Reading Time: 3 minutes


We often talk about moral development as if it’s a mysterious process by which a child, born either tabula rasa or seething with apple-infused evil, somehow becomes good. Or not.

In our rush to replace amorphous mystery with rock-solid fable, any discussion of morality will eventually run straight to the most obvious off-the-rails moment in modern history: Nazi Germany. And even though the technique is so overused that it has its own fallacy and even a Law to describe our tendency to overuse it, I think it would be even dafter to not look to Nazi Germany for moral lessons.

But why stop with the guy on top? And why do we waste time debating whether Hitler was a Christian or an atheist, as if both worldviews were not already rife enough with examples on both extremes?1 Nazi Germany consisted of millions of people, some of whom participated in the horrors, others of whom heroically opposed it. Why not look deeper than Hitler for our moral lessons?

Fortunately someone has. Everyday Germans of the Nazi period are the focus of a fascinating study discussed in the PBB seminars and in the Ethics chapter of Raising Freethinkers. For their book The Altruistic Personality, researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted over 700 interviews with survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. Included were both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it). The study revealed interesting differences in the upbringing of the two groups — specifically the language and practices that parents used to teach their values.

Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors said, is the single most common word used by rescuers in describing their parents’ ways of talking about rules and ethical ideas.

Ethicist Jonathan Glover applied the same questions cross-culturally, looking at the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in addition to Germany, and came to similar conclusions. Dictating a set of authority-based rules turns out to be the worst thing we can do for ethical development — yet we are continuously urged to do exactly this because it feels ever-so-decisive and bold.

The alternative is not a home in which kids are free to ignore rules. All that’s required to get kids actively engaged in their own moral development is a willingness to explain the reasons behind the rules. My kids know they have the right to hear our reasoning, and yes, it’s sometimes a pain. But it’s a path that leads more reliably to ethical adults who will question both commands and commandments rather than boldly do whatever Zod says.

In short, instead of doing what feels right, I humbly suggest we try the approach that appears to, uh…work.

1Not that it isn’t a fascinating sidebar to the topic. If you’re interested, start with this excellent and thorough Wikipedia piece on the complex subject of Hitler’s beliefs. Good news: both atheists and Christians can reasonably disown him, and neither should throw him into the other’s camp.

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.