going to give them freedom to let their curiosity go as far as they can endure to do so. In the end, every teacher is conscious that the boundaries of knowledge are limited by those of curiosity. And eventually a teacher will mostly try to arouse the curiosity of zher students, because knowledge will follow as a natural consequence.

When you breathe, you don’t hustle and stack the air in your lungs, you simply create room for it, and wait for it to come softly replenishing your thoughts. Similarly, knowledge is meant to be seeded and grown by those who make enough room for it, by widening their mind’s openness. In the end, as Jostein Gaarder summarised it quite acutely in Sophie’s World : “All knowledge is human knowledge”…


  • (Gregory & Herndon, 2003) : Gregory G. H. and Herndon L. E., Differentiated Instructional Strategies for the Block Schedule, The First Years of School, April 2003, Volume 60, Number 7
  • (Turner & Krechevsky, 2005) : Turner T. and Krechevsky M., Who Are the Teachers? Who Are the Learners?, Educational Leadership, April 2005
  • (Kaplan, 1998) : Kaplan L., The Teacher as a Learner, 1998
  • (Knowles, 1990) : Knowles M. S. , The Adult Learner: a neglected species (4th edition) Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1990
  • (Harrison & Reeve, 2002) : Harrison R. and Reeve F., Supporting Lifelong Learning: Perspectives on learning, Routledge Falmer, 2002

Teacher vs. Learner –

<< Teacher vs. Learner +

Still, teaching is evolving with society. Alongside the recent progress made on both aspects : teaching as a skill and teaching as a framework, teaching itself has shifted from a societal service to a thriving, humongous and quickly growing industry. At the heart of this new industry stands a new and prominent social figure : the Tutor.

It is not unknown that throughout history, education has never stopped being torn between public and private domains. Up to the Ancient times, rich and noble families could afford hiring a tutor in higher arts education for their children while public school offered basic and common knowledge to everyone such as in reading, writing, mathematics, etc.

However, the similarity is very weak and stops there.

First, at the time, teaching was still only regarded from a cognitive point of view as opposed to a didactical point of view.

Second, the age of information as a context sharply contrasts with any previous age. Tutoring in the present time is more like slyly interpreting information instead of knowing about something as in the past.

Third and most importantly, tutoring was just a luxury that the bourgeoisie could offer for their children, whereas today, it turns out to become a need not to say a requirement more than anything else.

The role of the Tutor has created a true revolution in perceiving the process of learning. The picture of the old unfathomable Master in the mountains whose knowledge and wisdom must be deduced, has been replaced by a coach who behaves like a spark of genie; ushering pupils above their shoulders, always on their side, sharing their point of view.

Furthermore, in a world where information is so close and so accessible, “just a click away” so to put it in modern terms, to “know” has gradually become to mean “to know where”.Knowledge is really everywhere, the main concern is to know the address of the information one needs to know about. Tutorials, documentation, and more recently MOOCs provide a wide range of sources for practical and theoretical knowledge. It is impossible to pass over all of them just as it is impossible to read all the books existing today. Filtering sources according to personal relevance is a crucial skill for finding the bit of knowledge we are missing. It is virtually more important to be informed rather than to know. It is sold to the public that what’s in the box is less important than where the box actually is. And once we find the box, it is more important to “know” how to use what is inside rather than to understand it. Specialisation is pushing the limits of knowledge so far, that we hardly have time to widen our understanding. The complexity of society’s structure requires understanding the interface, not the content. Tutors aren’t the ones who know, they are the ones who know where and how to decrypt information for practical use.

The need for tutors arose very steeply on the market. In less than a decade, there were hundreds of websites and platforms that were created in order to put up together demands of tutoring among young fellows. MySherpa, Communivy, FirstTutors, Verbling, Complétude, … it is almost as if it would take more time to choose a platform than to find a tutor. Nowadays, it appears that anyone having passed the barrier of higher education could be a tutor. It seems so easy; there are so many pedagogical tips for giving lessons. Bit by bit, young students give more credit to a tutor than to a teacher.

The sudden appearance of the Tutor as a key role in society is quite alarming. Internet can easily provide some numbers to it. It means that either something is not working as it was expected to do so, or something is missing, or else: it redefines the way education is meant to work for the currently bourgeoning society up to come. Having a tutor for studying is gradually more and more common. It started with students requiring further help with their studies due to a sudden change of perspective in the educational program. Then, it became a way to compensate for the incompetence of some high-school teachers. Now, it is a way to compete for reaching out a bare hand on the threshold of higher education. Have a look at what The Telegraph recommends. They say : “Securing top grades to meet your offers is much more crucial than in the past”.

Be it the fault of the teachers, the parents, the elder, the ministry of education, the politicians, the increasing specialisation of the industrious sectors, or of the students themselves, tutoring becoming a need as opposed to a luxury is in some way a clue that education is overall lead toward a withering failure. Tutoring per se, is not an issue, a shame or a wrong thing to have recourse to. However, its application on a societal macroscopic scale can have non-desirable impacts.

Debating about that issue would definitely throw us off topic. What is relevant to add in the context of this paper’s question about who’s the teacher, who’s the learner: is that if tutors are gradually overtaking the role of teachers, and if knowledge is gradually becoming a synonym of access to information, then the answer to the question is purely conventional : the teacher is the smartest of the two in surfing on the net. Away from the relation between an adult and a child, between two adults, would the one to be the teacher be the one with Google at hand ?

>> Teacher vs. Learner …

Teacher vs. Learner +

<< Teacher vs. Learner !

Questions about the very nature of knowledge are related to the field of epistemology. The latter tries to formulate answers or at least, re-frame the original questions in order to tackle them cunningly. An interesting article about epistemology can be found on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Anyhow, to avoid standing in the middle of the void, students fortunately are able to chat with their mates and build their own philosophy. Being able to gather one’s own philosophy is very important and it is why higher education is perceived as the sanctuary of the freedom of thought. Universities, colleges, “hautes écoles”, faculties, and etc: all of these institutions are the symbolic home of society’s currents of philosophy. By the way, this actually causes a big social shear between those with a higher education and those without. It is a shame that people think the only way to emancipate one’s own philosophy is through undergoing higher education. It is not even a guarantee. Nevertheless, it is true that it is a pity that everyone cannot benefit from this resourceful environment.

Anyhow, this last epistemological step brings us in the realm of adulthood. In principle, the distinction between a teacher and a learner vanishes because the concepts merge. Incidentally, in many languages, to teach and to learn are sometimes described by the same verb. Such is the case in French with the word “apprendre”. Depending on the context, a person unavoidably alternates the role of a teacher and the role of a learner, just as if they were printed on the two sides of a coin.

On the teacher’s side, any source describing what a teacher is will emphasise that there is no such teacher that would not also be a learner. Consider the essay of Leonard Kaplan[1] : “The teacher as a Learner”(Kaplan, 1998). Or this very nice publication about how a teacher learns. A first argument is to say that nobody knows a subject down to its root. Therefore, any teacher should be continuously keeping himself informed about the subject zhe teaches. A second argument consists in saying that the process of teaching is itself a subject to learn from. A teacher indeed learns from zher experience in interacting with zher student and bringing answers to their questions. And so on,…

On the learner’s side, many sources insist that teaching does certainly not consist in pouring knowledge into a vessel but in creating an environment where knowledge can be grasped (e.g. Self-Regulated Learning).  Therefore, there is no way in which a learner could not wind up being zher own teacher. Any person learns to filter knowledge on zher own and keeps in mind only what is relevant with regard to the philosophy zhe has chosen as a guideline for living. This is why Socrates declared himself to be at most practicing midwifery in his teachings. Anything that eventually was learnt had already been hiding before in the learner’s unconscious potential of thought. Those who appreciate evincing logic with linguistics will engagingly recognise that “to learn” in Slavic languages is literally speaking the reflexive of teaching : “to teach to oneself”.

As a person ages, the boundaries between learning and teaching are progressively obliterated. This has inspired theorists such as Knowles to separate andragogy from pedagogy. In other words, he emphasised that the way adults learn is much unalike the way children do. An extensive analysis of adult learning can be found in Knowles book of “The adult learner : a neglected species”. He stressed that the point of view toward knowledge is reshaped and changed due to some critical differences between a child and an adult. As opposed to a child, an adult has a background experience which acts as a point of reference for further learning. Moreover, an adult will always try to relate the subject into the context of his social role. The attitude of an adult toward a field of interest is thus problem-centred rather than content-centred in the case of children. Such salient distinctions between children and adults induced the creation of new theories for the learning process (e.g. Harrison & Reeve , 2002).

Stepping from the detailed view of the learning process, transmission of knowledge can also be approached from a systemic point of view regardless of the mechanisms involved. Such system connects three essential elements : Teacher-Learner-Subject (Knowledge). To help clarify and put order in the various situations involving the transmission of knowledge, researchers begun to construct models that relate these three essential components. By laying them out in a dominance-identification plane, various models emerge. Objectives and implementations of education derive from the structure of the model being used. The vertical dimension represents the degree of dominance-subordination of a component. The horizontal dimension displays the distance between components from an identity perspective. For instance, the Teacher’s dominance over the Subject represents how much the Teacher can select the content to be taught from the Subject. The horizontal distance between the Teacher and the Learner expresses how the latter tries to resemble to the former while learning. In primary school, pupils will try to understand the subject just like their teachers do. In contrast, during a coaching session, participants will try to grasp just what they need to know in order to outshine in the future job they are training for.

This systemic approach is able to reproduce models ranging from highly religious institutions to research institutions. In a religious community, the Subject is topmost, the Teacher is in the middle and the Learner is at the bottom of the ladder. All three are aligned on the vertical dominance axis. It is easy to understand such configuration by assuming the Subject is a sacred text, the Teacher is a voice bearer of the sacred text and the Learner is an adept. On the contrary, in a research institution, the Teacher is bottommost, the Subject is in the middle to the side, and the Learner is topmost above the Teacher. The importance of the model places the Learner above all, because as a researcher, zhe is up to specify/discover the content of the Subject. The Subject itself is seen as a mystery by both the researcher and the Teacher. The latter assumes the role of a research supervisor.

It is also interesting to focus on the connectors between the three elements. There are three different possible connectors : T-L, T-S, and L-S. These connectors can be easily and curiously bound to the three types of questions involved in education. Each link could be expressed as :

  • T-S : does the Teacher know (the Subject) ?
  • T-L : does the Teacher know how to explain zher knowledge (to the Learner) ?
  • L-S : can the Learner ever know (the Subject) ?

The following diagram pictures out well the systemic approach to education; its three main elements and the three connectors involved :


Icons made by : http://www.freepik.com under the license of Creative Commons BY 3.0

All in all, the roles of a teacher and a learner are definitely not evident to define generically. Unicef is gathering personal definition of what a teacher is across the world. If you would like to add yours, feel free to do.

[1] Professor in the Education Department at Wayne State University

>> Teacher vs. Learner –

Teacher vs. Learner !

<< Teacher vs. Learner ?

Back to the context of education, similar questions arise throughout the years people spend going at school. Among all the questions that form the daily life of a student, three of them deserve getting a closer inspection. With each question comes a transition of how education is perceived. From these three questions, the most shocking transitions occurring in the process of learning from childhood to adulthood can be segmented into three parts. It is ironic how education itself reflects this segmentation by being split into roughly three categories : primary school, secondary school and tertiary (higher) education. The fourth category of pre-schooling could be accounted for as an introduction to the necessity to learn in community and outside of family. In the interests of ease of expression – and for no other reason – I have chosen to refer to all generic instances of a teacher or a learner as ‘zhe’.

During the first part, the child usually does not consider the veracity of zher teacher’s sayings as being possibly ill-founded or dubious. Zhe tries to follow the instructions being given to him as tightly as possible and distinguishes the wrong from the right in the light of the feedback he receives in return of zher efforts.

It is only later in zher teenage years during the second part that zhe gradually begins to doubt about the competence of zher teacher’s ability to teach, and sometimes even to know really about what zhe is teaching. This phenomenon is often subsequent to the contradictions or interferences between adult opinions that are revealed to the attentive standpoint of the child. When a teacher says something, then another one says it differently; the young pupil considers the scene as if zhe had to choose zher side. Who is zhe going to listen to ? Most probably, zhe will adhere to the most charismatic person. Charisma from a youngster’s point of view has a plethora of different colours. In any case, there is no exception to this first observation that changes the perception of the teacher as an archetype. By the brink of secondary education, everyone will have deemed some teachers to be worse than others. Everyone will have considered thinking that some teachers speak nonsense most of their time, while some others, on the contrary are respectable and hard to challenge.

The questions linked to such change of educational perception are : “Does the teacher know what zhe says ?” and “Does zhe know how to explain it correctly and unambiguously ?”. These two first questions are often intertwined even though they are fundamentally of a different nature. The boundary between secondary and primary school is not well defined either. In many countries, secondary school begins after the age of twelve (ex: Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc.). In France, Norway, it is the secondary school that is split (lower and upper), as if to ensure that pupils had enough time to discover and reflect on both questions. The order and the time by which the two questions come about is a matter of fortuity. Usually, the young pupil will consider that anyone who does not say the same as zher parents do; speaks nonsense. Once zhe realises there is a difference between knowing something and saying the way it is, zhe will deem zher teachers with questions about their pedagogy, which at that time being means for zher :“the way to say what we know”. Nonetheless, it could be the other way around. For instance, children who learn more than one language will first realise that there are more than one way to express things, and thus that truth is not inseparable from terminology.

Then, when higher education starts, the charm is reiterated. University professors, by contrast, are perceived as a living thriving source of nearly endless knowledge and comprehension. When the complexity of the “truer” side of knowledge is unfolded, the young student suddenly gains some respect towards some high-school teachers zhe disclaimed during zher younger years, because zhe realises that things might not be as “simple” as they first appeared to be. However at this stage, the most shocking transition is still to come. Ultimately, after few years of thinking and debating in the midst of a higher education community; there arises a third question, although of a completely different nature than the first ones. This third one holds an epistemological ground on whether there actually exists something called “knowledge”. What does it mean to know ? What is the difference between information and knowledge ? Does someone retaining a lot of facts truly know something at all ? How would zhe differ from a data basis ?

Whatever subjects the student studies, zhe realises that knowledge is everything but steady. In philosophy, rationalists oppose to empiricists. In sciences, theories dispute over their domains of validity. In psychology, assertions challenge the recognition of the reader. In law, the nature of justice still cannot be agreed to be absolute or conventional. In medicine, methods of treatment are often balanced off by the side effects they cause. In languages,… well : languages confront their logic between and within themselves.

The first acquiring of conscience – does my teacher know ? / can zhe make sense out of it for us ?- is perhaps just a disappointment and is often cured merely by interacting with a more skilled pedagogue. The discoveries and new paths that were unveiled on the psychology of learning during the second half of the past century form a solid ground for effective teaching techniques that are being used at the present time.

The second acquiring of conscience though – what is it to “know” something ? – truly causes distress. When someone ceases to think of knowledge from an absolute perspective, that is objectively, zhe is left in dismay.

>> Teacher vs. Learner +

Teacher vs. Learner ?

Who is the learner who is the teacher ? How do we know we know better than someone else ? How do we know we have gathered and consolidated an understanding strong and substantial enough to be able to teach it or assert it to others ?

Undoubtedly, anyone who has lived long enough to earn some skill in a particular field will have experienced the two sides of the coin: being a learner and a teacher. One day he sat and listened. And another day he stood and lectured. On each side of the coin two opposite poles compete in an endless struggle. One brings positive feedback, while the other leaves a negative feeling behind.

As a pupil sitting at a lecture, either the teacher succeeds in captivating your attention, or you simply cannot follow the course and you start watching the ticking of your watch. In the first case, a complex maelstrom of ideas, connections, discoveries and insights whirls in your mind while you listen to your teacher, whereas in the second case, you ask yourself why is it that you have to be sitting there losing your time.

As a teacher giving a lecture, either the audience is filled with starry gazes or you simply cannot ally your passion to the audiences’ interest. In the first case, in the eyes of those who listen, you can make sense out of what you are trying to express, or you start realising that your point of view stands on the unreachable top of a tall wall.

The relationship between a person who teaches and one who learns is although not restrained to the context of education. While hearing someone speaking, it is not uncommon to think of the speaker as knowing more poorly or less than we do. Then emerges the urge to interrupt that person and assert a perspective of the subject which seems (at least from a personal point of view) more clear, complete and astute. This situation is often encountered while having a debate among equal speakers. Politicians for instance have to suffer these kinds of contingencies every day. They have developed a lot of subversive techniques of trying to take out the advantage over their opponents. But in the end, who knows best ? The one who takes out arguments the most swiftly? The one who punches all opinions with a fundamental principle borrowed from great thinkers ? The one who drowns others throughout a complex structure of long intertwined explanations made of spiky words all intended to repel the clench of the audiences’ trail of thoughts ? Or would it be the one who’s discourse has the highest density of the words “freedom”, “security” and “dream” ?

The more a person ages and gains experience in life, the less the distinction between teacher and learner remains clear. During childhood, anyone older has more overall experience and thus plays the role of a teacher to some extent. Older pupils, older siblings, school teachers, parents, grandparents: children have something to learn from everyone. However, as we grow older, this perception fades away and we gradually begin to cease to recognise the teacher’s side in the people we meet. Moreover, teachers themselves are said to learn from their pupils. This reciprocity blurs furthermore the gap between the role of a teacher and the role of a learner.

Yet, in any society, there is always a group of experts or wise men whose knowledge – or be it wisdom – is respected more than the average public opinion. Their teachings are seen as guidelines for future decisions and deserve to be considered with special attention. Stephen Hawking, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, and many others are widely recognised for their effort, work and ideas. They were interviewed a tremendous number of times during their life. Their works will be used as a reference basis for future studies and analysis. Before it comes to that point, how and why does anyone become a teacher for a worldwide community ? For instance, Socrates’ teachings have been and still are very influential in modern history. Many philosophers and politicians based their reflections on the basis of the precepts he tried to pass down to humanity. Nonetheless, he himself thought he knew less about anything than anyone. He could not hide his astonishment when the Oracle nominated him for being the wisest of his contemporaries.

>> Teacher vs. Learner !

Morality vs. Identity …

<< Morality vs. Identity !

Two pages are filled and still the initial question has been left unanswered. Having accorded the restrained credit to psychology for its statistical performance, it is preferable to continue the analysis with the perspective of philosophy by starting with the famous Socratic belief that : “to know the good is to do the good”. Human nature seems to be such that when a person makes a decision, choice or undertakes an action, he or she has to have a “good” reason, or at least a “defendable” reason to do so. Even among the mean personalities it is presumably verified. For those who have seen the Kubrik’s famous : “A clockwork orange” film, the evil side seems to cling onto a “just” cause. When the main character “Alex” subdues his companions in a brawl to reclaim his leader’s status alongside a canal alley, what is currently being unfolded in his mind is the Thieving Magpie from Rossini. The music represents the driving agent behind his actions, his motives. He is convinced that he is doing a rightful action because he knows best about how things should be or not. Whether from an exterior point of view, what he does is right or wrong is another matter. Arguably, without his stooges and/or his family; he is but nothing. And so his belief in his self, self-esteem, crumbles. It would suggest that evil arises from collective aggregating, but this is another issue.

What comes out of this story is the fact that the “good” in the Socratic belief depends presumably on the “self”. Therefore, “to know” and “to do”also varies from self to self.

Whether it goes from Descartes and Spinoza on the rational hand, Kant in between or Locke and Hume on the empirical hand, modern and traditional philosophies differentiate the sphere of “the self” and the sphere of “the outside”. In the end, their argument lies in the belief of whether the outer sphere can be reproduced from within (with reason) or from without (with senses), or both. In other words, from the engineer’s perspective: the problematic is the one of Kalman filtering.

Whoever it may be, a philosopher will not deny the existence of perception, and thus the distinction between reality and representation. In a similar way, a person is constituted of his “self” whose representation is arguably his “identity”. It is through his or her identity that one interacts with the outer sphere and sets his or her aims. The mere fact of having to take decisions after decisions, make choice after choice implies that there is a strong call for a purpose or a driving directional motive for making such choices or decisions. Living randomly is not viable neither plausible. Any person needs to hold onto some principles, beliefs or dogmas that shape their understanding of what is good or bad, and therefore that orient their choice-making process. Kierkegaard emphasised this existential need, to relate to the exterior through subjective freedom. He was concerned with how higher sciences and practices contribute to an individual’s life. This underlines the necessity for gathering up a coherent and reliable personal identity which also embodies an ethical perspective.

How reliable and cohesive can an identity be ? Merely possessing an identity does not guarantee the fact of adhering to it. One’s beliefs and principles if they are frail can be baffled by larger society-based ways of conduct. “Being a teenager, I don’t have a smartphone because I think that it secludes people more than it brings them together. But my only friend at school keeps telling me that my belief actually is much more secluding than the fact of possessing a smartphone. I cannot assert counter arguments because what he is saying is objectively true. In the end, I resigned my original belief.”

This is where “self-esteem” plays a central role. There is a distinction to be made between a person’s identity and the steadiness of the bond to its bearer. Building an identity is thus tightly linked to strengthening it. This applies for any activity. A person who is learning how to cook will never be able to reinforce his or her identity as a person who loves cooking if he or she actually never pulls off his or her nose away from the steps of a recipe book. More broadly to an individual, it is more important to contribute, create and imagine, than to watch, follow and abide. This individual need can derive toward more dodgy behaviours. There is often some appealing feeling associated with the fact of bending rules, trying forbidden or disapproved actions or playing with hazard.

These conjectures underline three facts about self-esteem. First, that it is perceived as being crucial for an individual’s sense of self. There is no point in having an identity if one cannot trust in his or her actions.

Second, that building up self-esteem is mainly, if not exclusively, done by assuming the role of an actor as opposed to the one of a spectator. Having read all the books about space cannot replace the experience of having actually been in space. This is not unrelated to the “knowledge argument” of Frank Jackson, available among other sources in the [SEP].

Third, that soon there can be an entangled conflict between building up identity and self-esteem. This conflict can take the form of the very popular act of “selling one’s soul to the devil”. In the movie “Limitless”, a writer is given the choice of enhancing his ability to write lucidly and productively, thus raise his identity as a writer, however at the (not exclusive) cost of lowering his self-esteem by becoming nearly fully dependant on a drug.

At the scale of the individual it seems as if his identity and his self-esteem were all that mattered. Amazingly, morality has never had anything to do with this. It merely occupies a secondary role in the mind of an individual being. The fact that a person observes a moral rule is either because it coincides with his/her perception of moral ethics or because not following it would impede on his/her personal identity.

In the Middle-Ages in Western Europe, it was seen as moral to denounce a person unfaithful to the (Catholic) Church. The vast majority followed that rule and wouldn’t leave heretics alone. The Cathars were an example of a religious movement that separated its purposes and beliefs from the Catholic Church. After razing the Cathar settlements, many Catholics pursued the fleeing survivors just for the sake of cutting their heads off, or torturing them to death. A vast majority of those perpetrators were not forced neither threatened of punishment to pursue the fleeing Cathars. Actually, the most avaricious among them were very motivated to plunder their wealth, just as it is the case today in exemplary conflicts.

Depending on whether one takes the view of objectivism, relativism or non-cognitivism, there are different conclusions that could be drawn from this historical fact. An objectivist would conclude that a person behaves morally only if doing so will have a positive impact or if not doing so would have a negative impact on his or her self. A relativist would conclude that any rule of conduct that raises or at least preserves the integrity of those who conform to it, can be turned into a moral rule. A non-conformist would probably conclude that being human a millennium ago was not the same as it is today. Our emotional stimuli may have evolved so that we have become more sensitive and compassionate.

All three of those points of view could be true or not. In the end, they altogether suggest that it is not essential to conform to moral ethics in order to live. However, it is impossible to continue on living without adhering to an identity. And as a result, it is not uncommon that people prioritise the actions that elevate or build up their identity over what they understand as moral behaviour. Another historical example is given by Stalin’s policy coined as the “cult of personality”. He sought to raise his image so high that he would “airbrush out of history” his opponents through non-moral means [King 1997].

The modern view suggests that there is more than one identity composing an individual’s self [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010]. Therefore, the centrality of one’s moral identity will determine whether he or she will choose the moral way or not. If moral identity required disgracing a substantial part of oneself’s other identities, it would lose its centrality. This is when the perception of an individual becomes almost arbitrary; a person with a very high but rarely central moral identity would be barely distinguishable from a person with a very low but always central moral identity. Besides, is it possible for moral identity to assume a fully central role ? In fact, many people fancy that the strict compliance to moral principles would probably end up in disabling the development of an identity. It is not moral not to give the food to the beggar if one has some. It is not moral to claim a parcel of earth as your own, when you’re not the one taking care of it. It is not moral to put your desires above the needs of others. And so on…

Most of these statements are an exaggeration. The status of morality usually reaches equilibrium when the needs of each stakeholder are balanced. But the point is that, either consciously or not, the first choice in our mind will always be the one that favours or strengthens our sense of identity or self-esteem. And if we identify ourselves as someone who always thinks first about others, so be it : we will think first about others because it strengthens our sense of identity !

This is when it becomes discomforting to the mind; the vision of humans as little balls full of greed constantly trying to inflate at any cost, and occasionally at the expense of all the other greedy balls. Is our nature really so egocentric ? Do we act for the good just because we expect a reward ? Is morality reduced to the mere fact of keeping our conscience clean ?

It is not a psychological matter, but a philosophical one.

And since it is a philosophical matter, each individual is supposed to find an answer on his or her own.

A random rationalist would presumably argue that our biggest weakness is also the saviour of the miserable aspect of such greedy vocation for building up an identity. We cannot help but being affected by the judgement of the “other greedy balls”. The viability of our identity is compromised by the good condition the identity of others. As a result, when we’re observing a moral behaviour, it is because we have certainty or belief that it will somehow pay-off to us.

Whereas a non-cognitivist would presumably argue that it is human instinct combined with emotions that saves us from thinking only about ourselves.

A poet would write a poem describing a four-lettered word without ever mentioning it explicitly.

Kant provided us with a different view; the one know as the “categorical imperative”. It could be pictured as a unique mountain to the elevation of personal identity with a countless number of sides but only one peak, that is : the absolute feeling of moral behaviour supported by the universal moral law; acting for Humanity per se.

HOWEVER, except for the poet’s argument, the essence of these justifications lies on the fact of postulating the nature of an individual agent’s behaviour to be established on solid ground. Either we believe in our rational sense, or we follow undeniably our motor feelings. Before doing so, it requires for us to make a choice and henceforth to rely on an identity. This paragraph holds the key-centre to the whole discussion of this article. As a matter of fact, it is impossible for one to act as a moral agent if one’s identity and self-esteem are transparent or weak. If one does not know who he is, then he will not be able bring forth rational or assured decisions upon his behaviour. Hence, an absence of identity is related to an absence of morality.

The answer proposed to the very first question entitling this article is that identity precedes morality.

In order to set foothold in a moral ground, it is essential to know in advance who we are. Doing so prevents us from being conformists as opposed to ethicists. Paradoxically, it is thereby necessary for an individual to acknowledge his or her intrinsic part of egocentrism in order to be able to chase off egoism and selfishness. When the one always so serious behind the mirror begins to smile back, when talking is the same as listening, when showing is the same as watching, when a goal is not just an instruction, when personal failure resolves in the feeling alike unpinning a spine in the soul, when solitude is not daunting but soothing, when questioning starts to feel as comfortable as walking, when joy is like a fire that doesn’t burn around but inside, when the moment is regarded as a privilege instead of a sentence… then only it is possible to withstand selfishness, jealousy, anger, disgust, denial or pride, and after then, to lay a genuine helping hand to others. They say there is an African proverb saying : “be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt”. It is pretty straightforward to realise what it would mean to say in this context.

The fact that identity precedes morality; isn’t it a recursive problem? Identity must first be established then moral behaviour will emerge, but ethics are one of the strongest pillars supporting an identity’s core ! Then how could someone be ever able to act morally ?

Luckily, none of us missed passing through childhood. A child on his own is self-centred from the beginning. It is hard for him to learn to acknowledge the needs of other children like him. This fact was and still is observed and validated a great number of times by many different psychologists independently. Up to this point, I have implicitly implied (whatever that means) that setting up an identity is a personal process. Yet, parents or any adult in charge of nurturing a child will accompany him through his personal difficulties and bequeath their own ethical views on him as a model. And this leads us to a next problematic: can an identity be imposed on someone by others ? Can identity be modelled from the exterior ?

In attempting an answer, it would cast us somewhere off-topic. Instead, I would like to spare some trouble and conclude with Sartre’s famous statement:

“L’homme est condamné à être libre”…


  • [Aquino & Reed, 2002] : Aquino, K., & Reed, A., The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 83
  • [L. Glenn et al., 2010] : Moral identity in psychopathy Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 5, No. 7, December 2010, pp. 497–505
  • [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010] :McFerran, Aquino & Duffy, How Personality and Moral Identity Relate to Individuals’ Ethical Ideology, Business Ethics Quarterly 20:1 (January 2010);
  • [King, 1997] : King, D. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. 1997.

Morality vs. Identity !

<< Morality vs. Identity ?

To answer this question, a new concept is introduced : “moral identity”. In a study of moral identity[Aquino & Reed, 2002] it is described as : “the degree to which a person’s moral character is experienced as a central part of his or her overall self-concept”.[Aquino & Reed, 2002] defends and aims to verify the fact that actions undertaken by a person will strongly depend on his or her moral identity and other factors such as moral reasoning and social moral standards and self-stated principles. In order to measure moral identity, it has been supposed that moral identity is structured into a network of traits such as compassion, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, etc.

Basically, a person who identifies him or herself more or less with each of these traits will behave accordingly. According to what many studies have shown, moral identity is insufficient to characterise the overall moral behaviour of an individual. The latter is actually too complex to be merely correlated to moral identity. There is supposedly a whole panoply of other factors intervening in the process of behaving. The bridge between theory and application is far more twisted than it appears to be. Very broad-sighted results have only been successful in showing that psychopathic traits [L. Glenn et al., 2010] were globally related to a poorer moral identity.

Yet, although simple at first glance, moral identity is too vague of a concept for two main reasons which come from the fact that, though rationally defendable, the approach to ethics is subjective to each individual.

First : ethics are often thought to be measurable on the basis of comparison.

Comparison can be used for quantitative arguments. For instance, some would consider as acceptable to sacrifice the life of one person for the sake of saving five other lives. This would be the perspective of a consequentialist [IEP]. Such quantitative reasoning could lead to worse situations. A person who considers morality as a central part in his identity can still consider morality as being cumulative. “I am being kind and patient even with the silliest and most annoying clients at work all day long, thus I am neither ashamed nor afraid to be utterly impatient or impulsive with my partner or my children at home”.

Sometimes, fundamentally incomparable virtues have to be compared through qualitative reasoning. Is it more important to be loyal or to be honest? “My employer takes special care over his company but he is selling noxious products on the black market.” No matter how strong the commitment to moral identity is, moral reasoning will set priorities between moral actions.

In fact, moral behaviour is pretty much dependent on “moral personality” which is a second component introduced [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010] for the sake of predicting moral behaviour in studies. It includes three main aspects : conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. As a result, moral personality interprets moral identity and sets levels of comparison among its content. A conscientious person would maybe not think of morality as being scaled on a cumulative basis. An agreeable person will favour loyalty. A lack of openness can result in a purely consequentialist reasoning, etc.

So this solves the first problem : moral identity is like a painting which is projected through a diaphragm (namely, moral personality) in order to expose a moral behaviour. Just as when a person starts to draw a picture of a rabbit; in the immediacy of the stroke, the picture is somehow different from the one originally projected in the mind. So it is the same for the relationship between moral identity and moral personality.

But there is a second aspect of ethics that still remains unresolved. The very broad and mostly accepted definition of ethics is stated as : “The branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles” [OD]. This definition would rather correspond to “moral ethics”. More broadly, ethics deal with determining and distinguishing the right from the wrong. The problem is that these notions do not seem to have an evident and absolute scale of definition. There is no fundamental agreement on the very nature of moral judgements. These can be arguably divided into three categories described in [IEP] and partly in [SEP], going under the name of :

Objectivism : moral principles can be argued and determined universally on the basis of objective reasoning.

Relativism : moral principles can be defended objectively or subjectively but vary according to institutional, cultural or ethnical context.

Non-cognitivism : what is moral cannot be defined in terms of truth; it is only an individual opinion.

For instance, a doctor and a poet both have a lame old dying (maybe suffering) dog. The doctor’s moral identity is such that he thinks there is a maximal health affliction threshold above which the level of physical suffering makes life ghastly and worthless and so he wishes to euthanize his pet. The poet’s moral identity is that life is a present that only nature has the right to give and to claim back. This time, the choice of euthanizing the dog or not is independent of moral personality. It is a disagreement on the very basis of what a moral choice would be. Both could be very conscientious about the dog’s situation, but in the end, their choices would differ. There is no meaning for assessing moral identity if what counts for being moral, good or wrong, is freely and individually defined as such. If moral personality already interprets subjectively moral identity, then if moral identity is in itself a subjective interpretation of the sphere of morality; how can moral behaviour be characterised ? Sometimes both concepts (moral personality and moral identity) are so indefinite that their definitions overlap (it is the case in this article!)

Moral psychology has proven to be an increasingly successful science that statistically characterises the way people expose moral behaviour according to their relationship with culturally and socially established moral rules and their personality attributes. However, for trying to unify and generalise the moral behaviour of a person, it systematically fails to encompass the holistic nature of the human mind.

>> Morality vs. Identity …

Morality vs. Identity ?

How does identity and morality relate in a human mind ? Can the two concepts be even considered separately; shouldn’t the problem be stated with the concept of moral identity? Is it possible to be unquestionably moral yet unique?

The first question will be answered, the second will be discarded for not having an unequivocal foundation and the third will be left for the reader to reflect on.

A typical scenario of an American life-style movie is the story of a person who lives a common daily life. That person is not particularly sure of -him or her-self but has more or less a stable life ; a family, friends, hobbies, work, etc.

One day, a special opportunity appears accessible to the protagonist; a prestigious position, a wealthy deal, a skill booster, a love affair, etc.

However, obviously or implicitly, a usually minimal moral precept has to be eventually put into compromise, as part of the deal. A friend must be deceived, a hazardous action must be undertaken, a promise must be broken, a lie has to be uttered, etc.

The popular modern expected outcome requires the protagonist to realise how bad it is to elude a moral rule and subsequently; to suffer from it. Then he or she struggles all the way back to reclaim what he or she traded off and lost. Since fiction has to be appealing, the protagonist almost always receives a supplementary bonus for choosing and restoring the moral way of conduct in his or her life. He or she either gains awareness of happiness, or an external agent rewards him or her for setting priority on morality rather than on personal achievement or notoriety, or anything else positive happens.

The point here is that when given the opportunity to raise his or her identity to a higher ground and be brought into the spotlight at the expense of breaching a moral rule leading to a minor impact (maybe just on one person); it comes out as natural that the protagonist would first consider accepting the deal and see what happens.

Image that the last chocolate cookie is left is the cookie jar. Any random child having a sibling would simply eat it, instead of calling the sibling playing outside to share half of the cookie.

There is a train about to leave and an old man with a large suitcase is still going down the stairs to the platform. A businessman could risk lending a helping hand to the old man and still be able to catch the train or just run down the stairs and maximise his chances to get on board and not be late for his meeting.

You could say the aftermath of the first situation can be influenced by education. However, even well educated and moral businessmen would not always be likely to put hazards on their time schedule.

So when exactly does a person decide to “be moral” or not? Rather than “when”, it is better to ask “how ?”.

>> Morality vs. Identity !